Student Spotlight: Alex Dreussi

man smiling looking at the camera in front of window overlooking trees

In this episode of Confluence, we hear from Bertha Morton winner Alex Dreussi on his unexpected journey in law school, why he decided to pursue two degrees at once, and how corruption always stands the test of time.

Story Transcript

SARA RINFRET: Alex currently is in our joint degree. He’s getting a master’s in public administration and a juris doctorate. And so, I don’t think that’s an easy endeavor. So, he’s doing two degrees in three years, and I think his research skills, his writing skills, but also just his willingness to help the public is really notable and I think it's really aligned with what Bertha Morton herself embodied.  

ASHBY KINCH: You just heard the voice of Dr. Sara Rinfret, professor of public administration, talking about her student, Alex Dreussi, one of the Bertha Morton graduate student scholarship winners for 2021-22! Welcome to Confluence where great ideas flow together – the podcast of the graduate school of the University of Montana. I'm Ashby Kinch, associate dean of the graduate school. This episode of Confluence is part of a series recognizing the achievements of some of our outstanding graduate students. Named for a great Montanan who dedicated her life to public service, the Bertha Morton award was endowed to support graduate education by recognizing the distinctive contributions our graduate students make in research, creative activity, and public service. As a master’s student in the public administration program and a second-year law student, Alex exemplifies the traits we look for in our Bertha Morton scholars. He has excelled in research and writing, endeavors that ultimately led him to present a paper at the 2020 Pacific Northwest Political Science Association on statewide ethics codes in state, local, and tribal governments. We're proud to share his graduate journey with listeners. Enjoy the float!  

KINCH: Thank you for joining us, Alex. 

ALEX DREUSSI: Yeah. Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.  

KINCH: Well, first off, congratulations. Winning a Bertha Morton is a great honor for any graduate student. Tell us a little bit about the award itself for you. What does it mean and how did you connect to Bertha Morton when you were thinking about applying? 

DREUSSI: Sure. Well, I had been urged to apply by Dr. Rinfret. And when she reached out, I thought it sounded interesting. And, of course, I'll apply for all the scholarships, right? But, Bertha Morton meant a little bit more because, as I did the research about her it was just an intriguing sort of narrative. The idea that she never even attended the University of Montana, but she felt so passionately about studying here and scholarship that she would leave that money and bequeath that, sort of, so we can get the scholarship. The narrative of her being a lifelong Montanan too was really important to me. As a transplant from Ohio, it was really, felt like I’m sort of solidifying my Montana roots now. And so, I really appreciated that.  

KINCH: Well, tell us a little bit more about that. What's your Montana story? How'd you end up here?  

DREUSSI: Sure. So, I grew up in Ohio. I went to my undergraduate there at the College of Wooster and…  

KINCH: Another connection with Sara Rinfret.  

DREUSSI: Yeah. That's, she's also got Ohio roots, which we bonded over, which I think probably ultimately helped me sign up for the MPA program as well. But yeah, so I moved out West in 2009, I suppose. After I graduated, I followed a girl out and she's gone, but definitely the West remained. And once you see the mountains, you kind of never go back to cornfields.  

KINCH: Yeah. Yeah. And so then somewhere in that process, living out here, you decided, ahh it's time for graduate school. And what was your, you know, decision-making process about what to pursue here at UM? 

DREUSSI: Sure. Well, I moved out West and I had originally worked in national parks and restaurants, and then I ultimately became a tour guide. I worked a lot in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. I've worked up in Alaska and I had a spring off. And I don't do particularly well with time off it turns out. And so, I studied for the LSAT, took the LSAT, ran an ultra-marathon, got engaged, did way too much stuff, because that's what happens invariably when I've got free time and applying to law school felt like almost a lark. I didn't think I would get in that particular semester. My grades were coming in a little bit later on the standardized test, the LSAT. But ultimately, I got accepted and so suddenly here I am. The University of Montana going to law school.  

KINCH: Yeah. And so, and then along the way, kind of got, took an interest in the MPA program. So, tell us about how that evolved. 

DREUSSI: Sure. Well, my mother actually has her master’s in public administration as well. And so, it was always something that had been on my radar. And, it's also in the same building as the law school, which is really incredible. So, I had walked in one day to just chat about it with Dr. Rinfret and we discussed about Ohio, we talked about the importance of the program. It just really seemed like it complimented what I'm looking to do maybe with a law degree. And realistically, I was never going to come back after getting a J.D. to get a master's degree. And so, the ability to get them both at the same time just seemed too good to pass up. 

