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.