Business School Grad Breaks Barriers in Local Politics

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

When Brandon Sakbun, a recent graduate of the master of public affairs (MPA) program at Indiana University (IU), was inaugurated as mayor of Terre Haute, Indiana in January, he made history.

As the 28-year-old son of Cambodian and Jamaican immigrants — the former of whom survived the Cambodian genocide — Sakbun, a Democrat, broke both age and race barriers when he became mayor, serving as the first person of color and the youngest person ever to hold the position.

Coinciding with his election and inauguration, Sakbun completed his online MPA at the Paul H. O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs in December 2023. He had enrolled in the program while serving as a captain in the U.S. Army in 2022 and used his time earning the degree to research some of the needs of the city he now leads.

“What the MPA program allowed me to do is work with professors and use academic research to look into cities like Terre Haute and see where we could go,” Sakbun said in a press release. “Conversations about how to proactively look at infrastructure, utilities, business development, race and gender equality all started in the MPA program.”

Prior to joining the military, Sakbun earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the IU Kelley School of Business in 2018. Though Sakbun’s MPA undoubtedly relates directly to his new role, he noted that having an understanding of business is a benefit for anyone holding public office.

“I firmly believe that as an elected official, one should have a background in business, accounting and finance,” he said in the release. “Ultimately, you are trying to invest and use taxpayer dollars to provide services to the people.”

Alongside the firsts that come with Sakbun’s election, he stood out by beating a four-term incumbent Republican for the position. His win even drew the attention of Vice President Kamala Harris, who called to congratulate him following his victory.

In an interview with The Recast, a newsletter run by Politico, Sakbun noted that his election was likely due to his commitment to improving economic development, public education, and social mobility.