Public Service, Uninterrupted

June 03, 2014 by Adam Levenson

A new online program at UNC-Chapel Hill is making it possible for more students than ever to learn how to serve their communities, without having to leave them.

Just one year old, MPA@UNC has enrolled 70 students, half of them from North Carolina and half from 15 other states and the District of Columbia. It builds off of similar success from the UNC-Chapel Hill business school’s online program, called MBA@UNC.

For students like Emily Elders, the program means she can stay in her community and keep her job while building her skills.

Elders, director of the Western North Carolina Food Policy Council, knew that pursuing a Master of Public Administration was the logical next step in her career. Having the option of completing her degree online meant she could realize her goal.

“I have a good understanding of rural issues and how I want to impact them,” she said, “but I need to dig deeper in order to do that.”

She’s not alone.

“The School of Government has been training public service leaders for more than 80 years,” said School of Government Dean Mike Smith. “With the addition of this online MPA option, qualified students can choose a program that fits their life needs and their learning preferences, and we will expand our positive impact on communities across the state and the country.”

In January 2013, MPA@UNC welcomed its first students. There are currently 70 total students enrolled in six different groups, and that number is expected to double by the end of 2014.

Elders grew up in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Her father is a land development administrator for Jackson County and was previously a building inspector. Elders worked her way through college at Western Carolina University (WCU) as town clerk in Dillsboro and then project manager for the Jackson County Parks and Recreation Department. After graduation, she joined the Western North Carolina Food Policy Council. The council brings together food producers, policy leaders, food security agencies, and economic advocates to address policy needs for agricultural development and food insecurity in seven western counties of North Carolina.

“Having well-trained public administrators is especially important in the current public policy landscape,” said Joy Jackson, former MPA@UNC admissions director and Carolina MPA alumna. “The MPA program at UNC-Chapel Hill builds the capacity of public organizations by training students in best practices.”

Elders started the MPA program at Western Carolina University, but working and parenting full time while attending classes was challenging. Through her work with the food policy council, she met UNC-Chapel Hill faculty member and food insecurity expert Maureen Berner, who told her about MPA@UNC.

“I want to translate my basic idealism about changing the world into something both concrete and close to home,” Elders said. “MPA@UNC makes that possible.”

Another MPA@UNC student, Grant Whitley, stumbled into public service with a job at the Human Services Call Center in Everetts, part of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, where he is now lead supervisor. Whitley grew up on his family farm in Williamston, North Carolina; the farm, founded in 1742, is the oldest family business in the state.

The call center where Whitley works provides customer service for all food stamp recipients in North Carolina and works collaboratively with county Departments of Social Services to resolve problems that may prevent recipients from receiving their benefits in a timely manner. Whitley said, “I realized pretty quickly in the call center that I felt fulfilled by doing work that has an immediate positive impact on my community.”

Whitley’s ultimate goal is to work in local government, and he wants to stay in the Eastern part of the state where his family has a long history.

“When I started thinking about graduate school,” he said, “I talked to city and county managers and other local government officials. They all said the same thing: The MPA program at the School of Government is the program you want to attend.”

But he couldn’t leave work for two years to move to Chapel Hill. The solution was MPA@UNC, where he is gaining the skills he needs to direct his career while remaining in his current job and community.

MPA@UNC has the same curriculum as the program’s on-campus format. With courses ranging from management and leadership to public policy analysis and project evaluation, the program educates leaders for local, state, and federal governments and nonprofit organizations.

“I can’t think of a class I’ve taken where there wasn’t a high proportion of the material immediately relevant to my work as a public service manager,” Whitley said.

Both of these students live and work in rural areas of the state where there is a narrower range of career opportunities, and neither is able to leave their jobs to attend graduate school. MPA@UNC was created for public service professionals exactly like them.

“I am deeply grateful for this opportunity,” said Whitley. “The University was founded to serve all the people; this is another way it is reaching out and allowing those of us in remote areas of the state to be a part of the University.”

This article first appeared in the “UNC@Work” newsletter published by the University of North Carolina.