Three years into his career as a firefighter, Jacob Watson says he still wakes up excited to go to work every day.
While many of his relatives pursued careers in law enforcement, Watson followed in the footsteps of his uncle, a former captain with the Winston-Salem Fire Department. He says firefighting has given him the chance to pursue his true passion: Tackling unique challenges in ways that serve his community.
Fulfilling a Lifelong Dream
After earning his bachelor’s degree in Emergency and Disaster Management from Western Carolina University, Watson sought more advanced educational opportunities. He decided to earn a Master of Public Administration (MPA) and quickly singled out the UNC School of Government’s nationally ranked program.1
“It has always been my dream to be a Tar Heel,” he says. “From the very beginning, UNC seemed to almost cater to me as an applicant. My application advisor helped me tremendously and remained in constant contact, and her support indirectly guided me on other applications as well. It was evident she wanted what was truly best for me, even if that meant UNC wasn’t involved.”
“It has always been my dream to be a Tar Heel. From the very beginning, UNC seemed to almost cater to me as an applicant.”
Like the majority of UNC MPA students, Watson qualified for a variety of scholarships awarded by the School of Government—which gave him the support he needed to continue his education. “I would not be able to attend without them,” he says.
From the Front Lines to the Classroom
Since Watson earned his bachelor’s degree online, he was already familiar with the benefits of online learning—especially for essential personnel with demanding, unorthodox schedules.
“I was able to get my undergraduate degree while working full time, which inspired me to continue with my master’s,” he says. “The classroom experience is almost better than in-person learning, in my opinion. As a firefighter, I work 24-hour shifts, so my schedule does not always allow me to be at home during scheduled class times—but every professor I’ve had has been more than understanding of my situation.”
He’s also developing critical leadership skills. While his job exposes him to real-life examples of leadership from those ranked higher than him—often on the scene of a live incident—he says his classes and coursework give him the chance to dive deeper.
“As a firefighter, I work 24-hour shifts, so my schedule does not always allow me to be at home during scheduled class times. Every professor I’ve had has been more than understanding of my situation.”
“The MPA program supplements my training at work with a more in-depth ‘why’ aspect of leadership. It helps you understand the reasoning behind leadership strategies and the outcomes of these strategies.”
Additionally, Watson values the professional and cultural diversity of his cohort; he is continually learning new things from his classmates.
“Many times, I have listened to a classmate’s ideas in a discussion and thought to myself, ‘I have never even considered that.’ These varying perspectives open your eyes, heart, and mind to ideas you would never hear without this collaborative effort. I truly learn something new every week of every class I take, and I attempt to take these lessons back into my work.”
A Future Built on Service
“I would recommend firefighters or anyone in emergency services to go back to school and complete an MPA program,” Watson says, citing the versatility of the degree.
“You can truly create the changes you want to see happen in your department or organization. I’ve gained knowledge about administrative processes, strengthened my leadership skills, and learned how to improve my organization in ways that will positively affect my community and its citizens.”
Watson has big plans for the future. In addition to rising within his current organization and furthering his emergency management experience, he’s also interested in teaching. Thanks to the online MPA program, it’s all within reach.
“Getting an MPA will really allow me to grow my career while serving my community.”