Harris Public Policy alum remains active and engaged – and helps shape the school in the process.
George Letavish, MPP'11

For George Letavish, MPP’11 — the 2021 winner of the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s CC DuBois Alumni Service Award —  Harris Public Policy was not going to be “two years, here's my degree, and I'm done.”

His arrival, he said, was instead the start of a “lifelong connection.” And since earning his degree in 2011, he has consistently volunteered his time and expertise to help Harris, fellow alumni, and current and prospective students.

“I just try to always be there for folks,” said Letavish, the senior adviser for federal policy at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, where his responsibilities include measuring federal legislation’s impact on economic development in the state and special projects linked to federal initiatives.

One part of being there for folks was getting involved with the Harris Alumni Council in its early days.

“I saw that it was an opportunity to help build something and formalize structures,” said Letavish, who served as the council president from 2016 to 2017. He has also been a mentor, a Harris reunion committee co-chair, a volunteer for the Career Development Office and Student Recruitment teams, and a member of the Chicago regional chapter that plans local alumni events.

“I can’t always directly help folks,” he said, “but I try to serve as a connector. So if someone comes to me, sometimes I may not be able to provide the best advice on their topic or occupation, but I know who can.”

When talking to prospective students, “I know what they're going through,” he said. “So how can I see their perspective and try to provide whatever might be helpful.”

Letavish has an illuminating perspective on whatever might be helpful.

He arrived at Harris after leaving the Army, where he was an intelligence analyst, and earning a degree in history and international politics from Penn State. Graduating in the midst of the Great Recession, he began exploring master’s degree programs, shifting his focus from international policy to domestic policy on his way to a career in government and with nonprofits.  (His resume includes stints as manager of solution development at City Tech Collaborative, where he worked on smart cities projects; senior policy analyst at Get IN Chicago, which aims to reduce community and gun violence; and policy analyst for former Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, focusing on issues including implementation of the Affordable Care Act.)

It was, he said, Harris’ people, its academic and intellectual environments — plus the financial assistance he got through the University of Chicago’s Yellow Ribbon Program benefiting veterans — that sold him. 

“It felt like the right place,” he said. This was before the Keller Center opened, “so the amenities and facilities were not the draw they are now,” he said. “But there's so much talent at Harris.”

He first sweated through Math Camp (“I tried to use game theory strategy on where I should sit” to avoid being called on, he said). Once classes began, he convinced himself he’d done so poorly on an early Core course test he would be kicked out of the University.

Immediately after the test, his plan was to meet friends at Jimmy’s, officially called Woodlawn Tap. He stopped first, he said, at Medici on 57th and ate an entire chocolate pecan pie, then did a shot or two of Jack Daniel’s at Jimmy’s before his friends arrived. “I was so despondent,” he said. But when the friends arrived they said he’d probably not done nearly as bad as he thought. And they were right. 

Ultimately, Letavish said, he “had a very positive experience and wanted to stay involved with Harris after convocation.”

“I thought it was great when I was there,” he said “but you really saw what it could be and was about to become.”

That next level included things like increased support for students as they sought jobs after graduation and robust resources for alumni career advancement, both of which are among the missions of the Alumni Council.

“Back when I graduated,” he said, “it was like ‘come here, have a good experience, go off on your way, come back for some scotch, and call it a day.’ And I think that some folks wanted more than that.”

Other schools at the University, like the Law School, certainly had networking and more established career placement programs at the time, but, he said, “we just weren't there yet. It was clear that there was work we could do.”

Today, he added, seeing Harris, “in just a short decade really move the needle on so many areas has been very exciting.”

There’s one thing outstanding on his to-do list, though, something that illustrates just how much the University means to Letavish — and how he’s always thinking of ways to make campus life better.

Back when Letavish was in Math Camp, there was a break each day, after which students could return to get extra help with problem sets. Letavish said he always needed to return for that extra help and so would spend the entire break waiting on a bench swing in the Quad. “That swing,” he said,  had such sentimental value to me.”

It’s no longer there. At some point, he said, “they took it down because of rain damage and during my whole time at Harris, I … could never get them to put the swing back out.” 

But he hasn’t given up. “Maybe,” said Letavish thinking of yet another way to improve life for Harris students, “I can help raise money for a gift to get that swing back.”