John Mark Wilson

Operations Officer

US Army

Why did you choose MPA@UNC?
I’m at the tail end of my military career, and I’m looking to make a transition in the near future to something in the civilian arena. But I still want to do public service. MPA@UNC presented the tremendous opportunity to receive a quality education while providing a nice bridging strategy to help me with that transition. It allowed me to pursue my goal of earning a degree while continuing to perform at a high level in my day-to-day duties, which is very important.

I was skeptical, when I first started looking at the program, about the online delivery. However, the synchronous online sessions that we do are very rich in terms of dialogue and delivery. I’m a believer now. I went to a residential graduate program, and I met twice per week with my classmates. This program is virtually the same experience. I feel that the delivery is quite rich, lots of really good discussion, and I’ve made friends with my fellow classmates as well. Three of them live in Fayetteville; we have lunch together every month. We call one another and talk about class. I’ve been very surprised by the relationships I’ve made.

How rigorous is MPA@UNC?
It’s rigorous, no doubt. When I read the syllabus closely, I could see it mirrored what the residential students get. If you’re aggressive in the pursuit of knowledge and relationships, it’s a very enriching experience.

How do you feel about your classmates?
Every single one of my classmates is rock solid; that’s the best way I can say it. They bring a degree of professional experience to the program, which I feel is one of the great benefits. Everyone has a couple of years of work experience at the very minimum. In my particular case, I have 20 years of experience. We also have very different backgrounds. My classmates are teachers, people who work in NGOs/nonprofits, and even quite a few military members like myself. It’s great to have that variety in terms of different perspectives and arguments—that’s part of the experience, and that’s what I love most about it.

How has MPA@UNC affected your career?
My writing has improved; there’s no doubt about that. All my supervisors know I’m in this program, and they’ve been very flexible with me—as have my professors. I have to carefully schedule each week because some nights I have an airborne operation that I have to participate in. I have to call my professors and let them know that I won’t be in class that day. They’ve been very understanding and have helped me work around it.

Why is a Master of Public Administration a good degree for military members?
I really wanted to make a difference in my career, so I chose joining the military. Most of my efforts have been overseas, so in the latter part of my professional career I’m looking to help local communities, and that’s what attracted me to an MPA degree. I don’t really know what I want to do when I get out of the military, but what I do know is that I want do something that’s impactful at the local level, because I feel that’s where the rubber meets the road. This program is tailored for that.

Whenever my teammates ask me for advice about the program, I always tell them that it’s doable. It takes a lot of planning, it takes a lot of late nights, but it’s doable. So that really goes back to the primary advantage of the program; it allows you to transition seamlessly into your next job, and that’s why I selected this program over some other options.

Have you found what you are learning to be useful?
The professional writing course made me realize that my writing wasn’t up to snuff, so that was very beneficial to me. I learned a lot about executive-level writing. I learned how to organize data, how to present data in a different way than I’m used to doing in my current job, so I really enjoyed that course.

Right now I’m taking a research and analysis class—it’s my favorite class. Looking at a problem and developing a research question and hypothesis and going through a very formalized process of how to answer—it’s a different experience for me. Nonetheless, it’s been quite interesting to kind of come to grips with some of those differences.

How important is it to come to class prepared?
It’s a graduate program. Classes are small and everyone is engaged; so no matter what, you will be called upon and expected to answer the question. It becomes apparent quickly if you’ve prepared or not. You have to have done the reading, you have to have gone through all the activities—it’s essential.

In the two terms that I’ve been doing this program, I’ve never seen anyone unprepared. Everyone is always extremely professional, and it’s been very rewarding.

How supportive are your peers and your classmates?
I’ve had a very positive experience with my classmates. There’s none of the cutthroat stuff, none of the competitiveness; everyone just wants to work hard and to achieve. It’s apparent if you listen to the discussions that everyone is working together. If you’re smart, you’ll listen to your classmates and you’ll hear their views. You’ll reap the rewards of that, particularly if it’s a different view than yours. It’s a great dynamic. I love them all. I wish they lived next door and we could hang out.

What is it like having class on the platform?
You’re sitting there with your professor and all the other students, and he or she will start asking questions. Fortunately, I haven’t seen any cases where anyone’s really been unprepared, because there’s nowhere to hide. You’re expected to participate. And it’s not just about answering a question with minimal depth; it’s about answering a question in a manner that’s appropriate for a graduate program. Synthesis and analysis—those sorts of higher-level understanding are required. It’s a demanding program. It’s very time-consuming, and if you do it correctly, you’re going to be tired at the end of the day from all the preparations.

What resources were you able to take advantage of to finance your education?
I’m using the Post-9/11 GI Bill® to fund my education. Post-9/11, as the current rules stand, will fund all your tuition for a public institution like UNC, and it’s a great benefit for military service men and women. The Veterans Services Office at UNC is helping me get all the paperwork together and making sure that I submit everything on time, because it is a long process to get the funds released. Being able to take advantage of the veterans services staff has been a tremendous benefit. They do a great job.