COLA Connections Newsletter: April 2015

Changing the World with Clean Energy: How RIT’s Public Policy Department Guided Matthew Stepp

Sometimes the best way to look at the programs we offer is to examine how they’re used in the real world to do important work. Matthew Stepp worked in a think tank in Washington, D.C., called the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF). He serves as Executive Director for its Center for Clean Energy Innovation. He completed the Science, Technology and Public Policy Master of Science degree here at RIT in 2009.


Stepp was closely involved in the Public Policy Department within the College of Liberal Arts, and enjoyed its small but tight knit group of students and professors. Because of its size, the students in the program all took very similar classes, studied together, and engaged in projects together. It created a very unique, collaborative atmosphere that is difficult to get in a larger program.


He also mentioned the “truly amazing” professors that guided him, including our Dean Winebrake, as well as Professors Ron Hira, Franz Foltz, and others. Every time he runs into one of them since graduating and they ask what the most valuable part of his RIT education was, he gives the same answer. He says the classes he took in the public policy department prepared him in every way for a career in government and policy. He “hit the ground running” after RIT and says it was clear that he was ahead of the curve in writing, public speaking, and knowledge of the policy process.


The most valuable lessons he learned in class at RIT were how Washington, D.C. worked, how policy is created, and who the major stakeholders are. This was invaluable because he knew who to go to in Washington to get things done. “The D.C. learning curve wasn’t nearly as steep for me as it is for others,” he said.


He says he interacted with his professors a lot outside of class, as well as through his fellowship at the National Academies of Science, which taught him much from direct experience in the policy process. He learned the importance of conducting oneself professionally and persuasively in the policy space, and how to quickly make a point in a meeting with a member of Congress. “It’s one of those lessons that typically takes a lot of learning by doing, but I was able to jump in much quicker and have an impact,” he said.


Stepp says that without his degree from RIT, he never would have been hired in Washington. The degree he received is unique; he learned not only about policymaking, but how it interacts with science and technology development. This really catches a lot of employers’ eyes because students usually learn either public policy or engineering. This blends both worlds.


After graduating from RIT, he gained a fellowship at a policy think tank in Oakland, Calif., called the Breakthrough Institute. He was able to continue working on climate change policy there, which was his focus at RIT and what he hoped to have a career in. This fellowship led into full-time employment at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington D.C. In late 2013, ITIF gave him the opportunity to develop his own policy center within the organization, the Center for Clean Energy Innovation. He served as its first Executive Director for the past year and a half.


He said that every day is different in his current job. One day has him on Capitol Hill meeting with Congressional staff about creating legislation, and the next he’s traveling to speak at policy conferences. He has helped craft new bills and advised policy makers on key issues related to climate change policy, already fulfilling his career goal. Work in D.C. is certainly never boring in his field.


As this newsletter was going to press, we learned that Matthew Stepp accepted the position of Director of Policy for PennFuture, based in Philadelphia. Further testimony to the marketability of the liberal arts degree he earned here at RIT.


As for advice for current students, Stepp emphasizes how important strong writing skills are. He writes a lot, in many different ways, something that is required in many different career fields. Sometimes he has to write the traditional long-form report all students are used to, while other times he has to write very short op-eds or memos. He has to be able to engage many different types of general audiences, so his writing can’t be overly technical. He says that current students shouldn’t be afraid to practice their writing often. Taking up blogging or writing op-eds for a newspaper can prove invaluable in the long run. “Practice turning your thesis or senior project into something that someone not from your field would understand. It’s a lot harder than you’d think!” he said.


The many skills and connections he made at RIT have formed the foundation for a solid career shaping the world around us. Developing clean energy policy is something that affects us all, and it’s great to see someone from our own college giving way to positive change in the real world.