Nine years ago, I completed my Bachelor’s Degree at Baker University and decided I would pursue the Masters of Public Administration program at the University of Kansas. At the time, I was working in the non-profit sector and felt the business themes, combined with the government and non-profit specifics would be a fantastic fit for my interests and future. Following two semesters of classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center to quench my taste for the medical connection, I ultimately completed the application process and was accepted to the MPA program.
I looked forward to the two-year program and to learning about public service, leadership, perseverance, strength and more. Today, as I complete my final class in the MPA program, over seven years later, I’ve indeed grown and learned a tremendous amount, through both the academic exposure and through my life and career experiences during that time. There have been semesters I didn’t think I’d graduate or ever complete the program requirements, but I have and I am convinced the MPA program has made a difference in my ability to succeed.
The Mission of Public Service
As I mentioned, at the on-set of the program, I was working in the non-profit sector, at the Kansas City Free Health Clinic. I was not married then, and was able to dedicate all of my time to work and school. I felt a huge sense of pride in the work we were doing at the Clinic. As the second-oldest free clinic in North America, the history is impressive and the patient’s stories are nearly unbelievable. The Clinic was my first exposure to the idea of public service; the idea that working toward a mission meant more than the bottom line in the financial statement. Although my Clinic experience was indeed eye-opening to the world of nonprofits, I came into it with the knowledge that when I looked at those working in and dedicated to the public and nonprofit sectors, I want to see them “doing the right thing”, acting in the best interests of the public they serve.
Even then, I believed being a public servant meant following a moral compass that helps you to decide what is right and what is not. Is this true of leaders in the private sector too? Of course, but my opinions were confirmed as the beliefs of many outside the private sector as I attended the Human Resources Management course within the program. It appeared the stakes felt a bit higher, the passion was a bit easier to see and taste, the mission was on the surface. In the class, the idea of equity and fairness was in our conversation. We also dove into the concepts of pay for performance vs. pay for seniority or level. Coming from a background in the private sector prior to my work at the Clinic, these conversations in the classroom always made me think and question the best approach and the fairest approach for the employee.
We spent time in the class on the topic of motivation. Thinking back today, I am utilizing that conversation frequently in my role. As I lead my team, I must remember motivation is unique to each employee – what works for some will not work for everyone. I am in the private sector again currently and, although there is a sense of mission, it is different and perhaps less passionate than I witnessed at the Clinic and in my classes. As I’ve completed classes in the MPA program, I’ve been able to interact with multiple public servants. This expansion of my network and the lessons learned have been a helpful reminder for me of the reason people go into public service.
As I listen to stories about their day-to-day experiences, I hear of the commitment to the constituents and the commitment to the mission of their organization. I hear of the pleasure they receive in knowing they’ve succeeded in their public service mission. This drive to support the mission has never left me and as I attend class in the MPA program, it’s only been strengthened. As I use many of the tools I’ve learned in the program with my team, I strive to create this drive and passion for their work within them as well. The public servant’s heart and mission is alive and well in the MPA program at KU and it is an inspiration.
One of the most enjoyable classes I completed in the MPA program was a leadership elective. It lasted just a week at the Kansas Union, but in that week, allowed the students to become immersed in what public leadership is all about. The ideas of servant leadership, emotional intelligence and perseverance are all concepts we discovered in that course that stay with me today as I lead a team of professionals and constantly question the most effective approach to leadership One book I reviewed tied to these concepts and certainly one I reference today is The Servant Leader by Ken Blanchard. Like many leaders in public service, it takes a values and morals-based approach to planning, training and coaching.
The approach lends itself to improved attention on the employee for their development and support. This makes sense in the public sector given the frequent resource challenges and the idea the employees will need to make up what the budget does not allow with the public servants heart. Emotional intelligence is another concept I was first introduced to in the program. I have valued this information as I interact with a variety of people in the program and in my professional setting. Emotional intelligence is a tool that truly allows for meaningful and impactful interaction. It makes all of us better and helps us achieve more through the realization that we are all unique and see reality through our own individual lens.
I see such value in the concept, that I utilize EQ tools with my team to allow us to better apply the concept and make the best use of our strengths and opportunities. One of my favorite quotes on leadership, which I came across during the program, is by Peter F. Drucker. He said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” I believe when I began the MPA program, I truly did not understand the difference between management and leadership and, although I’ve always enjoyed this quote, I didn’t grasp the meaning until I had exposure to the leaders and professors in the program. As I reflect on the professors I’ve had over these many years, they too are leaders.
They have had the ability to help me understand topics I may not have otherwise and gain an appreciation for the importance of each in the world of public service. In my professional position today, I frequently use much of what I’ve learned about leadership in the program to support the leaders I interact with and to teach others how to grow from managers to leaders. Leadership is about doing the right things and my experiences in the program have provided a top-notch example of how that shows up in the public sector.
An additional aspect of the MPA program I’ve very much enjoyed is the exposure I’ve had to local leaders through the PUAD 831 credit opportunities. Only a program like KU’s MPA would allow me to have the former Mayor of Kansas City as my professor or place me in the audience of twenty to listen to a panel with the Mayor of Leawood and Overland Park as they discuss very candidly their life experiences – where they’ve been and how they are effective as leaders.
