Jennifer Barnhill is using her experiences with the online Master of Public Administration at UNC to create a new pathway for military families with special education needs—and leaders at all levels are taking notice.
After 15 years of relocations, deployments, and dealing with military bureaucracy, Barnhill took solace and found great camaraderie in her military spouse support group but couldn’t shake the idea that it wasn’t checking all the boxes.
“The purpose of the organization was to support us while our spouses were deployed or working,” Barnhill said. “But I realized this structure built around us no longer supported the needs of our military families. We could fix a problem at the local level, but the systemic issues still existed.”
Turning an Idea into Action
Barnhill had the passion and the motivation but knew she needed further education to tackle such a looming challenge.
She explained that while there were programs and groups in place to support military families, they were based on an outdated definition of who a military spouse is, often thinking of them as stay-at-home wives, not the career-driven men and women they are.
“There are a lot of volunteer expectations that fall on military spouses,” she said. “This structure sets us up for failure. I began asking how a nonprofit organization could address these challenges.”
At first, Barnhill was unsure if her military lifestyle could sustain a master’s program—during her husband’s time in the military, the family had moved to Japan not once but twice—so she pursued a certificate program as a testing ground.
Upon completing the certificate, Barnhill decided to pursue an MPA to improve systems that were not serving military families to the fullest. She chose UNC’s online MPA program because of its high rankings as well as the ability to be completed from anywhere in the world.
Barnhill was impressed that the online MPA admissions team took the time to understand her skills and background. This is crucial for military spouses, whose résumés may look different than other applicants.
“Military spouses are extremely capable, but our lifestyle makes it difficult to seize career opportunities,” she said. “We have a unique ability to pivot quickly based on our circumstances, and this skillset is transferable to professional life.”
Research That Makes a Difference
As she started the program in January 2020, Barnhill had a discussion with the executive director of Partners in PROMISE (Protecting the Rights of Military Children in Special Education), and something clicked.
“I could tell she was working hard to help military-dependent kids in the special education system,” Barnhill said, “but the organization had no structure, even though they had a lot of traction in Capitol Hill.”
Barnhill offered to help the newly formed organization. Using the skills she learned in the classroom, —specifically in the Nonprofit Management course—she helped refine their 501c3 application and business plan. The real work, however, came as Barnhill began the Public Administration Analysis and Evaluation II course. Her research topic aligned with her Partners in PROMISE work, asking why military-affiliated special education students do or do not pursue legal solutions in disputes with services or possible violations.
“We wanted to know whether the transient military lifestyle was affecting their ability to access the legal system,” Barnhill said.
She frequently met with her PUBA 720 professor, Dr. Chris Cody, to share her survey instrument and seek guidance on collecting data that would later be shared with military leadership.
“Dr. Cody always made himself available to answer questions in class or during office hours,” she said. “His assistance helped me feel confident and trust our findings—especially since the data we collected would be presented in front of a congressional caucus.”
In fact, many of the recommendations in Partners in PROMISE’s survey became law, and the White House cited information from the survey website in their own reports.
“Dr. Cody is still helping me, reviewing this year’s findings, and giving me advice as I seek to continue my research after graduation,” Barnhill said.
Today, Barnhill serves as the chief operating officer for Partners in PROMISE, and her dedication to helping military families remains. However, her passion has expanded to include mental health and special education services within the military, in the hope of removing stigmas and elevating voices to fix systemic problems.
“My MPA@UNC experience taught me that if something works well in local government, it may translate to the state or federal level—this is also true with the military’s ability to implement new programs and change regulations,” Barnhill said. “If we can use that ability to remove hurdles for military families, we could also do that within the larger population.”
Barnhill added that she is grateful for the level of attention and understanding UNC offered every step of the way.
“They truly understood the challenges of military life,” she said. “Military families make many sacrifices, and we’re starting to bridge that divide.”
In addition to her work for Partners in PROMISE, Barnhill has published articles about military spouse life, is writing a book about military spouse volunteerism, and hosts a podcast, Disrupting Storytelling with Military Changemakers, seeking to combat military stigmas.