Q+A with Madeline Merrill, Aspiring Education Activist + Lifelong Learner

Madeline Merrill is always up for a challenge, be it physical, mental, emotional, or all of the above, and she’ll take it on with the most contagious of grins. Currently a candidate for a Master in Public Policy from UVA’s renowned Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Madeline has made the intentional, informed decision to devote her career to making quality education more accessible for all Americans.

Although she’s particularly passionate about the need for education, this stems from her intrinsic belief that she should do whatever is in her power to better the lives of others. Her approach is entirely authentic–rather than merely dictating change from behind a desk, Madeline physically and emotionally inserts herself into the communities that need these changes the most. This philosophy is most evident in her recent endeavors – she spent last summer cycling across the country while contributing to affordable housing projects along the way, and before that, she was working as a high school guidance counselor (and JV soccer coach) in rural Rockingham, NC.

As one of our closest friends and earliest supporters of BYOM, we’ve experienced Madeline’s wholesome, loving approach to relationships and positive take on challenges firsthand. We can honestly say that she’s impacted the way we approach and handle our own lives. For that, we are so thankful and admiring. Without further ado, we’re honored to introduce the thoughtful and engaging Madeline Merrill!

The Basics

  • Age: 24
  • Location: Charlottesville, VA
  • Education: Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Class of 2013; currently pursuing a Master of Public Policy at University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, Class of 2017
  • Field of Interest: Education Policy and Economics
  • What’s Your Favorite Thing About Yourself? I laugh…a lot. And I think that people recognize my joy and they find my energy to be a positive one. I like that I can make people feel good, just by radiating positivity and warmth. Hoping I can keep this trait as the years go on.
  • What Inspired You Today? This morning, while in my Economics seminar, my professor decided to give us a “pep-talk” regarding our upcoming final. He shared how, even though Economics can sometimes be disheartening, and our world can feel so complicated, there is still so much good for which we need to continue to fight. I loved that. It put an extra skip in my step, even when I cracked open the textbook!
  • What Are You Reading That You Can’t Put Down? I was reading Aloft by Chang Rae-Lee…but I have been reading it all semester…because I literally have no time in graduate school. As soon as I’m all wrapped up with finals, I will be breaking into Alderman Library on-campus for some good reads!
  • What Are You Currently Involved In That You’re Really Excited About? Right now, I’m involved with a work-study position through our school’s Social Entrepreneurship Lab. I’m doing research for something called “Pay For Success”–a different model of social programming funding, through which private investors front the money for social ventures. To elaborate, social programs can be costly. Oftentimes, we produce publicly-sourced funding and create programs, only to find that they are less effective than originally hoped. With Pay for Success, private investors (think Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs) put down the initial investment in nonprofits or government initiatives. Following a rigorous data analysis, if the programs are proven to be successful, then the government will pay back the private investors with interest. Thus, the government avoids risk, and private investors actually make a profit…..clearly getting really into this right now. Great question! 

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Questions + Answers

You’ve had some incredibly worldly experiences, including studying abroad in an international hub like Madrid, but you’ve also been deeply connected to a small, rural community as a high school counselor in Rockingham, NC. You seem very adaptable. Do you think that’s accurate? If so, where does that come from?

I actually never have thought of myself that way….I don’t think I’m necessarily “adaptable”–because I feel like that implies that you change with your surroundings? Like a chameleon? And in all honesty, I feel like I’ve been the same person all my life. Rather, I think my mom and dad really imparted to me just a simple sense of acceptance, of just being kind to all people that cross your path, and making everyone feel comfortable! So I wouldn’t say I’m adaptable–just open to new people and new experiences.

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Last summer, you participated in Bike & Build, a three-month cycling trip from Portland, Maine to Roswell, New Mexico that contributes to housing initiatives across the country. Every step of this process, from cycling to the different cities to building the housing structures, was physically intentional. You’re tangibly bettering these communities, but how did this process change or better you?

I think the most humbling realization of this summer, and of my time in Rockingham County–and truly, the most common thread in all of my experiences thus far–is not that I’m changing a community, but rather, it is changing me. Yes, I might have painted a few walls or nailed a few slats on the roof. But I feel like I kept walking away from a build site or from a long ride rejuvenated in my belief that people are inherently, deeply, amazingly good.

