Rhode Island state Representative Deb Ruggiero never thought that a simple lunch meeting would become a seminal moment in her career. On a summer day in 2019 she met fellow public servant Joe O’Brien, former mayor of Worcester, at an outdoor café in Jamestown, RI. O’Brien wanted to talk to her about a new master’s program developed by Clark University, which he was directing. His advocacy convinced her to enroll in the new program. The rest, as they say, is history.
For more than 30 years, the Master of Public Administration program offered by Clark’s School of Professional Studies(SPS) has been regarded highly, offering experience for those wishing to drive change in the public sector and nonprofit arenas, and meeting the rigorous academic standards of the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA). Geared toward working professionals with a flexible program of part- or full-time study, and faculty who bring vast experience in the public sector, the MPA program gives students the option of study in specialized areas like nonprofit management, public administration leadership, educational leadership, or health care administration.
After graduating from Clark with a double major in sociology and psychology, Carly Massino received her MPA through the university’s Accelerated Degree Program. She chose the MPA program because of the breadth of its courses and the faculty.
“I wanted to become involved in addressing social inequities, and an MPA struck me as a way to accomplish this,” she says. “I became involved in nonprofit work and believed that the MPA program would equip me with the tools and skills I would need to succeed and make a difference. Taking classes on policy analysis, grant writing, global migration, or public health gives you foundational knowledge on specific areas of expertise.”
As part of her degree program, Massino secured an internship with SPS’ new Master of Public Administration Senior Leadership (MPA-SL) program, working on recruiting and marketing for the program and the master class events it held. “I began my MPA-SL internship in the summer of 2020 because I could gain experience in higher education and expand my skills,” she says.
As new programs and policies have emerged in the municipal sector, making it imperative for municipal leaders to stay well-informed, SPS administrators realized there was an opportunity to form a new, truly unique, leadership MPA degree program. Launched in the fall of 2019, the MPA-SL program is designed for middle career professionals in municipal, state, and federal employment, as well as the nonprofit sector.
“The MPA-SL differs from the traditional MPA in that it is cohort-based and, at that time, was the only completely online offering in SPS,” says Mary Piecewicz, associate dean of SPS. “The program offers not only academic rigor and excellence but also professional development for tomorrow’s leaders, along with the ability to work and learn from peers with a similar career background. It is an excellent opportunity for growing and nurturing the student’s personal network,” she continues.
A.J. Pottle, deputy city clerk for the City of Worcester, is a member of the inaugural MPA-SL cohort, and graduated this year. He chose the program because of the people involved in its development, like Piecewicz and O’Brien. “They really understand the professional balance a lot of people in the public administration field need in order to complete a degree while still working full time,” says Pottle.
In addition to serving in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, Ruggiero has a successful broadcast and sales management career, all of which prevented her from pursuing a master’s degree. She was attracted to the MPA-SL because of its flexibility, real-world applications, and the network of colleagues she would gain — and it didn’t take much for O’Brien to persuade her to enroll.
“The value of this program is that you get a set of ‘real world’ tools you can immediately apply to your job to become a more effective and influential public administrator,” she says. “Best of all, you now have a network of policy professionals and administrators to lean on.”
Fellow inaugural cohort member Effy Larkin, principal staff assistant for the City of Worcester’s Labor Relations Division, realized that she needed an advanced degree to continue in an upward career trajectory. The city has a partnership with Clark, and she was encouraged to research the MPA program.
Larkin found that the MPA-SL program was a unique opportunity to learn with peers. “The cohort design was extremely beneficial and thought-provoking. My class, and the second cohort that was introduced later, all had experiences that represented many different types of governmental agencies and nonprofits,” she says. “All the different professional perspectives were beneficial to the learning environment.”
Robert Spellane, the MPA-SL program’s current executive director, says two things set the Clark program apart from others. “First, we provide two different levels of curriculum — class instruction and residency sessions — which give us an added flexibility,” he says. “We’ve been able to do sessions centered around emergency preparedness and the opioid problem throughout New England, discussing how we handle the problem from a treatment standpoint and a public safety lens.”
The second strength comes from the types of students coming into the program. “We want those with unique experiences,” says Spellane. The varied backgrounds of the students round out the solid educational background of the program.
For Robyn Kennedy, associate executive director of mission, programs and community Impact at YWCA Central Massachusetts, the greatest strength of the program was the cohort model. “It was a great opportunity to network with and learn from my peers. From enhancing my skills in budgeting to improving my negotiating skills, the curriculum has been invaluable.”
Even though all but one of the in-person residency sessions were canceled due to the pandemic, Clark was still able to provide solid learning experiences for the students. “The University does an incredible job not just listening to the students but responding to what the students want and need,” says Spellane. This included presenting classes synchronously so that students would be able to have live discussions beyond just the assigned work.
“We have leaders in place who are nimble and will respond quickly to what we’re hearing. We asked professors to go the extra mile, allowing the students to get together to have more personal interaction over Zoom,” he says. “We delivered relevant content; it was just delivered virtually.”
“The MPA program directors were always extremely supportive and helpful with guiding us on our capstones and course work,” says Larkin. “They made efforts to check in with students, which I really appreciated. It made me feel respected because the faculty acknowledged that the students were also professionals who were all dealing with competing responsibilities.”
Another singular component of the program is its focus on the capstone course. “The capstone is unique because the students focus on an issue or problem in their own workplace and have two semesters to develop a solution,” says Piecewicz.
For Ruggiero, this meant framing game-changing legislation for her state. Rhode Island is one of only two states in the country without a broadband coordinator or specific state entity to access and leverage federal funds for infrastructure and technology.
“As a result of my capstone research, I wrote and sponsored legislation that created a broadband coordinator in commerce for Rhode Island, as well as a voluntary Broadband Advisory Council,” she says. “My bill passed unanimously in the House of Representatives, and as of this writing, I’m hopeful it will be signed into law by the Governor.”
This kind of valuable, tangible outcome is not uncommon for program graduates. “This has been reflected in some career advancements we’ve already seen — increases in responsibility, enhanced roles, and stronger leadership positions within their organizations,” says Spellane.
The inaugural MPA-SL graduates are Che Anderson, Nate Boudreau, Elyssa Clairmont, Dan Donahue, Kennedy, Larkin, Laura Maloney, Laura Paladino, Pottle, Dan Racicot, Adam Roche, and Ruggiero. “Che Anderson has taken on what is arguably one of the top ten community relations positions in the state, working as assistant vice chancellor for city and community relations for the University of Massachusetts Medical School,” Spellane says. Larkin and Pottle also have advanced in their chosen fields, and Ruggiero has been able to enact real change to improve the lives of her constituents.
“What makes the program so invigorating and such a great learning experience is that each student brings their own experiences and talent into our cohort which they then share with their fellow students and with faculty,” says Spellane.