Nevins Fellows program plants the seeds for creating a healthier democracy

May 06, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mikayla Townsend came into college thinking she wanted to pursue a career working for political campaigns or on Capitol Hill, but an internship taken as part of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Nevins Fellows program changed her career trajectory and landed her a full-time job outside the realm of partisan politics.

Mikayla Townsend

Penn State alumna Mikayla Townsend is a public engagement associate at Public Agenda, the New York City-based organization where she completed an internship as part of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy's Nevins Fellows program. Townsend graduated in 2020 with degrees in political science and public relations.

IMAGE: Photo Provided

Townsend recently joined Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and public engagement organization, as a public engagement associate. She interned with Public Agenda in summer 2019 as part of the Nevins Fellows program, which provides funding to support summer internships at organizations working to advance democracy and civic engagement.

She graduated from Penn State in 2020 with degrees in political science and public relations. The position at Public Agenda allows her to use skill sets from both degrees while continuing to work with the teams she met during her internship.

“I like the civic engagement space and being part of the processes that bring people to the legislators to address the concerns people have in their community,” Townsend said. “A lot of what I did in PR was coordination and making sure that I’m anticipating future needs, which is very important now on a small team where we’re working on a lot of projects at once.”

Townsend is working on Public Agenda’s Healthier Democracies program, which looks at what the United States can learn from other countries about how to increase civic engagement at the state and local level — including how to increase and have more constructive public dialogue and how to implement tools and approaches like participatory budgeting.

“Mikayla has already been instrumental to our work,” said Matt Leighninger, director of engagement at Public Agenda. “She’s currently coordinating our Global Learning on Democratic Innovations webinar series, where we have former heads of state talking with democracy experts about how to overcome challenges like polarization, and how to implement reforms like Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.”

Public Agenda is based in New York City but the team is working remotely; Townsend is currently based at her family’s home in the Centre Region. She hopes to use the skills she’s learning on the job to bring public engagement projects to State College and Centre County government while she’s in the area. She also plans to pursue a master’s degree in public policy.

A new cohort of Nevins Fellows is getting ready to start internships this summer at organizations across the country, including Public Agenda. Townsend encourages Nevins Fellows or any students completing summer internships to forge bonds with their co-workers, no matter what working environment they find themselves in.

“Don’t be afraid to learn and dip your toe into all the opportunities your placement provides,” Townsend said. “And get to know the people you’re working with on a deeper level and build that trust with them. You never know what other opportunities it might lead to.”

Registration is now open for the 2021-22 cohort of Nevins Fellows. Students take a one-credit course in democratic leadership (CAS/PLSC 209) and apply for summer internships at the end of the course. Visit the McCourtney Institute for Democracy website for more information.

Last Updated May 06, 2021