Many people discover their calling through trial and error in college. Tiffany Oliva discovered hers as a child, through seeing inequity up close, in her family.
From a young age, Oliva was exposed to several government-assistance programs, such as SNAP/EBT and food pantries and other public services. She grew up in a single-parent household, and her mother was diagnosed with a chronic disease that left her with fewer work opportunities. Oliva grew up grateful for the services that helped support her mother and her family, but it also spurred her interest in seeking out ways to improve access to these services across communities.
These experiences fueled her desire to serve in local government, and to champion the values of a strong local government and what it could do for at-risk communities.
Oliva graduated with a BA in Public Policy from UNC in 2018. She joined the city of Winston-Salem, which faced some of the highest rates of food insecurity in the country, and was tasked with supporting the development and implementation of services to address the issue. The pandemic, however, made the need for resources and information even more urgent. She did incredible work, helping to create an English and Spanish resource map, establishing meal sites at recreational centers and COVID-19 testing sites, and making urban agriculture more accessible to those in need.
In March 2021, she was asked to serve as the city’s ARPA coordinator. She is currently working with 15 city departments in developing a robust strategy to address key public social and economic issues, and close gaps, within her community.
“I want to continue my career in local government to help families like mine who, despite their hard work, too often find themselves in extraordinarily challenging circumstances,” she said. “I believe in the power of city government to build strong communities where people from all walks of life can thrive.”
An MPA Tailored to Working Professionals
Oliva decided not to go to graduate school immediately after completing her bachelor’s program. She instead immersed herself in her work and career, continuing to hone her focus. After talking to program alumni, in August 2020, she enrolled in the online MPA program.
“I think the two years between undergrad and graduate school confirmed my desire to pursue an MPA. It also helped me to determine why the MPA was a better fit for me than an MPP or an MPH. The MPA offered me the opportunity to build on my undergraduate policy knowledge,” she said. “Knowing my focus (in local government), it was hard NOT to choose the School of Government. The MPA’s dedication to build public service–oriented and transformational leaders also strongly aligned with my values. I’m surely biased, but I don’t believe I could get that same education anywhere else and in any other program.”
UNC’s online MPA program offers an extensive network and academic advisors who can answer your questions. “I also felt really supported in my decision after speaking with other MPA alumni like Ed Kitchen (the former city manager of Greensboro) and Regina Ford Hall (executive director of the Boston Thurmond Community Network),” she said. “I knew just how many strong, impactful public service leaders the SOG produces, but also how much local governments, in general, rely on the knowledge and expertise of its faculty.”
Going online offered Oliva many benefits, too.
“I am so thankful that the UNC School of Government has an online option for the MPA. As a first-generation college student and someone who grew up in a low-income family, I was worried about not being able to work while I studied, to pay for my graduate studies.”
As she began the program, she continued her work with the city of Winston-Salem, putting into practice the newfound knowledge and theories taught in the classroom.
“Public administration was the right path for me,” she said, “because it provides you with the tools you need to be a public administrator—from managing budgets to people, and applying
for grants to innovating on performance management.”
Opportunities Designed for Personal and Professional Growth
“There are a lot of opportunities in local government, and I hope more young people, like myself, will explore local government as a career.”
In a recent Research and Design course, Oliva explored the impact of local government’s race and ethnicity on their respective local government’s public. It’s important to have accurate representation, she said, “especially with the growth of the Hispanic/Latinx community. There have not been many Hispanic/Latinx city or county managers, or just in leadership in general. I am looking forward to breaking that mold.”
UNC’s School of Government offers countless opportunities for students to go further and lead in their own way. Oliva has had the opportunity to participate in the NASPAA-Batten Global Simulation Competition, where she and her teammates had to react to a simulated pandemic, competing against 400 other students from 120 universities and 30 countries. Her team was first runner-up.
Oliva was also selected for the Engaging Local Government Leaders and Government Finance Officers Association’s prestigious Popular Annual Financial Report (PAFR) fellowship. Through the fellowship, she partnered with the city of Trenton, Ohio, and worked with the city manager for more hands-on financial experience.
While the School of Government enabled Oliva to pursue these and many other outside experiences, it has also created many opportunities inside the online classroom.
“For example,” she said, “in my Human Resources Management course, we are required to participate in a mock interview with an alumna of the program. I think the mock interview serves two purposes: to prepare yourself for the job search, but also to connect you with alumni of the program. … My recent interviewer is a city manager in Maine, and it was so great to hear about her work and share about mine through the mock interview process. I am looking forward to staying connected.”
MPA@UNC: “Just Go for It”
When asked what advice she would give to prospective students, Oliva said,“My advice is to just go for it.”
Her experience talking to past students is what ultimately helped her decide on UNC for public administration. As far as being online versus in person, she stresses that you can truly define how connected you want to be, because the School of Government “really facilitates a strong opportunity for connection in so many different formats.”
“Being online gives me a great deal of flexibility, access to the same world-class faculty, and also allows me to continue to work full time while building that practical and theoretical framework for my future.”
Oliva will graduate in 2022. Her diverse perspective and dedication to the community are sure to make this world a better place.
“I don’t know what the road has ahead for me in local government,” she said, “but I feel fortunate to have found my calling early in life.”