The CIA called Katheryn “K.C.” Brekken with a job opportunity, but higher education made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.
More on that later.
A former reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Brekken was at a crossroads in her career. As a journalist, she reported on courts, crimes, and education but she wanted to do more than be an observer to current events. She started working at the College of Southern Nevada (CSN) in public relations and government affairs where she became involved in understanding how legislative polices impact education.
While working at CSN, she attended UNLV’s School of Public Policy and Leadership and received a master’s of public administration degree in 2012 and her Ph.D. in public affairs in 2016. CSN’s former president Michael Richards, hooded her along with Christopher Stream, the director of the School of Public Policy and Leadership.
“It was the first time I ever walked in a graduation ceremony. It was really meaningful,” said Brekken, who today is an assistant professor of research for the MGM Resorts Public Policy Institute at the UNLV Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. She talked to us about her decision to change careers to work on creating effective policy solutions.
A time when you were daring
I was figuring out what I wanted to do next after journalism. I applied to a gamut of jobs. I applied to be a Cirque du Soleil greeter in Canada, and a French interpreter for the CIA. My French isn’t that good. The CIA offered me a job in another division, but I didn’t want to move and turned down the job. A couple of weeks later, my boyfriend proposed. I think I came out OK on that one. It was a good decision.
Motivation to attend your graduation ceremony when you got your Ph.D.
When I got my bachelor’s degree, I immediately drove to Las Vegas because I had a job. I was excited to work at the Las Vegas Review-Journal. When I got my master’s degree, I was pregnant. After 10 years of working at CSN and walking the graduation floors for work, I really wanted to walk. Graduation is my favorite time of year; It speaks to what we do in higher ed. My daughter was 2 at the time. My son was 5. My husband brought them both to the lowest level and they waved at me.
About your job
I study how policies and programs come about and how they get implemented, and how that impacts people. This ranges from legislation to formal procedures. I research evidence-based programs that create pathways to work. We are entering the fourth industrial revolution. We are entering a workforce that’s rapidly changing in technology and globalization. There are many individuals at risk of being left behind. They won’t have the skills to meet the demands of the evolving workplace. We have to figure out some way and look at polices that can help these individuals adapt.
Biggest misconception in your field of public policy
I think it is the misconception that legislation gets passed and enacted or the courts make a decision and then the policies' intended outcomes will be done. It takes work in multiple arenas to make change and the public is a large part of that process. A rich example of this is Brown v. Board of Education. A common misconception is that this landmark Supreme Court decision desegregated schools. But it didn't. It took a decade, an act of Congress — the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enforcement by the Justice Department, and a lot of other actors to actually begin systematic desegregation, which as a healthy body of research has noted, still persists today. Solving public policy challenges is a complex science. But the more research and evidenced-based information we have in a particular policy area, the more effectively we can get to the best approaches for solutions.
The one problem you'd like to solve?
Access to education. Having an educated citizenry is a crucial assumption for any well-functioning democracy. At an individual level, there is ample research to support that postsecondary certificates and degrees can dramatically improve your happiness, health, and wealth. Expanding access to quality education in early childhood, primary, secondary, and postsecondary, and occupational training can accelerate progress in technology, medical, and public policy fields and buffer cities and regions from the worst effects of an economic downturn. To create an adaptable workforce, organization, or community, we also need access to opportunities for lifelong learning to facilitate innovation and collaboration.
How can citizens be part of the solution?
Having seen several legislative sessions, citizens are the most effective advocates for policy. There are passionate community members that are paying attention and they are part of the process. For anyone mystified by process, get involved, go to a meeting, find out who the policymakers and stakeholders are. Don’t be afraid to have a voice.
“The Happiness Curve” by Jonathan Rauch and “Pre-Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini.
Something you learned from a student
In a business communication class that I taught at CSN, there was a student in the first week who hadn’t read anything and the class required an online book. The student didn’t have a computer at home and couldn’t afford a hard copy of the book. I learned some of the challenges our student population faces in signing up for a course and why it’s not easy for everyone.
Advice for people who want to change careers
Have confidence in yourself. I think a lot of people don’t change careers because they don't believe that the skills they have today will transfer to a new field. Having courage and confidence in your capacity to learn and adapt — and seeing yourself in an alternative future is important. People underestimate what they can do.