I think the physical aspect of the journey only really enunciated what I was learning on the inside–that life can be hard, things can hurt, our legs can scream at us to stop and many people will doubt our ability to complete a journey. But it’s this inner centering and confidence that you CAN and you WILL survive that carries you through from start to finish. I think I became more physically confident, and that translated to more emotional confidence.

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From this intimate perspective of the United States, you witnessed firsthand the variances in culture, landscape, climate, and community. How did these nuances in your physical surroundings influence your emotional state?

This is such a good question…I often tell my roommate that I “felt” America over the course of this summer. Every hill, every little pothole, I experienced along the ride….the beautiful, the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of the USA. I think the same holds true for my encounters and interactions with other Americans. There is so much in this country of which to be proud, and so much work we still have to do.

In terms of how these physical surroundings influenced my emotional state, I think that biking across the country really imparted to me just how influential your physical surroundings can be. In Maine, the jagged coastlines and rocky beaches created a very different sense of appreciation and wonder than the vast plains of Oklahoma and Texas. In Western Texas, I felt insignificant and tiny (in a good way!) when looking out at the never-ending horizon. In Missouri and in Illinois, I felt like I now understood why corn is such a staple in our country’s diet….I was biking through cornfields for days! The terrain definitely influenced my state of mind on my bike, and I think physical space definitely influences the way we live and the way we carry ourselves. Definitely something to consider in public policy! Thanks for such a thoughtful question.

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What attracted you to education policy and economics? Do you have a guiding principle or core belief that shapes your interpretation of social policy?

It’s the people I’ve met along the way. A professor in Batten is known for saying that to study policy, you need a reason, a story for why you want to make the world a better place.

….and for me, it’s undoubtedly my students from Rockingham County. I had a hint when I walked out of Chapel Hill on May 13, 2013 that I wanted to study education policy. But I had no expectations, no true understanding of just how powerful the two years following Carolina would be in my professional and personal development. I now know students who have experienced serious loss, heartache beyond belief, who deserve a better life and a better future. And THAT is honestly why I want to study social policy. Because I now know and can point to those along my way who have shown me just how important the rural American student can be in this larger education policy dialogue. And yes, I specifically want to study rural American education policy. It’s what I’ve experienced, and the space I want to devote my time and energies to.

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As close friends of yours, your joy seems boundless. Does that come naturally to you?

I think most days I feel very joyful…but just like everyone, I definitely have down days. But I feel like where I am weak, my other relationships in my life are strong. I get a ton of perspective from my close friends and my colleagues, at whichever juncture of life I might be currently experiencing. For example, when I was working in Rockingham, my coworkers really showed me how to enjoy the little moments. The best parts of life are when you can take a step back and really look at the relationships you have fostered, the students you pushed, the success they achieved. Here in Charlottesville, I feel like my brilliant friends make me feel appreciative every day for the opportunity to think original thoughts and study such riveting, human-centered material. I’m so blessed that I get to ponder how to make the world a better place. So honestly, I’ve just been extremely lucky to be surrounded by joyful people from whom I derive my energy!

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You’re extremely busy with your graduate program, constantly involved in community outreach, and are always nurturing your relationships with friends and family. When you’re seeking out a moment of peace, do you have a specific ritual that you engage in?

For me, it’s always been about being outside and moving my body to really relax and disconnect from stress. Now that I live in Charlottesville, Virginia, hiking, biking, and taking a walk in this beautiful part of the world is easier than ever! Pretty much every Friday, I go biking with a group of friends or hiking with people in my academic cohort. But in the day-to-day stress relief, I think journaling helps a lot. It helps me to center my thoughts, to physically write them down.

Also, the morning cup of coffee while the rest of my housemates are sleeping and my house is quiet and I can look out my window onto the Blue Ridge mountains definitely doesn’t hurt!

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+ DO YOU KNOW ANY YOUNG WOMEN WORKING TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE FROM THE GROUND UP? LET US KNOW IN THE COMMENTS SECTION BELOW!

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