Tia Phan

“It became obvious to me that if I wanted to have my clients succeed, maybe it would be by providing something other than Band-Aids,” says MPS in Civic Engagement student Tia Phan. She was working at a Native American resource center and was routinely bumping up against barriers to her clients’ success.

“The problems in the policies becomes apparent the longer you work with people in the system,” she says.

So how do you advocate for people who could benefit from change today, who can’t wait for a policy overhaul?

You start with cultural awareness.

Working from the Bottom Up, Not the Top Down

“When you’re working with indigenous people and people of color, you can’t just go at health care without knowing cultural traditions. You have to build trust,” Phan says. “You can’t go at it with a Western traditional approach. We need to interact and communicate within their comfort level.”

Tia Phan

Phan believes that awareness and education are at the core of real change. “You have to try to let people know what the social issues are, then teach empathy around those issues. Then you can see improvement.”

She says it starts with getting the communities involved and connecting them with policymakers. “I want to give people who don’t think they have a voice, a voice. I want to be that bridge between them and the people delivering services.” 

“Sometimes I feel like I don’t know that any degree will get me exactly where I want to be, because what I want to do doesn’t exist yet.” 

A Broad yet Personalized Approach

Phan earned her bachelor of individualized study in political science, American Indian studies, and global studies from the University of Minnesota. Soon after graduating, she got a job working with families dealing with housing and child protection issues. She grew frustrated seeing how often the system made it difficult for her clients to move forward.

“I knew that I wanted to go back and get a higher degree so I could effect change at a higher level,” she says. 

Phan researched different graduate programs and found that the MPS in Civic Engagement was the perfect fit. She is now in her second semester. “Every time I meet with someone new or have a new experience, my idea of what I want to do changes just a little bit, so I didn’t want to be forced into a career.” 

“I knew that I wanted to go back and get a higher degree so I could effect change at a higher level.”

The degree, with its option to self-design a track, allows students to pursue an area of interest and choose coursework that meets their career goals. 

Phan’s focus area is civic life and social justice with a minor in health equities. She is particularly interested in issues facing Native Americans. The program will prepare her to both lead in an organization and engage with communities, “to be in between all of it.”

Building Compassion and Connection

“There are a lot of opportunities for the U to connect to different communities,” Phan says. “How can we be of service to people who don’t know what the U can do for them outside of academics?”

Woman registering a man to vote at polling place

In her new role in the dean’s office here in the College of Liberal Arts, she has seen the launch of the Civic Readiness Initiative, an initiative to help students build skills and see the connections between their education and the next stage of their lives as civic participants. 

“Putting civic readiness into the undergraduate curriculum gives students the tools to have complex discussions and see each other with empathy.” 

Phan is encouraged by the College’s commitment to civic engagement and is ready to share her expertise and experience with the University or wherever her degree may take her.

Key Takeaways

  • Learning how to analyze research, census data, and population maps
  • The insightful, often off-topic conversations in class

Pro Tip

“(Your degree) may not be a straightforward track. Keep searching until you find the right fit, keep adding things in to make it what you want.”