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Students Who Want to Make a Difference can Pursue an MPA

Whether people want to improve their communities or the nation as a whole, a Master’s in Public Administration (MPA) degree program may be able to provide them with the knowledge and skills they need to provoke change.

With an MPA, graduates can go on to work in multiple areas – something Margaret Henderson, the director of the Public Intersection Project at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill School of Government, understands. After all, Henderson not only teaches at the university and the online MPA@UNC program, but she also earned her MPA from this institution. Here is the advice she has to offer today’s students, as well as the types of opportunities that await graduates of MPA programs:

Q: What made you want to pursue an MPA? Did you have a specific career in mind?
A: I figured out early on that the public sector was the place for me … I found the work there to be a lot more compelling. I can’t get interested in making widgets or selling widgets – there’s got to be some kind of greater good at stake here. The first significant job I had in the public sector was working for the AFDC food stamps program in Texas, [which is] a federal program administered through the state, and from there I went to a community-based nonprofit. I really got jazzed working for the nonprofit, and I like working at the community level so I just knew I was in the right place. You get those personal indicators that things are as they should be. Then I moved out here to North Carolina. I’m here in the triangle and it’s a very educated population. I couldn’t do the same kind of work I did out in Texas without a master’s degree, so I started looking around for a master’s degree. [The UNC MPA] program – the strength is in teaching students how to navigate city, county and state government – and nonprofits do that. You can’t live in an isolated corner of the public sector – they’re all intertwined. So I learned a lot about the context for the whole environment that I would be doing my work [in] as a nonprofit director later on and it served me very well.

Q: What types of students are best-suited for an MPA program?
A: I think they’re students who get the concept of the public purpose. They want to work on something that’s bigger than themselves. It may be related to social change, or it may be something related to strengthening or diversifying the economic face of communities they care about. It may be about creating better opportunities or better services for the communities they care about. But by and large, they care about something bigger than themselves. And they probably have some very practical ideas in mind, or carefully defined arenas in which they hope to work, whether it’s economic development or housing or transportation or who knows … it’s a pretty broad field and the degree sets you up to work in a lot of different arenas.

… If you’re going to be working anywhere in city, county, state or federal governments, or in nonprofits – no matter what the issue is – the MPA will serve you. So think of it as an all-purpose administrative degree that will help you get the work done on any issue you care about.

Q: As a graduate of an MPA program, what advice do you have for prospective students?
A: If you learn how to run a good meeting, if you learn how to plan and implement a project working within a small group – those are process issues and are applicable to whatever you do. And people can underestimate that. I think particularly younger students are still figuring out who they are in the world and how successful they’re going to be. … I guess the older I get the more I learn it’s not what I can do necessarily, it’s how I can contribute to a group of us doing the work. That’s the most significant.

Q: Based on what you’ve seen, what types of careers do graduates tend to pursue the most?
A: They end up all over the public sector. They may be program administrators, regional coordinators, departmental directors or city and county managers. The program has also set people up well for political careers. In my class, I don’t think any two of us had the same job, even though at different times in our careers we would have worked at the same level doing the same kinds of things, but ended up doing them in very different places.

Q: How valuable is an MPA?
A: If they want to work in the public sector I think it’s extremely valuable. And if they’ve gotten to a place in their careers where they’ve hit a ceiling of some sort, this may be the degree that helps them rise above that ceiling. The online degree in particular … would be a good option for folks who are mid-career and don’t feel like they can take time off for the residential programs but want to move up.