Michelle Polyak ’22 (Design Leadership MA/MBA) never thought she would work in government but was intrigued by the possibilities to work on complex challenges with high impact. She could not have imagined a better opportunity than to be selected for a fellowship with the United States Digital Corps under the Biden Administration serving as a human-centered designer.
The U.S. Digital Corps two-year fellowship is an opportunity for recent graduates to launch their careers and work at agencies across the government on projects at the intersection of technology and public service. Fellows are working with civil agencies in critical impact areas such as health, equity, and cybersecurity. The fellowship—in its inaugural year—consists of 38 fellows.
When thinking about life after graduate school, Polyak became interested in learning what it would be like to work in civic technology after having a conversation with an alum from the design leadership program.
“An alum came to share her experience in the program, and I was able to have a one-on-one conversation with her to ask if she had any tips on how to get my foot in the door for a government position,” Polyak said.
The conversation sparked Polyak’s interest, and she decided to begin pursuing opportunities. After finding a position through nonprofit Coding it Forward, she went to apply and realized she had missed the application deadline for the year. But that did not deter her.
“The organization I initially wanted to apply with has a newsletter, so I signed up because it was a great opportunity to be connected and to see other potential job openings,” she said. “I kept up with the newsletter and found the posting for the U.S. Digital Corps fellowship and applied for Fall 2021.”
The application process took a total of four months, consisting of four separate interview rounds. Polyak received an official offer from the U.S. Digital Corps in March 2021.
Designing Her Future
Polyak said she knew she wanted to pursue a master’s degree to gain a foundation in business through the lens of human-centered design. And she ultimately chose the Design Leadership MA/MBA dual degree from Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) because of the work she had done in past positions.
“I was managing teams, developing internal processes, and using design thinking in a lot of research projects, so that really pushed me to pursue the dual degree,” she said.
And, Polyak said, the opportunity to study at two world-class institutions with the resources and reputation of both institutions would broaden her networks and future.
Her time in the dual degree program prepared her for a career in government because of the faculty and strong bonds she created with her cohort.
“Two of my most impactful professors from MICA—Blair Corcoran de Castillo and Jo Golden—have both worked in or around the government, so I was able to get a better sense of what I would need to be able to work in government. They were great mentors throughout the application process for the fellowship and taught me what it means to be a designer within the government,” she said.
“It was hugely beneficial to grow with my peers, especially completing half of the degree online in an ongoing pandemic,” she added. “It made me recognize that I wanted a strong sense of community in my work for the future. And the fellowship with U.S. Digital Corps is rooted in that similar community cohort style.”
Along with networking with faculty and peers, Polyak also served as vice president and president in the Design for America JHU/MICA student organization for her first and second year, respectively.
“Being part of that student organization was a great opportunity to apply the concepts and skills from the classroom to real-world situations. We worked with internal clients from the Johns Hopkins community as well as external clients from the local community,” she said.
Serving the American Public
Throughout her career, Polyak had always worked in mission-driven organizations. Starting out in nonprofit administration at the local level and moving to social impact consulting for national foundations, her drive to serve the public is apparent.
As a human-centered designer in the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, her work involves designing, creating, and implementing technologies that serve the needs of the American public as they interface with the U.S. healthcare system.
And much of her daily duties include design thinking.
“Our team really draws on the different methods and processes from design thinking. We’re looking at projects and deciding what direction to move in and using various design tools to direct those solutions we are moving towards. And listening to the public and incorporating their responses into the services and products we are building means design thinking is really part of the day-to-day,” she said.
Polyak said the dual degree has helped her learn what it means to build an effective team environment in her career.
“Right now, I’m working on a lot of cross-functional teams with many people who have different skill sets. So having the knowledge on how to make each contributor showcase their strengths while also discussing what needs to improve or getting support from someone with a different skill set, helps build a positive workplace culture,” she said.
Polyak’s parting words? Lean on the cohort model and network within the program.
“It was very formative for me. I made strong connections with everyone in the design leadership program and was able to reach out when navigating what I wanted out of my future. We are pretty niche within both institutions, so having that sense of community is helpful.”