KINCH: So, you've been kind of taking coursework. You applied that first year to, into the MPA and you've been ta-, threading that coursework in as you go.  

DREUSSI: Yeah. And it's actually been pretty easy. They've got a very well, like, laid out plan. There's different ways to do it. You can do summer courses. I did some of those. You can do courses during the regular semester. So, it's usually just a couple extra credits.  

KINCH: And how has that been going? What have you been working on and how's it kind of influencing where you're headed after your degree?  

DREUSSI: Well, originally it had been just sort of extra classes and they're intriguing and it's also really nice to have something other than law to be honest. Public administration you get to be more expressive in your writing, you get to kind of get more in depth sometimes with the actual people, whereas in law it's so often just like black letter you're following cases. It's not quite as much fun as the public administration is. I ended up getting an extra boost then, I was chosen to be a research assistant and a teaching assistant this past semester, the fall of 2020. And so, that was when I really started to engage more with the program. I worked for three different professors, and Dr. Brewer was ultimately my mentor for the research that we did on the sort of state, local, and tribal ethics codes. 

KINCH: Yeah. So, talk a little bit more about that research because that's the kind of interesting, that's the interface, right? That's where the two degrees are kind of, you're thinking about the practical side of larger legal framework, larger legal structure, but here's how it looks in actual government applied practice. 

DREUSSI: Yeah. Because lawyers have their own code of ethics and we, I literally just finished an entire course on that, right. It's a semester-long course about ethics, but then on the public administration side too, there's the idea that lawyers aren't the only ones who need to be ethical, right. You need city, state, tribal employees to also remain ethical. And so, just the idea of looking at the sort of the length of them and what they addressed and all those things had not been done in Montana. And so, Dr. Brewer had been interested in it and I was lucky enough to get to assist him on that. 

KINCH: Yeah. And then you ended up with this research paper. Tell us a little bit more about the sort of research process and the, the kind of going through the publication process.  

DREUSSI: Sure. I mean, the first part of the research was just finding all the ethics codes. And so, I spent hours upon hours just sort of combing through all the different websites. They're not all in the same place. They're not named the same things. So, we first had to just source out all of those. We found as many as we could from state level all the way down to sort of county police departments to tribal ethics codes for judges and everything in between. And just over the span of decades they've been written. And so, it's interesting to see sort of what they address like some of them will talk about social media, whereas other ones were written in the eighties. And so, they're obviously not talking about Facebook.  

KINCH: Yeah. So clear need for some updates there.  

DREUSSI: It's interesting. Well, because realistically you can probably just tack something on, but the idea of not being corrupt is, you know, stands up pretty well to the test of time decades later. 

KINCH: Universal, whether it is written on parchment or on social media.  

DREUSSI: Precisely. 

KINCH: Corruption’s corruption.  

DREUSSI: I mean, you could distill them all down to don't do bad things, right? But it turns out it's not quite as simple as that.  

KINCH: Yeah. So, obviously graduate student life is so dominated by the relationship you form with a mentor or an advisor. Tell us a little bit more about the advisors and mentors you've found in the MPA program. 

DREUSSI: Yeah, I've been really lucky because it feels like pretty much every professor I come across is willing to be a mentor. Two definitely stand out. Dr. Rinfret has literally been there every time I need her. I send her an email, I go and knock on her door, I stop by and she's always been incredibly helpful. I don't think I could be in the program without her to be quite honest. Dr. Brewer working with me on all the research was incredibly helpful just in essentially, he took me from a law student working part-time with him into actually being able to do all this research and ultimately presenting that paper at the symposium, which was really interesting. 

KINCH: Yeah. So, tell us a little bit more about your sort of, you know, trajectory for the future. You're going to complete these two degrees next year and, you know, what's next for you? 

DREUSSI: Well, hopefully after that is getting a job. I think that the MPA has always been more of a long-term goal for me. It's sort of banking on my future. I think that in the short term, I'll probably take whatever job will be able to keep me in Missoula. But I like the idea that because the Master of Public Administration applies to sort of governmental organizations, but also non-profit organizations. It's got such – there's an ability to take it and move forward with things that would actually be a passion of mine rather than just a way to sort of keep money in the bank. And so, I really treasure the idea that MPA will someday help me do something I actually want to do rather than just sort of paying off my loans. 

KINCH: Thank you for joining us, Alex. 

DREUSSI: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for having me. 

KINCH: If you enjoyed this episode of Confluence, subscribe to our podcast feed at Apple, Google, Spotify, or Stitcher. Make sure to rate and review to support our enterprise of bringing you the voices of graduate education at the University of Montana! See you on the next float.