Kyleigh Russ (WAG ‘20)

Kyleigh Russ (WAG ’20) is out to make change. Her nonprofit startup, Govern for America, places diverse and talented college graduates in public sector jobs throughout the country so that the people who write policy reflect the lived experiences of their constituents. Her efforts are already making waves. This year, Kyleigh and her organization’s co-founder Octavia Aell, were recognized on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for their contributions to law and policy. We interviewed Kyleigh about her experience as an MPA student at Wagner, and how her work at NYU will carry over into her plans for Govern for America.  

Why did you choose to enroll in NYU’s MPA program?

When I was evaluating graduate programs I was deciding between a program for a Masters in Public Administration and programs in politics or educational policy. I knew that I wanted to transition my teaching experience into change at a systems level. The MPA program at Wagner is very broad, so I knew I could take my studies in a lot of different directions. Wagner appealed to me because it has amazing faculty and also allows for a part-time option. I ended up launching Govern for America as a student so the flexibility to work and continue the program part-time was essential.  

How did the COVID-19 epidemic affect your final year at NYU? What did you learn from this experience?

I was taking two courses, my capstone class and a class called Sparking Social Change, when all courses at NYU went online. Fortunately, the research I was conducting for my capstone course in the city of Trenton, New Jersey was already conducted online in large part. So the transition to fully online meetings wasn’t a burden. In fact, it gave us some opportunities we might not have had otherwise. For instance, the Mayor of Trenton was able to attend the presentation on our findings, which might not have been possible had it all been in person.

The biggest lesson I learned from the experience was that online classes and remote work can definitely work. You sacrifice some interpersonal interactions, those water cooler moments where you have a casual conversation with faculty or classmates, but if you have established relationships online courses can absolutely work as well as in person courses.  

What kinds of activities did you participate in as a student?

My capstone project, the culminating project of my MPA program, involved data analysis on women and minority-owned businesses (WMBE) in Trenton, New Jersey. I feel really fortunate: my group of classmates was amazing and the project was fascinating, so the project was a definite highlight for me. I was also involved with an educational policy working group at Wagner.

Working with the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute (Leslie eLab) was a significant part of my experience at NYU. The program helped my co-founder and me start Govern for America. We participated in the Summer Launchpad, a summer-long accelerator program for start-ups where we received coaching that helped us get off the ground. It was an amazing asset for us.

NYU is sometimes described as a school that is “in and of the city.” How has that been true for you?

This was true in two ways. Compared to my undergraduate experience in Cambridge, Massachusetts, New York is a much larger city and therefore provides more opportunities. My work with the Entrepreneurial Institute encouraged me to get out in the city and talk to people, which is much easier to do in a city where so many industries are based.

The second way this was true for me is the professional networks faculty have by virtue of being in a place like New York. I was incredibly grateful to have the support of faculty who were willing to put me in touch with their contacts in education and government and open up their professional rolodex, so to speak. My co-founder and I would never have been able to make the contacts we did if we weren’t founded through NYU.  

What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?

I’m excited to take what I’ve learned at Wagner and apply it to Govern for America. I’ve acquired skills like being able to read a balance sheet, make a budget, and other skills that are essential for the operations of a nonprofit. In school we learned these skills by making fictitious nonprofits in order to apply these ideas; now I’ll have the chance to apply them to an actual organization.

What advice would you give an incoming student to maximize their time at NYU?

I would encourage incoming students to really think about their interests and get a clear sense of what they want to do. It’s important to look through the resources available at NYU, including what an individual school offers but also resources available outside of that school, like the Entrepreneurial Institute. Talk to people. Faculty, staff, and others at NYU are willing and able to connect you to people and resources. NYU might be the best school in the world for building a network of connections if you are willing to ask for help.

About Govern for America

Govern for America imagines a world where our most diverse, dynamic young leaders see government as an avenue for meaningful change, and our government reflects the values and diversity of our nation. We recruit exceptional recent graduates into full-time roles within government agencies and provide these fellows with training and coaching on crucial skills throughout the two-year program. With over 150 recruiting partners across the country, a 2.5% acceptance rate, five state partners, and two cohorts of diverse next-generation leaders, GFA is seeking people who are interested in supporting our mission. We are currently looking for connections to innovative state government leaders, candidates for our board, financial support, and thought partners who are interested in shaping the next generation of public sector leaders. If you know a possible candidate for the fellowship, please tell them to sign up at the bottom of our homepage to be notified of our application released in August!