Alumni Spotlight: Catherine Tonsberg ’19 MPA

Catherine Tonsberg ’19 MPA discusses her experience in the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs MPA program and how it prepared her for her position as a Policy Analyst in Regional and Community Outreach at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

As part of the Central bank of the United States, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston works to promote growth and financial stability in New England by conducting economic research, participating in monetary policy-making, supervising financial institutions, providing financial services and payments, playing a leadership role in the payments industry, and supporting economic well-being in communities through a variety of efforts.


North Attleboro, Massachusetts

Tell us about your job at the Boston Fed.

As a policy analyst for the community development arm of the Boston Fed, I prepare analyses of consumer, community, and economic development issues in New England for internal and external publications and presentations. I work with large data sets to analyze economic circumstances of low- and moderate-income people and families in the region, specifically through a racial equity lens, not simply sharing graphs and p-values, but also examining the greater context behind the numbers and addressing the historical inequalities that have contributed to disparities in wealth and labor. My work is collaborative, both with colleagues in the Boston Fed, the greater Fed system, and external stakeholders. I present my research findings to a wide audience, including local and regional community development organizations, government officials and staff, and research institutions.

What skills from the MPA program do you use in your work?

Utilizing statistics for data analysis was not my strongest skill starting this program, but it became a passion and now, my career. I work with large data sets of population survey samples that require careful analysis. The regression techniques I learned from the summer statistics course have been essential for this work. I can analyze complex relationships that influence the economic security of low- and moderate-income people in New England while also understanding how to accurately interpret and describe these results and avoid sampling errors. My research using these techniques now helps to equip policymakers with the information necessary to craft policies that truly make the difference they intend to.

“ My consultancy with the Economic Progress Institute in Providence, Rhode Island was invaluable to my career....I gained tools and methods for critically evaluating barriers to economic security that I now apply on a regional scale. ”

Catherine Tonsberg MPA Class of 2019

Where did you fulfill your MPA consultancy and how did the consultancy experience prepare you for the work you are doing now?

My consultancy with the Economic Progress Institute in Providence, Rhode Island was invaluable to my career. I provided the research and initial drafts of the publication “Rhode Island Works: Is it Working?” Rhode Island Works is the state’s safety net program for low-income families with children. It’s a valuable resource for some of the state’s poorest families. In recent years, elected officials had made a number of proposals to improve the program, yet it had never been deeply evaluated. My in-depth research on Rhode Island Works provided legislators with essential information they needed to craft effective policy that will improve economic independence outcomes for families.

The consultancy substantively prepared me for the work I do now. At the Boston Fed, I lead research efforts on equitable growth and recovery in smaller New England cities and places. I gained tools and methods for critically evaluating barriers to economic security that I now apply on a regional scale.

What has been the most impactful project you’ve worked on so far at the Fed?

Early this year my team quickly shifted priorities to respond to the economic impacts of the pandemic on low- and moderate-income New Englanders. In March we released an external publication titled “The Effects of the Novel Coronavirus Pandemic on Service Workers in New England.” This publication adds to our collective understanding of the nascent category of “essential workers” beyond healthcare. Using survey data, we classified essential service workers to analyze their economic circumstances by state and city pre-pandemic to inform policies that can effectively target some of the most at-risk workers. This publication also served as critical information for local and state organizations in understanding the landscape of their local essential service workforce.

What was a highlight of your experience at Brown?

The opportunity to work as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate policy course was an unexpected highlight of my time at Brown. It nudged me further into the greater Brown community, which can be difficult when you’re in a fast-paced program. It was a privilege to work one-on-one with students entering the course from a variety of backgrounds with diverse perspectives. It was not just a job, but an opportunity to grow as a presenter, communicator, leader, advisor, and policy professional. I also got to work closely with an esteemed professor I might not have met otherwise who was exceptionally helpful in my job search.

What advice would you give young professionals entering the MPA program?

Keep an open mind to all opportunities offered to you at Brown and don’t be afraid to shift gears or leave your comfort zone. Go to every panel and attend every event. Some events taught me more about what work I didn’t want to do, and that was as valuable and learning more about what I did want to do! Get business cards, follow up after, and never underestimate the value of a 15-minute coffee (or Zoom!) meeting.

It is often said, but it’s true – this program is what you make of it. You will have an enormous support system from the faculty and staff, but it is on you to communicate your goals with them and ask for help and guidance when you need it. Be an active participant in your education and you will get the most out of your year.