When Navy Lt. Michael Fonbuena was searching for a graduate program in public policy, he wanted a school that offered a strong curriculum in international issues, would allow him to take a broad variety of courses and afford him opportunities to explore the real-world consequences of crafting policy.
Fortunately, Fonbuena said, he ended up at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, where his chances to engage with excellent professors, a diverse student body, rigorous classes and esteemed guest speakers have helped prepare him for his future goals. Acquiring skills like quantitative data analysis and taking classes in public policy, law and history are giving him the broad experiences and knowledge he’ll need to pursue becoming a department head when he returns to the Navy.
Fonbuena said that one of his most rewarding and challenging experiences at Luskin has been working with the World Bank to determine the best way to provide economic assistance in rural Afghanistan. All year, he and four other public policy students have been trying to determine whether providing aid directly to villagers using some form of electronic payments or giving money to local governments for infrastructure projects would do more to help individuals in the war-torn country.
“You have to weigh the problems and benefits of both,” said Fonbuena, who is set to graduate this month with a degree in public policy and a certificate in global public affairs. In the end, Fonbuena’s team recommended the World Bank go with direct financial assistance because of concerns with corruption and graft in Afghanistan and few guarantees that infrastructure projects would assist those who need it, he said.
But direct payments would also carry potential downsides. Not everyone has a cell phone, and service is unreliable, he said. With his military background, Fonbuena is used to taking action, but one thing he learned doing this project at Luskin was to ask whether providing aid is worth it at all.
“Are you doing harm?” said Fonbuena in explaining a key question his team had to answer. For example, would money actually empower corrupt warlords? Analogously, some analysts worry that if foreign aid were sent to ISIS-controlled areas, it could end up in the terrorist group’s hands, Fonbuena pointed out.
Ultimately, officials at the World Bank, with whom Fonbuena and his classmates communicated via email weekly, will decide whether to heed the advice of the Luskin team.
Fonbuena, who prior to coming here was stationed on a ship in San Diego, said he thought he knew what he wanted to study when he first arrived at Luskin. But his interests quickly grew with his exposure to new ideas. While here, he has taken classes in the history of human rights, African politics in the political science department, the sociology of international migration, and cybersecurity and refugee law. The latter two classes were offered by the UCLA School of Law.
“By expanding outside of my comfort zone and taking courses I hadn’t exactly intended, I have gained tremendous interest in several new topics,” said Fonbuena, who is pursuing his master’s degree through the Navy’s Career Intermission Program, which lets service members take a one- to three-year break before returning to active duty.
Fonbuena said that cybersecurity has been his favorite class. From critical infrastructure vulnerabilities to cyberespionage, Fonbuena has learned that these issues pervade everyday life and that it’s vital that the United States keep up with the technological savvy of cybercriminals and cyberterrorists.
“I was really surprised by how much I didn’t know,” Fonbuena said.
Not only has Fonbuena learned a lot, but his experiences as a sailor and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy have contributed a unique viewpoint to many of his class discussions. Fonbuena was able to bring an inside-the-military perspective when in one of his classes they discussed the Tailhook sexual assault scandal from the early 1990s, thus bringing their classroom discourse about ethical decision-making into the light of the real world.
Fonbuena explained how reform has been challenging, because the chain-of-command and hierarchical structure in the military tends to discourage whistleblowing because of a fear of retribution.
“Many of my classmates were not aware of the tremendous impact Tailhook had on the Navy, forcing it to reassess the culture from within,” Fonbuena said. “That continues to this day with the ongoing efforts to reduce sexual assault cases through constant training and tweaks in military culture. In such a large bureaucracy with almost 240 years of tradition, change is not instantaneous.”
The intersection of ideas from students with diverse backgrounds is at the center of Luskin’s mission to educate students in a way that will lead them to devising solutions to society’s most pressing problems.
“It really taught me that everyone brings something different to the table and can add valuable input,” Fonbuena said. “It’s a valuable lesson that I will take back to the Navy with me.”
Prior to enrolling at Luskin, Fonbuena was a gas turbine engineering inspector and when he returns to active duty, he’ll serve as an engineering instructor and ultimately a department head on a warship.
Another resource Fonbuena credited with helping him develop personally and expand his knowledge of issues has been the guest speakers who come to Luskin, including former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
“I honestly feel that by not taking advantage of the opportunity to learn from these individuals, students are doing themselves a huge disservice, both personally and professionally,” Fonbuena said.
As his time at UCLA Luskin is coming to an end, Fonbuena said his experience has reinvigorated him.
“I had the chance to interact daily with a great group of motivated and determined individuals both in my cohort and at Luskin more broadly,” Fonbuena said. “The military truly is one of the most rewarding professions, but after a certain amount of time, fatigue starts to set in — I was nearing that point. My experience here has recharged my batteries and left me with a desire to utilize the tools I’ve learned to make the Navy a better organization in any capacity I can.”
Adapted from a story on the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs website.