Elizabeth M. Spach


  • MPP, University of Virginia, May 2019
  • B.A., History (with distinction), University of Virginia, May 2018


Virginia Beach, VA

Career Interests/Skills

Housing policy; creating communities of opportunity that are safe and prosperous for everyone; stakeholder engagement; state and local government; policy analysis; grant writing

Agency Rotations

  • Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development
  • Secretary of Natural Resources, Office of the Governor
  • State Council for Higher Education in Virginia

What is your educational background and what made you pursue those majors, degrees, etc.?

I have always been interested in history and understanding how we got to where we are. I originally wanted to major in history to prepare for law school after college. After taking a class on housing discrimination entitled “Race & Real Estate in the US” my sophomore year I quickly developed an interest in urban history. While I knew housing discrimination existed, that course introduced me to the policy decisions, federal policies, and zoning regulations that foster housing discrimination.  As I learned more about historical housing discrimination and urban history as an undergraduate, I realized I wanted to work on current housing policy issues in addition to understanding historic housing inequities. This desire to intervene in current policy processes lead me to apply to UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. I appreciated their model of teaching both leadership AND public policy because it emphasized the importance of both quantitative and qualitative skills in policy making.

Why did you pursue this opportunity [the Virginia Management Fellows Program]? Why are you drawn to public service?

Throughout my time in college, I strived to make my learning interdisciplinary. Even though I was a history major, I routinely took urban planning, literature, and public policy courses to enhance my understanding.  The VMF opportunity creates 1) “opportunities for participants to understand and actively affect how things are done at the state level,” and 2) exposes fellows to “the ‘bigger picture’ issues and practical challenges of state strategic management and leadership are analyzed and understood.” The “bigger picture” lens of the VMF program is what intrigued me most. We are not only learning how state government functions, but why it functions the way it does through a mix of seminars, rotations, and administrative theories. During my rotations, I focus not only on current problems, but also previous trends. It is probably the history major in me, but this contextual lens has been very helpful in understanding how state government functions in the Commonwealth.

In terms of public service, I grew up around a family of public servants—my mom works in school administration and my aunt is a Kindergarten/Preschool teacher. I am also the product of public schooling attending public school from K-12 and attending a public college, the University of Virginia. Many of my most formative moments professionally were because of public services whether they be schools, libraries, or government offices. To me, public service is about giving back to those organizations and institutions who gave me so much. I am thankful that the Virginia Management Fellowship gives me an opportunity to do that.

How has your educational background helped you in your rotations?

A good policy recommendation is only as successful as its delivery. In order for good policies to be implemented, they must be presented in a way that makes sense to those making the decisions. When I was in college, I quickly learned that history is more about storytelling and narrative than it is about facts and events. This storytelling quality of history has been very beneficial in my rotations. During my time with the Department of Housing and Community Development, my team submitted a Lead Hazard Grant Application through the Department of Housing and Community Development. We had to not only explain how we would use the money if awarded, but illustrate the current lead-risk hazards in the Commonwealth. Through using a combination of Virginia Department of Health, U.S. Census, and housing data, we were able to map out the greatest lead-risk areas of the Commonwealth. Showing the “story” of lead hazards through this grant led to a $5.6 million award from HUD for lead reduction over three years.

As someone with a Master of Public Policy, I have an appreciation for taking a “jack of all trades” approach to policy making. In school I often had to write policy briefs for topics I knew little about. Being able to think through unknown and difficult problems has been helpful throughout the VMF especially since my three rotations vary both in terms of subject matter and organizational structure. While I knew some about housing through my college experience, I had little experience in coastal resilience and education. The quantitative skills an MPP provides has also helped me think about program evaluation and data collection in addition to program design in my agency rotations.

If you could offer a piece of advice to students pursuing a career in public service what would it be?

This is not something that is unique to the public sector specifically, but I would tell students to learn and stay curious. During an introductory history seminar my freshman year of college a professor looked around at a class filled with excited students.  She looked at the anticipation on our faces (and recognized hers as well since this was her first class teaching after finishing her doctoral program) and told us to keep the same curiosity and excitement we felt at the beginning of our college experience at the end. It can be easy to get caught up in your plan ad career but it is important to be open to new experiences. One of the benefits about the VMF program is that you are given two years to explore how the state functions, different subject areas, and various positions within state government. Similar to the first semesters of college, it is a safe environment to learn what you enjoy and what you do not. Asking questions and being curious about divisions outside of my own has been very helpful!

“Before the Fellowship” is part of an ongoing series on the VMF blog where current Virginia Management Fellows answer questions related to their educational and career experiences prior to starting the fellowship.

Elizabeth Spach is a Virginia Management Fellow currently working at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV).