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Theo Noomah

HOMETOWN: Homer, Alaska
UNDERGRADUATE DEGREE: Swarthmore College
PREVIOUS EMPLOYER: An Alaskan commercial salmon fishing vessel

How did your upbringing in Alaska lead you to pursue a public policy degree?

My upbringing in Alaska definitely shaped my interest in public policy. You might remember a time when someone named Sarah Palin came to the national light. She was doing a great job of being the governor of Alaska, because it’s a pretty easy job. But when she quit, she left her lieutenant governor, Sean Pernall, in charge, and he was a former oil industry lobbyist. It seems like when he took over the job of being governor, he forgot who he worked for: Alaskans, not oil companies, and created a budget crisis. He decided to make up the deficit by making Alaskan schools into boarding schools. These were historically used in Alaska as a genocide against native Alaskans, to destroy the culture. They were physically abused when they used their native languages and the boarding schools were a part of the death of the native language. It led me and a lot of Alaskans to do a lot of soul-searching as to what policy means to us. For me, I’ve been captured by the field of language policy in general. He’s been voted out; a coalition has been created with a democrat and republican working together— and the Alaskan house is ruled by a coalition house of both republicans and democrats working together to solve the budget crisis created by Sean Pernall. It was kind of a wake up call to us that things aren’t quiet so easy, and we need to get serious about how we run our state. It ended with making all 22 native languages official.

 

What about your undergraduate experience helped to inform your decision to choose Harris as your graduate school?

I was lucky enough to take classes at UPenn and a minority education class at Swarthmore. My professor recommended to me to take a class at UPenn in a class called Indigenous Education and Language Revitalization. It started with pedagogy and moved very quickly into policy and the field of language policy. That got me really interested in policy and I continued studying that in undergrad.

 

Did you have a moment during your graduate program search where you realized, this is the place for me?

I knew I wanted to go to grad school but I kind of postponed the search for a while. I moved to Chicago and then applied to Harris. I met alumni who are in the public sector doing housing development, and I’ve been to a lunch talk with a congresswoman. I’m interested in the clinics that Harris has. I’d be really interested in working on a project and doing hands-on problem-solving analysis, and seeing how that plays out. I know that Booth hosts an entrepreneur showcase; a lot of them are partnered with Harris and are specifically about socially-responsible development. For example, a “school choice” app that help Chicago kids find out what schools they should apply to in their neighborhoods.

What motivates you? What big ideas push you to get up every day?

Knowing that there is a place for rational problem-solving out there, and knowing that without someone to present data-driven solutions, that ideology will win— or have a very easy fight. That’s what gets me up to study economics every day. For a lot of these little issues—like language policy—a lot of people don’t even think about it and the effects it has on people’s lives. If nobody is pointing out what is actually happening in the world, then the informed decisions won’t get made.