The second cohort of the Master of Public Administration Senior Leadership (MPA-SL) program at Clark University, which graduated in May, shared a special bond: they took their academic journey together during the pandemic. “We’re known as the COVID Cohort because we started right when the pandemic started,” says recent graduate Paola Solano-Hicks, principal staff assistant and HR manager in the City of Worcester Human Resources Department. “Our first residency was virtual.”
The MPA-SL program is a natural outgrowth of the Master of Public Administration program offered by Clark’s School of Professional Studies (SPS). “With the exception of two-day in-person residencies at the beginning of each semester, it’s a completely asynchronous online course of study,” says Mary Piecewicz, professor of practice in the MPA Senior Leadership Program. “The program offers not only academic rigor and excellence, but also the opportunity to work with and learn from peers with a similar career background.”
For students in the second cohort, camaraderie grew out of the unprecedented educational experience they were sharing. Those bonds were strengthened by Wednesday evening Zoom classes, a student-driven add-on to the normal online curriculum. “The professors could have said, ‘Nope, this is an asynchronous class. Here’s the syllabus. This is how we’re doing it,’ ” says Dan Arnold, area administrative manager at Massachusetts Department of Children and Families. “But they didn’t. They worked with us.”
According to Robert Spellane, the MPA-SL program’s executive director, the majority of leadership positions in government and nonprofit organizations today are advertised as “master’s preferred.” At the same time, an uptick in retirements since the pandemic has increased job opportunities significantly at all levels and sectors of public service. “Our program is designed to make the master’s credential attainable for professionals who have established themselves as public administrators and are looking to upskill for leadership roles,” Spellane says.
SPS administrators launched the MPA-SL program in 2019 after recognizing that many professionals in municipal, state, and federal government and nonprofit organizations were either not inclined or unable to put their jobs on hold to go to graduate school.
“I’m twelve years into my career at this point,” says Dana Lyford, director of institutional giving at Fenway Health in Boston. “I work full-time, and it wasn’t feasible for me to take two years off and go back to school. I don’t think you are going to find another master’s program where you learn so many tangible skills for your job and actually are able to balance your studies with having a full-time career.”
MPA-SL program students are able to receive credits for prior learning, and their capstone projects focus on an issue or problem from their own workplace, for which they have two semesters to develop a solution.
“What stands out to me is the respect the program had for our experience,” says Arnold. “Getting a little bit of credit for what I already knew was terrific.” He said the program gave him “new confidence that should I want to, I can rise up in my agency and be a leader.”
For COVID Cohort graduates, their master’s degree experience may be in the rearview mirror, but they are taking the connections they made through the program with them. “I’m excited to keep our network going as we continue into our careers,” says Patterson-Serrill. “I think we’re going to be served very well by that.”