I was fortunate to interview alum, Lawren Bercaw, who received her MPP from William & Mary in 2005. Dr. Bercaw also earned a Ph.D. in Social Policy from Brandeis University. She currently works as a Research Public Health Analyst with RTI International, a non-profit organization with over 5,000 employees, where she has been for over seven years. Dr. Bercaw’s work focuses on evaluating federal programs that support seniors. Her greatest interest is older adults who are aging in place.
Dr. Bercaw is currently involved in two projects. For the last eight years, she has been on a project that aims to improve the quality of care in nursing facilities with the goal to keep residents from going to the hospital, where they could potentially contract a condition more severe than the one that put them there in the first place. Her research is typically centered around on-site interviews, but during this unprecedented past year, her team temporarily transitioned the project to quality assessment through media analysis. Through this analysis, Dr. Bercaw and her colleagues keep track of the facilities while they are unable to contact the residents directly. Dr. Bercaw’s second project is an implementation project that provides at-home care to individuals who are unable to go into the doctor’s office. Her team conducts interviews to ensure that the patients are receiving proper care from the health care workers that go into the homes. Both projects are mixed method, but Dr. Bercaw is on the qualitative side for both. Members of her team have discrete responsibilities, but they collaborate for their annual reports that cover their efforts over the previous year.
I have always been fascinated by people’s career paths and learning about how individuals get to where they are now. Thus, my interest was peaked when Dr. Bercaw shared her journey with me. She had a strong interest in becoming an architect, but after realizing math and art were not her strong suits, she decided to major in political science and became interested in historic preservation. Her interest led to a move to Williamsburg, for its rich history, where she worked for a year at a resort and planned to apply to graduate school at W&M for the following year. While walking on W&M’s campus one day and trying to find the historic preservation office amongst the college’s old academic buildings, she unexpectedly ran into the head of the MPP program who invited her back to his office to discuss her academic plans. From this one unplanned encounter, Dr. Bercaw realized Public Policy was the better course of study for her. She was accepted into the MPP program, after completing some missing economics courses at the local community college, and she decided to study housing policy. Once in the program, she wrote her dissertation on housing supports for older adults. After this journey of self-discovery, she found a career in supporting older adults, even without any degree in health. Her experience demonstrates that people often end up in fields different from what they originally anticipated.
Dr. Bercaw offered some great advice during our conversation. Her first piece of advice was to not go directly to graduate school after graduating from undergrad. We discussed how college brings with it a lot of independence but, also, a lot of structure. There are copious opportunities presented to a person in college, both academically and socially. Dr. Bercaw emphasized the importance of taking time off from school to be responsible for oneself and to figure out who you are. She thought that regardless of how former undergraduates spend this break away from academia, they will learn applicable skills to future jobs and will return as better and happier graduate students. Additionally, she thought it was unrealistic to expect recent graduates to know what they wanted to do for the next 40 years, especially without first experiencing adult life away from the safety net that is college.
Dr. Bercaw’s second piece of advice was to take advantage of W&M’s liberal arts education and the opportunity to gain a breadth of knowledge. She thought current undergraduates should take classes that do not fulfill a requirement but gets them excited to go to class each day to learn material that may be completely unrelated to their degree. Students should take that class about photography, Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, yoga, or marine science—just because it sparks their interests!
I would like to thank Dr. Bercaw for her participation in W&M’s Policy Careers Chat Program. It was a pleasure to interview her and to learn about her experiences in the policy realm. She provided excellent advice that undergraduate students should absolutely take into consideration. On behalf of W&M, we thank Dr. Bercaw for her time and expertise.