As Mayor Peggy Dunn of Leawood was asked how she approaches a situation where she has a conflict between what her constituency wants and what her values and morals call for, she responded that she must be able to sleep at night. She shared her approach to making decisions was always a balance between understanding the needs of the stakeholders and the research and history. She did not always have the right answers, but she surrounded herself with smart people and listened to her gut instinct. This type of advice sticks with me today and I value the lessons learned from the successful leaders I’ve been exposed to.
Perseverance is defined as “steady persistence in a course of action, a purpose, a state, etc., especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement.” (Webster’s) As I think about the challenges that exist in public service, I think of budget constraints, various stakeholders with widespread and differing interests, and politics. The public servant must overcome these obstacles and others to be successful in their day-to-day work. They must support the mission of their employer and do all they can to be the best public servant they can, sometimes without the accolades and other resources they deserve. My knowledge of the budget and planning process increased exponentially in the Finance and Budgets courses.
The long-term perspective on planning, developing contingency plans and involving the stakeholders for approval was eye-opening. As we discovered the many facets of preparing and receiving approval for a budget, we also spoke about implementation of that budget. Coming into the courses, I would have expected the process of developing it to be the tough piece; however I would have been incorrect. The implementation of the budget, even with the stakeholders on board can take many twists and turns and the classes within the program shared with us what those may look like (environmental factors, change in administration or policy, etc…) and how we might anticipate and prepare for them. This process certainly requires perseverance. Personally, as I reflect on my journey through the years I’ve spent in the MPA program, I too have had to learn perseverance.
As I mentioned, when I began the program I was single, working full time and very much devoted to my work and the new Master’s program I was excited to dive into. Through the years, I have gotten married, changed jobs multiple times, moved three times, had two children and seen my husband get laid off as a result of the downturn in the economy. Through each of these obstacles, I had to make a choice between leaving the program or sticking with it and succeeding. There were many times I didn’t expect I would ever complete the program. There were times I had to take a break to have each of my daughters or support my maternity leave.
There are still times when I wonder how I’ll ever pay off the student loans I have taken out over the years. Through it all, though, I’ve seen the professor’s support and heard the voices of the leaders I’ve met. I have seen them persevere and they have inspired me to do the same. The girl that started the MPA program years ago is far from the same person I am today. That girl would have been terrified to save the MPA statistics class for her final semester. Today, I’m left with three classroom sessions in PUAD 836 and a good grade – that’s perseverance (and a very patient professor)! Today’s challenges are met with a determination to do whatever it takes to succeed, with the knowledge it will not always be easy, but it will always be worth it. In that way, I feel very much like the public servants I have the privilege to meet in my classes.
Growth and Strength
Public servants take many forms and all require strength to be a success. Perhaps none require more strength in the face of a challenge than the leader of our country. Coming out of this most recent election, it’s been such a wonderful experience to participate in classes specific to public service and have conversations about what the looks like at the Federal level. Regardless of one’s political persuasion, the conversations that have come out of looking at the election process, the strength needed in the candidates and even the statistics of the many polls in the news have been eye-opening.
Even though I am in the MPA program, I believe those conversations and experiences would be beneficial for all Americans. Having exposure to the public sector at the Federal, State and Local levels has also been a very empowering experience in the MPA program. I’ve been in classes with long-time employees of the TSA, police and fire, local and state offices and non-profits. The experiences shared by all of my peers have been instrumental in improving my understanding of how government works and where I might like to play a role. It is because of my experiences in the MPA program that my career goal has changed to be more public sector-focused.
It has been over seven years since the start of my MPA program. During that time, I’ve worked in the non-profit sector and have spent most of my time in the private sector. I’ve seen tremendous growth in my interest in public service and in leadership. As I look ahead to where I’ll be coming out of the program, I have a genuine interest in spending the remainder of my career in public service. I’ve recently applied for a position in the public sector to ensure I don’t lose sight of the impact this work can make. Personally, the impact of the MPA program has been overwhelming to think through. I’ve grown in my professional approach and my leadership skills. I have started and grown a family and now, have nearly completed my Master’s degree.
I feel such pride in knowing that I have developed, through the course of the program, the leadership, perseverance and strength to succeed. I’ve frequently utilized the concepts and lessons learned in the program to support my team and my own development goals. I’ve shared details on statistical significance and emotional intelligence, case law and budgetary constraints, and the list goes on and on. Each day, I am faced with challenges and opportunities that allow me to use the knowledge I’ve gained in the program to help with a decision or perspective.
I would like to thank the faculty and staff of the Masters of Public Administration program for allowing me to spend the last seven years in a program that truly deserves the incredible rankings and acknowledgement it receives. I am so proud to become a graduate of the program and will tell anyone I connect with about my positive experience. During the program, I have had exposure to amazing people both from KU and in my peers in the class. I’ve developed mentorships and friendships that will continue for years. I’ve gained experience and knowledge that will last a lifetime.