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'Ms. Madison' goes to Richmond

Alumna gains experience with rural development, conservation issues as Governor's Fellow


 
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SUMMARY: Emily Baker ('21) was selected for the Virginia Governor’s Fellows Program this past summer. The program places participants in different positions in the Governor’s Office and in various agencies throughout the administration. Baker was assigned to the Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry.


By Amy Crockett (’10)

It was in her political science and English classes at JMU when Emily Baker (’21) first felt compelled to leave her footprint in state government. With extra encouragement from her professors, she applied to the Virginia Governor’s Fellows Program and was selected. The fellowship, from June 1–July 30, 2021, places participants in different positions in the Governor’s Office and in various agencies throughout the administration. The program attempts to match Fellows with compatible assignments according to their backgrounds, interests and goals.

Shortly after the fellowship wrapped up, Baker, who earned President’s List distinction at JMU, began pursuing a law degree from the College of William & Mary, where she plans to earn a J.D. in 2024. Madison connected with Baker to hear her reflections on the very selective fellowship, highlights from her time in Richmond and much more.

Madison magazine: How did you hear about the fellowship opportunity?

Emily Baker (’21): I heard about the Virginia Governor’s Fellows Program during my sophomore year through older JMU students who had participated. [Last] year, I heard about the program and application because two of my wonderful professors, Dr. Carah Ong Whaley and Dr. Allison Fagan, directly emailed me and told me that they thought I would love this opportunity. They were completely right, and I feel so lucky to have such wonderful professors and mentors at JMU.

Madison: How long has the fellowship been around?

Baker: Former Gov. Chuck Robb established the program in 1982 to give rising college seniors, graduating seniors and graduate students an opportunity to gain firsthand experience working in an administration alongside staff and under cabinet secretaries.

Madison: Talk about the application process. Was it arduous or highly selective?

Baker: Every year, there are hundreds of applications, and [last] year they selected 25 of us to be Fellows. To be eligible, you have to be a rising college senior, graduating senior or graduate student enrolled in a Virginia college, or a Virginia resident enrolled in an out-of-state college. They are looking for people who are committed to excellence in academics, demonstrate leadership ability, and who are involved in extracurricular activities and community service. If any of those traits sound like you, I highly encourage you to apply! I applied in the beginning of March of my senior year, interviewed in the beginning of April and was notified at the end of April.

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Madison: What projects did you get to work on in the Governor’s Office?

Baker: I had the opportunity to work with Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring (’01M) and Heidi Hertz (’06M), assistant secretary of agriculture and forestry. In the Secretariat, we had three main policy focuses: rural economic development, farmland and forestland conservation, and food access.

Madison: Did you have a favorite field trip during the fellowship?

Baker: I loved getting to go to Richlands Dairy and Creamery to talk about the issues facing dairy producers and family farmers around the state (and eat ice cream flights). Another one of my favorites was seeing the Port of Virginia in Norfolk to learn how large-scale shipping works, how integrated technology is part of the process, and to observe how the port protects jobs and worker safety as automation increases.

Madison: Did you get to meet Gov. Ralph Northam?

Baker: I actually got to be with the governor with surprising regularity! One of my favorite experiences was when we went to Fresh Impact Farms in Arlington—a recipient of the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund—and did a tasting of the many varieties of hydroponic plants, including Sichuan flowers that somehow felt like eating Pop Rocks and not plants. We also debated if Sheetz or Wawa is better, but I won’t reveal his stance.

Madison: What were some of the challenges you faced in the program? What were the highlights?

Baker: It definitely is a fast-paced environment because we were juggling many tasks while traveling around the state with many important deadlines to meet. But I am a person who really enjoys being busy and getting things done, so I found it to be a great fit. I was very inspired by my colleagues, empowered by the work I saw happening in Virginia, and overall felt incredibly lucky to be there and see everyone’s efforts toward solving the problems the commonwealth is facing for the public good.

Madison: Have you always had an interest in political science and state government? Where did that spark begin?

Baker: My first real exposure to state government was in one of [my favorite] political science classes: [the late] Pete Giesen’s “Practical Politics in Virginia.” Professor Pete’s stories made me recognize the importance of state government, and many of those stories still make my classmates and me laugh. This course taught me the rich history of Virginia politics, and I realized I was eager to contribute to the betterment of the commonwealth. “Practical Politics in Virginia” gave me a very solid, contextual understanding of Virginia politics and the importance of state government.

Madison: What was your Madison Experience like overall, and how did that education prepare you for the fellowship?

Baker: I was lucky enough to find my home in so many places at JMU, with people who supported me and every single one of my interests, and formed me into a leader, especially Phi Mu and the Panhellenic community, Student Government Association, and the political science and English departments. I went in feeling completely overwhelmed as a freshman and left as “Ms. Madison.” Additionally, I had some amazing professors who encouraged me to branch out beyond my comfort zone and was lucky enough to take some very hands-on political science classes that prepared me for day-to-day life in the administration, especially “Media and Politics” with Dr. David Jones and “Political Campaign Communication” with Dr. Dan Schill.

However, I also really valued the experience and perspective I took away from my English classes, which showed that political decisions have human consequences. While political science helped me understand systems and trends, English helped me understand and tell the individual stories that operate within those systems.

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Madison: How has the fellowship shaped your next steps?

Baker: The fellowship has really shaped my next steps by exposing me to policy areas that I had never thought about, like agricultural policy and food insecurity. I think the fellowship really has broadened my horizons in ways that I am really grateful for, and I will approach my next steps following law school with a profoundly different view.

Madison: Do you see yourself working in government again one day?

Baker: I still have three more years left of school, but I hope to work in government in any capacity, and I am excited to continue exploring ways to help people!

Madison: Would you recommend other JMU students apply to the fellowship?

Baker: I wholeheartedly recommend that other JMU students apply! It was absolutely the best way to enter the working world and state government. Everyone in the administration, including many JMU alumni, was willing to help me out at every step. We had almost daily brown-bag lunches with cabinet members and senior members of the Northam administration, including the governor and first lady. 

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Published: Thursday, October 28, 2021

Last Updated: Monday, November 29, 2021

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