Heller Profiles

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

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Tom Sannicandro


PhD student

Support: An important ingredient for success

As a policy maker and a parent, Tom Sannicandro finds inspiration in Heller's achievements in disability policy

The two things you don’t want to see being made, the old adage goes, are sausage and legislation. Tom Sannicandro has seen them both. A Framingham, Massachusetts native, Sannicandro worked alongside his father in the family’s Italian market, as his dad made sausage and butchered meat. Enough so that at sixteen, he started to explore other vocational areas and the rest of his life proved an incredible journey to obtain knowledge, acquire graduate degrees and experience along the way.

Sannicandro, a state legislator as well as an attorney practicing corporate law (with a master’s in public administration), had a defining experience when his first child was born with Down syndrome. During twenty years as a successful corporate lawyer, his avocation included strong participation in parent groups which eventually led him to run for the school committee, all with his son’s best welfare motivating his involvement. This even affected his law practice as his interests strayed from corporate to disability law. An outsider to politics, not even identifying with a political party before running, Sannicandro in 2004 ran a successful write-in campaign for the Massachusetts State Legislature. During his tenure he has used his newly acquired knowledge of the political process to educate others and press for change, first through the formation of a legislative disability caucus and currently by sponsoring pioneering legislation that would allow people to self-direct funds for their own services, thereby reframing the age-old approach of having state and private agencies make those determinations.

So after so many career and public service incarnations, how did Sannicandro end up at the Heller School? Heller’s deep bench in disability policy was one motivator. And Sannicandro has memories, as a young parent, of coming to hear the late Gunnar and Rosemary Dybwad speak at the Heller School. This was back in the days when these two pillars of human rights and unique leaders in disability law and policy were also beacons for parents who were searching for answers for their children in the maze of what was and was not available. 

And when Sannicandro came back to the Heller School to interview to see if the Heller doctoral program was a place he would like to pursue his studies, he says, “I had long policy discussions with Professors Susan Parish, Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, and Marji Erickson-Warfield,” all Institute and Center Directors. Sannicandro observed that the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy, the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy and the Starr Center for Intellectual Disabilities all formed an important triangle of learning. “These are the people who write the articles I read on topics that interest me,” he says.    

But at the heart of his Heller experience thus far is his cohort of students in the doctoral program. Aside from learning a tremendous amount about research and being a researcher, he says, “the rest of the students are a gifted group and I thoroughly enjoy being around them.” Also a surprise is how much Sannicandro enjoys interacting with the younger students in the master’s of public policy program as well. “But the real gift of being at a university that is student centered is the amount of support to succeed that is available,” he says. Sannicandro sees that element as vital whether it's support for those with intellectual disabilities, or support for graduate students. And the Heller School and the Kennedy School at Harvard, where he received his master’s in public administration, he says, both have those attributes. This has piqued his interest in higher education, especially institutions that can deliver that support to students to help them succeed.

At the State House, Sannicandro chairs the Higher Education Committee. And higher education is a strong future career interest for him. But, as a first year doctoral student, Sannicandro says, “I am focusing less on my next career iteration and more on developing a dissertation topic, which could be researching the effect that self-directed budgets for people with intellectual disabilities have on well-being.”

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