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Sixteen. As high school juniors get behind the wheel and taste freedom for the first time, a boy in rural Indiana was finally liberated in a different sense: from years of abuse in the foster care system.

“My first bout with public administration was being able to convince the state of Indiana that the foster care system was doing more harm than good,” Mat Bunch (MPA ’22) said, a graduate student in the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government. “I was set up to be in an independent living program where I had my own house junior year of high school. I’ve been raising myself since.”

A person smiles while wearing doctoral regalia
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill holds Winter Commencement on December 11, 2022, on campus at the Dean E. Smith Center. Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz presided over the graduation ceremony. Daniel Wallace, the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English at UNC which is also his alma mater, delivered the commencement address.
In this image, Mat Bunch, who received a master’s degree in public administration, gets ready with help from his family prior to the ceremony.
(Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Bunch graduates with an MPA this December. Despite the many achievements Bunch has accumulated – from class president in high school to publishing a memoir during graduate school – his life’s trajectory was anything but normal, let alone anything a child should have to face. 

At the age of six, Bunch became a foster child in the Indiana state system. For six more years, he lived under the roof of an abusive guardian.  

“For that woman, I was a $2,400-a-month check,” Bunch said. 

He recalled wearing makeup to go to school in order to cover his guardian’s blows and would miss school altogether if his physical marks revealed too much. As young as eight years old, he pleaded for help at school. It took four times for anyone to listen. 

“Every time I would get the courage to try and get out of the situation, the public school system didn’t believe me,” he said. “The investigator would come, she’d take pictures, and I would be put back into that abusive home that very day.” 

Merely being believed wasn’t enough. As soon as the state removed Bunch from the abusive household, amid teenage years of personal discovery among the LGBTQ community, he was placed in a foster home that seemed all but perfect – until he received an ultimatum: to be straight or return to the orphanage. He chose the latter. 

“That’s a very young age to say ‘I would rather go to the orphanage and be faced with that than pretend to be somebody I’m not in this foster family,’” Bunch said. Their love, or lack thereof, was conditional.  

Once the state of Indiana granted Bunch permission to leave the foster care system, he got his grounding. He went on to attend college at Indiana University where he graduated from the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. From there, Bunch knew he wanted to contribute to the public service sector in some way.  

“Being discriminated against was probably the biggest propeller because I wanted to be an advocate for others in any type of way,” Bunch said.  

While he always envisioned post-graduate life in law school, a job opportunity at the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) altered his path. For four and a half years, Bunch wrote grid Reliability Standards to ensure a sustainable and secure bulk-power system from the U.S. and Canada to part of Mexico.  

Bunch has since shifted to a job in the private sector where he is responsible for North American energy compliance.  

“I was in the public sector for a while,” Bunch said. “But having this degree and taking these classes, I was able to take public sector values – leadership development, organizational theory and work with leadership to influence the compliance culture,” Bunch said.  

Following commencement, Bunch plans to continue his work in energy policy.  

“While at Carolina, I built community among colleagues and friends,” he said. “This has made all the difference.” 

— Kate Slate 

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