Steps on the path for change

Experiences on campus, in the nation's capital and abroad have helped Jonny Vannucci forge a future in politics and diplomacy.

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Photo by Sarah Morton, College of Letters & Science

“When I was in D.C., everything just clicked,” Jonny Vannucci says.

Today, the UW-Madison senior is sitting at a table at Peet’s, the coffee shop inside the Memorial Union. Packed with students and their backpacks, laptops, winter jackets and stress over upcoming exams, it couldn’t feel farther away from a summer working with diplomats and policymakers in the nation’s capital.

But for a bit longer, Vannucci will inhabit both worlds. After he graduates in May with degrees in political geography and environmental studies, he’ll wrap his final year in an accelerated master’s program in international public affairs in the La Follette School of Public Affairs, with an eye toward working in diplomacy.

It’s not a bad place to be, because he’s at the unique vantage point of being able to see how his studies and experiences the past four years have led him to where he is now. Yet he couldn’t have predicted sitting at this particular precipice.

Vannucci says he “kind of always knew I’d be a Badger,” but he came to UW unsure of where he’d best fit and what he wanted to study. The Wauwatosa native felt pressure to pursue the hard sciences, but found himself drawn to social science classes.

He also noticed a spark when he got involved with Associated Students of Madison, or ASM, the student government of the university. “That’s where I learned about the legislative process and how to make a difference,” he says.

An internship with the U.S. Department of the Interior during the summer after his sophomore year saw Vannucci surveying endangered bird and sea turtle populations in the Chesapeake Bay. When his supervisors learned about his interest in policy, they let him sit in on briefings in Washington, D.C., and be a part of the consulting process for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It was a great experience for me,” he says, “and it had a huge impact on shaping my future."

I was in my element, learning how to navigate, how to talk to different people. I got to see what potentially my future could hold.

Vannucci considers this past summer, when he was back in D.C., this time on a foreign policy internship with the U.S. Department of State, “the most formative months of my life.”

Thanks to a Shinners Scholarship, which he obtained through SuccessWorks, he worked for the assistant secretary of state for Oceans and Environmental and Scientific Affairs. He got a firsthand look at diplomacy, as well as the inner workings of international climate and refugee policy.

“I was in my element, learning how to navigate, how to talk to different people,” he says. “I got to see what potentially my future could hold.”

Interestingly, it was while studying abroad through an EU politics program in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the spring of 2017, that his attention turned from international affairs to issues back home. He found it strange to witness the inauguration of a new American president while living in Europe, but was inspired to see young people mobilize and voice their reactions.

Back in Madison, Vannucci began interning for Senator Tammy Baldwin, and may work on a political campaign during the next election cycle, since he understands the ramifications political decisions can have on foreign policy.

When he considers where his path might lead in the future, Vannucci can’t help but think back on where he’s been — to the classes, internships and experiences that have suited him, as well as those that helped bump him in the right direction.

“Just the fact that I was in L&S opened up so many possibilities,” he says. “If there wasn’t that breadth, I wouldn’t have found my niche where I see myself having the biggest impact. I feel like I have a responsibility to use my skills and what I’ve learned to be a catalyst for change.”