MDP Student Rebekah Montgomery: Why I Chose the Humphrey School

June 26, 2024
Portrait of Rebekah Montgomery
Rebekah Montgomery is a Master of Development Practice student at the Humphrey School. Photo: Bruce Silcox

By Ann Nordby

Rebekah Montgomery is already an accomplished leader. For 21 years, she was an officer in the U.S. Air Force. 

She was a transport pilot working with coalition partners across Africa, Europe, and much of the Pacific doing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. She was also involved in operations, and took on some challenging assignments. 

For example, upon arrival in Baghdad several years ago, she was ordered to turn a field of rubble into a working airbase in just three months. Though it seemed to be an impossible task, she succeeded, not solely through her own expertise as a pilot, but by tapping the knowledge of all the right experts and interest groups. 

"I tend to have a knack for finding the common threads and finding connections, and getting to know people and their communities," Montgomery said. "No one person has all the expertise. You learn what you need for the task at hand."

A new career, building better communities

Her next task? Pursuing a master’s degree at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Now retired from the Air Force, Montgomery is starting a new career. She wants to help people who are new to local communities to thrive despite complex challenges, and before humanitarian situations occur.

It's still early in her career pivot, but she knows that she wants to focus on immigrants and refugees. She wants to foster cooperation between newcomers and existing community members. She wants them to bring out the best in each other and themselves to build better communities. It's a high aspiration and a complex one.

To prepare for that career change, she entered the Humphrey School’s Master of Development Practice (MDP) program in 2023. It will teach her to adapt her already considerable abilities to global development in non-military situations. It will expose her to new potential roles where she might do the kind of work she dreams of doing.

"A lot of my skill sets translate very well, but there is a very different language and understanding and environment of operations. It seemed smart to build that knowledge where I have gaps," she said. 

Cross-disciplinary approach

The MDP program is designed for people like Montgomery who want to tackle large global problems, not just respond to them after they have already happened. 

"You see a lot of reactive responses, because people are in need. I want to be on the preventive side of things—to build local capacity, and unlock potential that's resident in every community." 

MDP students acquire a grounding in policy, to be sure. But because the issues are complex, the program is cross-disciplinary. All MDP students take classes outside the Humphrey School, choosing from among the 150 graduate programs across the University of Minnesota. Subjects range from environmental science and public health to education, management, and many more. 

In other words, students learn how to lead and they gain a depth of knowledge in the field that they're passionate about. Although the MDP cohort is small, eight of its 10 members are international, with diverse life experiences, which adds to the richness of class discussions. 

Montgomery is glad to be back in her native Minnesota after 21 years of active duty and seven deployments. She is rediscovering all the things she loves about the area and spending time with family. 

The Twin Cities metro area is rich in intellectual life. It has an engaged population and many events that bring in speakers such as diplomats to talk about world affairs. She also appreciates the wealth of restaurants serving world cuisines she has learned to appreciate in her time away. 

In her first year, Montgomery studied statistics and program evaluation—foundational knowledge she will need for her new career. She has a professional mentor who runs a conflict and disaster relief organization. She plans to do at least one internship during the program. Not surprisingly, she looks forward to moving from the classroom to taking action in the field.

 "I enjoy academics, but it's always rounded out by application," she said. "There are things you learn in the dynamic real world that are more effective than a textbook."