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Gabe Sulkes

Photo of Gabe Sulkes with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn
SIWP alum Gabe Sulkes with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn

Policy Advisor, Illinois Department of Transportation

What are your best memories from Semester in Washington? What parts of the program did you enjoy the most?

"The Semester in Washington program did a fantastic job of bridging classroom academics with field study. The most memorable experiences were definitely those in the field but they were informed and enhanced by the work we did in the classroom. For example, private tours of the Capitol, Newseum, embassies, etc provided tangible demonstrations of the concepts taught in both the electoral/legislative processes course and in the campaign practicum. Rather than engaging with concepts in a vacuum, we had the opportunity to observe political dynamics in action. 

The value of integrating political studies with the DC atmosphere cannot be overstated. After a summer developing a mock campaign plan for then-Senator Sununu’s reelection I serendipitously ran into the Senator in the Capitol subway system and was able to chat with him about our project. It was a refreshing reminder that even our theoretical practicums had concrete linkages to the external world.

This sort of experience was common among my peers, many of whom engaged with classroom concepts during their internship or explorations of the city."

Where did you intern during SIWP? What was that experience like? How did it help you get where you are today?

"I interned for Berger Hirschberg Strategies, a progressive fundraising firm with linkages to the SIWP program (one principal, Stephanie Berger was also an adjunt with SIW). The internship was a great opportunity to directly engage with political fundraising in a professional, but friendly environment. Not only did I learn how to develop a fundraising campaign from inception to victory (or occasionally defeat), but I gained valuable professional skills like database management, event coordination, and client relations. Using the internship experience, I was able to demonstrate to future employers that I had background with financial management and client-based consulting services."

Please describe your professional history. How has your SIWP experience helped you along the way?

"SIWP, as evidenced by the acronym itself, teaches capital “P” politics for application in political contexts. On paper this seems like a natural match with my professional career; after graduating from undergrad in 2011 I spent one year in a paid fellowship program in the Office of Governor Pat Quinn (in Chicago) before transitioning into a policy analyst position in the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT). In the Governor’s Office I an environmental policy specialist, focusing on sustainable transportation initiatives (electric vehicles, car-sharing) and green governance. In IDOT, I am the point person on bicycle and pedestrian policy (“Acting Bicycle/Pedestrian Coordinator”) and also coordinate sustainability efforts for the agency.

Of course the legislative and electoral lessons learned in the SIWP program apply to several elements of my job but it’s the small “p” political lessons I learned in the program that have been consistently valuable in my post SIWP life. I think prospective students should remember that all jobs are inevitably “political” at times and the SIWP program offers an opportunity to practice guiding a professional campaign forward (be it to elect Sununu or complete a state bicycle plan). It is these skills of interacting with peers and navigating often disparate interests that I gained during the SIWP program and believes will have the most lasting value in my career."

Please describe your current position. What is a day in your work life like?

"I am currently a policy advisor for the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) and the Project Manager on the Illinois Bike Transportation Plan, the first comprehensive bicycle plan in our state. It is a position where I wear several hats (only one of which is a bicycle helmet) and every day is unique. Sample activities include meetings and teleconference with various external organizations (MPOs, non-profits, other state agencies) to coordinate on sustainability materials and advance bicycle agenda. Also exhibit at outreach and educational events around the state. In general, though, lots of writing and project management activities (policy analysis, public coordination, federal route designations). I also have the opportunity in my job to attend local conferences for continuing education."

How has SIWP helped you over the course of your career? Are there lessons you learned in class/the practicum/your internship that you still use?

"SIWP was a fantastic immersive opportunity to work in professional politics and government. The program helped me develop skills in research analysis, team coordination, project/event management, and life in general."

Anything else interesting? Any words of wisdom for prospective or current students?

"Get a bike and explore DC! Fantastic city. Great art, music, food, etc."