Kohawks excelling in top-ranked public affairs college post-Coe

Zach Huitink Maxwell School at SyracuseOne dressed as a politician for Halloween. Another thought she wouldn’t be able to cut it in grad school. The other had his sights set on the Navy. All are Coe College graduates, with an interesting intersection at the top-ranked public affairs college in the country, the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

Zach Huitink ’09, Piper Cooper ’22 and Luke VanderSchaff ’22 are all representing Coe at Maxwell. And it’s not just representation, they’re excelling in the competitive education environment.

Huitink is a professor at the school, in his sixth year teaching courses on public policy and public management. He was honored by the Maxwell School with the Birkhead-Burkhead Teaching Excellence Award and Professorship. The annual honor recognizes outstanding teaching, and recipients are nominated by current students and selected by a committee of former award winners. He is currently nominated for a university-wide excellence in teaching award as well.

Cooper graduated this past spring, earning her Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree in just one year. She had Huitink in class this past spring term and was awarded a prestigious New York State Excelsior Service Fellowship, which is a two-year fellowship program that creates opportunities for graduates of professional programs to work within the New York state government.

VanderSchaff is pursuing his MPA and is attending Maxwell as a national Phi Kappa Phi fellow after he was nominated to compete for the fellowship by Coe’s chapter. He also plans to finish his MPA on an accelerated timeline and graduate in 12 months.Piper Cooper Maxwell School at Syracuse

All three trace their ability to excel back to their time at Coe.

“I can say — without a doubt — that I would not have been admitted or successful in the program without the expert instruction in my undergraduate education,” VanderSchaff said.

He cites multiple professors, including Professor of Political Science Dr. Kimberly Lanegran, Professor of Philosophy Jeffrey Hoover and Associate Professor of Economics Drew Westberg ’05, who helped him grow his confidence and steered him toward graduate school. They wrote letters of recommendation and remain as sources of encouragement and advice to this day, even after VanderSchaff graduated.

For Cooper, it took some coaxing from Coe faculty to realize her potential. She initially battled imposter syndrome and had doubts about her ability to go to graduate school. However, she realized Coe faculty were truly invested in her and were ready to help her transform her begrudging self into a person of engagement and action.

“As silly as it may seem, Coe did make it possible for me. It made it possible for me to learn advanced topics that some of my colleagues in my master’s program only got to glance over. It allowed me to try everything and be a part of amazing experiences, meeting lifelong friends and incredible mentors along the way. It made it possible for me to fail and fail again. I learned how to pick myself back up and gain the confidence and skills to be the person I am today, and a lot of that has to do with the community I found at Coe,” Cooper said.

She also cited Westberg, as well as the rest of the economics department, political science department and philosophy department as sources of inspiration.Luke VanderSchaff Maxwell School at Syracuse

Huitink was initially bound for the Naval Academy, but a physical condition kept him out. Even though his three older brothers went to Central College, he chose Coe, and distinctly remembers his first professor — current Coe President David Hayes ’93 who he describes as “really enriching and really fun.” He also took courses from many others in the economics department, including Mickey Wu, with whom he collaborated on his senior thesis. Eventually he concentrated on economics and the social sciences, but was quick to cite classes from Ed Burke and David Nordmann in history and other courses across the humanities and natural sciences as reasons why he thoroughly enjoyed Coe and the broad exposure to the liberal arts.

“Coe opened my eyes to what’s possible in terms of public service and solving public problems,” Huitink said.

As Huitink involved himself on Coe’s campus as a student, including completing Spellman summer research and contributing to the Birkey Investment Fund, Wu pulled him aside and said, “You should really consider a career in academics.” With that guidance, Huitink began pursuing his current career. 

“The training and tools I gained at Coe helped me to hit the ground running in my master’s program. The intellectual curiosity that was cultivated stuck with me. I felt really well prepared to do a Ph.D. in an interdisciplinary social science field,” he said.

Now, as Wu foresaw, Huitink is excelling in academia. The Birkhead-Burkhead award was an affirming point in his career, but his daily joy still stems from being in the classroom and working with students who are driven to be meaningful and impactful in their own careers.

“Getting to work with really bright and motivated students is my favorite part of the job,” he said.

Both Cooper and VanderSchaff certainly fall into the “bright and motivated” category.

VanderSchaff’s interest in public service was apparent from an early age — he dressed as a politician for Halloween in seventh grade. That passion was affirmed at Coe during his first term with his Introduction to Politics course and a seat in  Now, he is concentrating his studies on non-profit and public management and government financial management and analysis. The two concentration areas will help him develop the skills necessary to build effective public programming via budgeting.

“[At Coe] I learned how to write and think critically. However, another component many people overlook is that Coe’s professors prepared me by instilling the confidence and security to ask for help when I need it, advocate for myself as a student and work with peers most effectively on projects. Coe really delivered on its liberal arts promise by providing me with an education that resulted in me becoming a well-rounded student and person,” VanderSchaff said.

Cooper has determined her ideal professional role to be in a position as a community development director or economic development director for a city or state. She wants to be able to support communities’ needs in innovative ways, making government accessible for everyone and connecting private and public stakeholders to elevate quality of life for all.

“I have always been attracted to how things work in the world and why society is so different in some places, or how different people interact with one another. Seeing how you can make so many changes and influence the daily actions of someone’s life is fascinating to me, and why I’ve wanted to know how to be a part of that change,” Cooper said.

“At Coe, I was able to expand my interests and skills greatly. Since my undergrad experience, I've been passionate about rural/urban development, healthcare accessibility, government ac countability as well as economic development,” she added.

While at Maxwell, she concentrated on data analytics, building on the skillset she began to develop at Coe. It helped that, in her move to Syracuse, Huitink was one of the first people she spoke with. They bonded over Coe stories and how their time as Kohawks prepared them for new challenges and lofty academic goals.
“Coe challenged me a lot, and changed a lot about my life, and looking back I would do it over again and choose Coe,” Cooper said.

That love for Coe is just one more similarity between Huitink, VanderSchaff and Cooper, all Kohawks turned Orangemen. After all, if you mix crimson and gold, you will get a shade of orange.

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