From IU Northwest to the US Department of Education

How Master of Public Affairs program sparked Melanie Muenzer’s passion for higher education

Melanie Muenzer’s (Wilson) final paper at Indiana University Northwest made her realize exactly what she wanted to do with her career.

In the paper, Muenzer, who graduated with her Master of Public Affairs (MPA) from IU Northwest in 2005, looked at three counties in Northwest Indiana — Lake, LaPorte and Porter — comparing the socio-economic status against them and how students, from K-12, were performing academically.

“I was mortified when I did that … the difference between the wealthier counties and Lake County when you correlated with socio-economic status,” Muenzer said. “I was just like, ‘Well, this is broken. I want to go to the Department of Education, and I want to fix education policy.’”

That’s the goal Muenzer set when she departed Northwest Indiana, the place she’d called home most entire life and where her parents still live.

Muenzer did just that. 

Finding her passion at IU Northwest

After earning her bachelor’s in general management from Purdue University, Muenzer went into the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at IU Northwest while working full-time in Chicago. A few classes in, she decided to shift her post-graduate studies.

IU Northwest, at the time, recently started its MPA program and Muenzer decided to give it a chance.

As a graduate student, Muenzer was involved in politics. She and her husband were involved with volunteer work for U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky and Joe Kernan during his run for governor.

Slowly, she grew more connected with members of the Democratic Party throughout the state. 

Melanie Muenzer (right) sits alongside U.S. Department of Education Secretary James Kvaal (left) during a meeting with IU Northwest administrators January 23, 2023.

Moreso than the paper she wrote in graduate school, Muenzer credits IU Northwest for giving her the critical skills — the ability to write and communicate effectively — which has allowed her to excel in her career. She credited her professors in both the social work and public affairs programs.

Here, Muenzer also met peers with a variety of backgrounds and was challenged to think outside of the conventional way she saw the world. Along the way, she discovered what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

“I was familiar with IUN,” Muenzer said. “It was close to home … and I really liked the idea of going to school in a community where I had wanted to work. You know, those were the people I felt committed to helping to support in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago.”

There was another paper, on healthcare policy, Muenzer wrote. She remembers the professor telling her “This is so good; you should send it to the Bush White House for them to consider.”

“I was like, ‘Oh, haha,’” Muenzer said. “‘Wait,’” she remembers reconsidering. “‘I can do stuff like that.’ It was those kinds of encouraging words that really stuck with me.”

Muenzer returned to IU Northwest January 23, 2023, as the Chief of Staff for the Office of the Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, meeting with students, administration and campus leadership alongside Under Secretary James Kvaal and Confidential Assistant Jack Hurley.

Working toward her dream job in education

One day, Muenzer received an email from Evan Bayh, the former governor of Indiana, who was trying to recruit employees for his presidential campaign.

Muenzer admitted she shook off the email — for $30 it promised to bring people to Indianapolis for a weekend to teach them how to be a campaign staffer — at first. At the time, she still didn’t know what she wanted to do with her degree post-graduation.

But Muenzer went for it and Bayh’s program ended up placing she and her husband in Iowa in 2006. There, Muenzer worked for U.S. Rep Leanord Boswell for his reelection campaign. Eventually, they thought they’d have positions on Bayh’s staff when he would run for president in 2008.

The day after Muenzer and her husband put their house in Indiana on the market, they received a phone call. Turns out, Bayh wouldn’t be running for president.

IU Northwest leaders pose for a picture with Under Secretary James Kvaal, Chief of Staff Melanie Muenzer and Confidential Assistant Jack Hurley, members of the U.S. Department of Education.

The two, without jobs, decided to move to Iowa anyway. “We decided, ‘You know what? Let’s go for it,’” Muenzer said.

Muenzer ended up being picked up by the John Edwards presidential campaign in 2007. Her boss, current White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, began working on President Barack Obama’s general election and brought Muenzer over to work.

When Obama won, Muenzer moved to Washington D.C., where she was offered a position on the presidential transition team. When they asked what she wanted to do, Muenzer didn’t have to think long. She’s known the answer to that question for years.

“I said, ‘I want to go to the Department of Education, and I want to work on education policy,’” she said. “… I moved into the policy office where I started, from there, working on numerous types of education policy and really got into higher education policy.”

‘Take a deep breath and just go for it’

Muenzer has spent years focusing on higher education, student financial aid and adult education. One of the biggest projects she worked on during Obama’s presidency was launching the College Scorecard, a tool created by the U.S. government for consumers to compare the cost and value of higher education institutions.

Despite the twists and turns of Muenzer’s path, she always thought of how her experiences at IU Northwest shaped her. On January 21, 2009, less than four years after graduating, Muenzer was appointed in the Department of Education.
Her goal had been accomplished.

For the next seven years, Muenzer worked in the Department of Education inside the nation’s capital. Then, she moved to Oregon where she served as the associate vice president and vice provost for academic initiatives at the University of Oregon and was elected as a member of the board of education at Lane Community College.

Eventually, she started doing work for the transition team for President Joe Biden and was asked to return to the Department of Education, where she’s served as the Chief of Staff for Kvaal since her appointment on January 25, 2021.

It might be hard to believe based on the number of connections she’s made over the years, but Muenzer admitted she’s an introvert by nature. But she knew what she wanted to do in her career. She believed in herself, took chances and accomplished it.

“Don’t be afraid of things,” Muenzer said is her advice to students seeking their passion. “There are many times where I could have said, ‘No.’ No, I’m not going to answer this email from Evan Bayh. No, I’m not going to just put my house on the market. No, I’m not going to take a chance and move back to Iowa.”

She added: “Have courage to look at your life and see where you can take a chance on things and (don’t) ever be afraid of it. … Just take a deep breath and just go for it.”