Cassidy Syftestad | Courtesy

Hillsdale College in Wash­ington, D.C. is growing, and Cassidy Syftestad ’18 has been essential to its com­mitment to improving oppor­tu­nities for stu­dents in the nation’s capital. 

Growing up on the other side of the country, Syftestad left her family and native state of Cal­i­fornia to attend college in the midwest. After grad­u­ating from Hillsdale College less than two years ago as an American Studies major, Syftestad imme­di­ately began serving the college as the under­graduate program coor­di­nator at the Kirby Center in Wash­ington, D.C. Since assuming this role, Syftestad works closely with iden­ti­fying and men­toring stu­dents who become George Wash­ington Fellows or those involved with the Wash­ington-Hillsdale Internship Program. 

“I love going to work because WHIP and the George Wash­ington Fel­lowship pro­grams are designed to equip the young people, to push them towards their goals, and enable them through oppor­tu­nities, con­tacts, and pro­fes­sional devel­opment,” Syftestad said. “And my job is to make that happen. If I do my job well, then it makes a dif­ference in the lives of people who I learned to really care about. And I feel very proud of them.”

One of those young people is current Hillsdale College senior Jenny Lessnau who par­tic­i­pated in WHIP in the spring semester of 2019. During her time in Wash­ington, Lessnau interned at the Museum of the Bible as a col­lec­tions intern, cre­ating an orga­ni­za­tional system for about 2,000 Torah scrolls. As an art history major, Lessnau said she never expected to par­tic­ipate in WHIP and credits Syftestad for her enriching expe­rience. 

“Cassidy is the type of person who always has your best interests truly at heart, and she is so candid,” Lessnau said. “Cassidy will tell you how it is, give it to you straight, but she’ll always be there to back you up.”

Syftestad encourages all Hillsdale stu­dents in Wash­ington to pursue their own goals and use their skills to make a dif­ference in society. 

“I wish stu­dents knew that Wash­ington, D.C. pro­vides oppor­tu­nities for stu­dents who are inter­ested in any pro­fes­sional field,” Syftestad. “We have intern­ships for finance, museum studies, art history, accounting, inter­na­tional studies, and national security. It’s not just for stu­dents who are inter­ested in pol­itics. You don’t need to plan a life in D.C. to spend one semester here, soaking up all that you can.”

On her own WHIP semester during the fall of her junior year, Syftestad interned in edu­ca­tional pro­gramming at the Charles Koch Institute. Syftestad said she never expected to return to Wash­ington after this semester, but her passion for edu­cation reform and policy con­tinued pulling her back.

“I moved back to D.C. for the summer before senior year, which wasn’t my plan orig­i­nally,” Syftestad said. “But there’s one job I really wanted, which was edu­cation policy research at the Her­itage Foun­dation. I got it, so I came.” 

During that same summer, Syftestad and her mother com­pleted research for and were co-authors of  “The Corrupt Classroom,” a book by Lance Izumi, the Senior Director of Edu­cation Studies at the Pacific Research Institute. The work explores the degra­dation of public schools for non-aca­demic reasons. Although Izumi admitted he was skep­tical to meet Syftestad because of her age, his worries dis­ap­peared after observing her mature and poised attitude. 

“Of all the people I’ve had as researchers and public policy fellows, Cassidy was cer­tainly one of my best,” Izumi said. “She’s going to do extremely well in her life’s career, which I think she’s pointing toward going into edu­cation research and policy analysis. She’s somebody who’s going to make a real big dif­ference in this nation down the future.” 

After her freshman year of college, Syftestad was an assistant at a law firm in Sacra­mento and was put in contact with Izumi. The fol­lowing summer she came back to her home state to research and find examples of fiscal mis­man­agement, over­sex­u­alized cur­riculum in ele­mentary schools, and anti-American cur­riculum from schools across the country. 

“It made me feel deeply dis­turbed at some points,” she said. “But I believe in the oppor­tunity for change, and even change in the local level affects thou­sands of children. I deemed my task worthy of effort because even if you con­vince one parent to exercise school choice, that child’s life will change, and that was our purpose.”

Syftestad’s interest in encour­aging school choice comes largely from her parents’ concern for their three children to receive the best pos­sible edu­cation available. At home, both of Syftestad’s parents taught her to think crit­i­cally and question infor­mation she was taught at school. Syftestad’s mother home­schooled her two brothers when it was appro­priate and moved all three children to a new public school dis­trict by finding a policy loophole. 

“We got what we needed and what we wanted because my mom knew what exists in the way of oppor­tunity,” Syftestad said. “My mom’s career has shown me the dif­ferent avenues you can take in edu­cation. She sac­ri­ficed a lot in order to pour into the edu­cation of myself and my brothers, and she taught me how to write.”

Through her parents’ ded­i­cation, Syftestad was pre­pared to succeed at Hillsdale both socially and aca­d­e­m­i­cally. Syftestad said she did not apply to any pub­licly-funded col­leges and chose Hillsdale because of its phi­losophy of edu­cation.  

“I didn’t think I could be more grateful to this school,” Syftestad said. “It’s an insti­tution run by humans, so it’s imperfect, but it pursues the good, and per­fection for higher ends, and it does a pretty good job.” 

Syftestad said she most enjoyed taking the­ology, pol­itics, and eco­nomic classes. As her faith and spir­itual well-being became more central to who she was, one of Syftestad’s favorite classes at Hillsdale includes The­ology of the Holy Spirit. Outside of this, Syftestad took four classes with pro­fessor of pol­itics Kevin Portteus, who she said mas­tered the art of teaching. 

Portteus recalls Cassidy always strived to be the most pre­pared person in the room and often met this goal. 

“When Cassidy arrived in my first class, she was a good student, but not a great student,” Portteus said in an email. “She made herself into a great student through sheer effort and max­i­mizing her potential. She devoted herself to fig­uring out how to be better, and then she did it.”

In the upcoming year, Syftestad said she will be applying for a four year Ph.D. program in edu­cation policy. The program will equip her to conduct studies that support school choice, translate studies into policy impli­ca­tions, model leg­is­lation, make rec­om­men­da­tions for fam­ilies, encourage parents to exercise school choice, dereg­ulate the classroom, and encourage more wholesome policies.