Blog The COVID-19 Pandemic and MPA Education: Student Perspectives on Public Service Values and Public Service Motivation

Closing thoughts on the COVID-19 Pandemic and MPA Education

woman having a video call
by Dr. Shilpa Viswanath:

WPS at John Jay College initiated this blog series on the COVID-19 pandemic and MPA education at the beginning of the fall semester – allowing for MPA students from across the United States to reflect on how their classroom education in public administration, public policy and public affairs gave them a unique perspective and purpose during the pandemic.

Bloggers shared personal narratives of pandemic response and individual efforts to emulate public service values. The emerging issues arising from the fall 2020 blog series centered around student’s channelizing their public service motivation, recognizing the real-world applicability of an MPA education, finding a balance between graduate school, work and caregiving duties, understanding the value of social equity during pandemic response, addressing racism and structural inequalities in American society, and ultimately, the power of student leadership during a pandemic. 

The fall 2020 blog series began with University of Central Florida’s MPA student Lauren Cooper’s first hand experience as legislative aid in the Florida House of Representatives. Lauren described the political neglect surrounding the unemployment benefits system and the heightened frustration of desperate citizens during the onset of COVID-19. Lauren, who has fielded  nearly 30,000 calls as legislative aide, pointed out that public service motivation while necessary is not sufficient to create a responsive bureaucracy. Lauren reminded us of the need for a policy maker’s in-depth education on operations, finances and governing models to be able to deal efficiently with pandemic response. Echoing Lauren’s perspective is Melissa Bell, an MPA student at Texas State University. Melissa joined the dots to explain the real world applicability of her MPA education; and the evidence-based decision making skills she learned in the classroom, which she applied in her role as a program specialist at the Health and Human Services Commission during the COVID-19 pandemic. Megan Bermea, a recent graduate of Texas State University’s MPA program and senior advisor for women’s health and family services program at Texas Health and Human Services Commission reiterates Lauren and Melissa’s practitioner sentiments. Megan narrated how her MPA coursework helped inform her understanding of the role of state agency in pandemic response, and gave her the confidence to meet her work challenges with empathy and agility while truly understanding the meaning of public service. 

Furthermore, our blog contributors used public administration concepts of social equity and social justice to understand ongoing consequences of the pandemic – Gwen Saffran MPA graduate from John Jay College and policy associate at the Office of the Public Advocate for the City of New York; Madison Byarley, MPA student from IUPUI, and Silvana Bastante, MPA student at University of Central Florida and vice president for non profit outreach of the ASPA Central Florida Chapter – all talk about the racial disparities in healthcare and inequities in housing, food and immigration that are exaggerated by the pandemic. Gwen, Madison and Silvana shine light on the imperative need to bring marginalized stakeholders into the realms of pandemic policy making.

Amanda Studor Bond, watershed specialist with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and MPA student at IUPUI, and Ciana Sorrentino, MPA student at IUPUI both bring to the discussion the dilemma of federalism and the devolution of power between the federal, state and local governments during pandemic response. Amanda, talks about the differing responses of governors, mayors, town councils with differing values, political ideologies and objectives and the differential outcomes they have for citizens and business communities across the country.

While student parent Desiree Adair, an MPA candidate from Texas State University sheds light on the challenges of attaining a work-life balance and coping with childcare duties during the pandemic. Evana Alam MPA student at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and president of the MPA Student Association, talks about her effort to remotely deliver student resources during campus closure. Evana’s heightened sense of public service values motivates her to collaborate in innovative ways to bring to John Jay’s students. 

The depth and the breadth of student insights presented in the WPS fall 2020 blog symposium series reflects the true potential of the MPA program. Our student contributors shed light on the power of public service values in shaping a public servant’s nuanced understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic response. Most importantly, blog contributors apply a ‘social equity’ lens to analyse their lived experiences as students of public administration and as street-level bureaucrats living and working during the ongoing pandemic.

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About the author:

Dr. Shilpa Viswanath is an Assistant Professor of Public Administration in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Dr. Viswanath studies public sector human resource management with a special focus on gender. Her work also spans the study of bureaucracy in India. She has published in Administrative Theory & Praxis and Journal of Public Administration Education. Dr. Viswanath is currently serving as Chair of Section for Women in Public Administration (SWPA) at American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and is a board member of Academic Women in Public Administration (AWPA). Before coming to John Jay in the fall of 2020, she was an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin.