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.

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

The Power and Pursuits of Graduate Student Leadership During the Pandemic

fashion people woman girl
by Evana Alam:

Public service motivation empowered me to seek MPA education at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Further, the public service values of accountability, inclusion, integrity, and justice in society and governance, aligned with my personal views. The COVID-19 pandemic changed many people’s lives and it is up to MPA students like me to ensure public service values. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the outlook for many MPA students. Some students lost their jobs due to the pandemic, and others have transitioned into remote work/learning. In addition, there are students who are not comfortable with online instruction. They are either struggling through their online courses or deferring to a later semester when things get back to normal. Many people also take technology for granted. Not every student has access to computers or Internet connections suitable for their work and education. We must understand that such resources may be basic to some people, but unavailable to many. Inclusion does not only refer to racial or gender demographics but financial resources as well.

As the current MPA Student Association (MPASA) President at John Jay College, I am seeking ways to connect resources to students struggling during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Since many on-campus student activities have been canceled this semester, I am looking for innovative ways to deliver resources to our students. One of our first events is to help students conduct academic research and navigate the John Jay College online library database. This will be conducted through online training facilitated by the college librarian. For some students, this can be a refresher course. But for others, this is a brand new resource. By collaborating with internal partners at the library, our efforts to support students during this fluid environment will ease some of their academic stress. 

Other events this semester include an online writing seminar and a federal employment tutorial. The first seminar will focus on effective writing skills and commonly found mistakes in student writing. A professor of the MPA Program will facilitate this essential training to increase students’ effectiveness in professional and academic writing skills. Many of our students have shown interest in pursuing a federal job. The employment seminar will provide students with tips and techniques to successfully seek employment in the federal workforce. The training will be facilitated by a former federal officer and an MPA faculty member who is well-versed with the federal job application process. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of many students. I am trying to reconnect broken relationships for graduate students by making sure student activities are continued throughout the semester. Access to college resources is challenging at the moment, but I try to help as many students as I can through productive workshops and webinars during the pandemic. It is the least I can do to uphold public service values during my tenure as MPASA President at John Jay College.

As a student body delegate, I aspire to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard. John Jay College consists of people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies. Unlike many universities, John Jay College is a Hispanic Serving Institution. We encourage diversity and inclusion as some of our main public service values. However, I recognize that many people do not have a voice. It is up to us to expand the views and concerns of people who are underrepresented in public service. As future leaders, we must propose reforms that revolve around community and equity for everyone.  

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About the author:

Evana Alam is an MPA Public Policy and Administration (MPA-PPA) student, dual specializing in human resources management and management and operations. She currently works for The Teaching and Learning Center (TLC) at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, as an office manager. She is the 2020-21 Master of Public Administration Student Association (MPASA) President. She is a human resource and management professional who has experience working for several global firms. Evana is also a certified supply chain analyst. She is a founder of an e-commerce brand, which seeks to create social equity for communities around the world. Her hobbies are photography, painting, and traveling. Evana presented gender equity research at the Northeast Conference of Public Administration (NECoPA) and the John Jay College MPA Conference. She has received the BRAVO! Employee Recognition Award, Section for Women in Public Administration (SWPA) Suffrage Award, NECoPA Award, and International Photography Award.

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

Finding and Questioning the True Essence of Public Service During the Pandemic

food man people woman
by Silvana Bastante:

The COVID-19 pandemic brought forth a multitude of emotions, but overwhelmingly: grief. Grief for our enjoyed perception of normalcy. Grief for those whose challenges and struggles multiplied in a matter of weeks. Grief for the exacerbation of socio-economic issues that were already bursting at the seams, and perhaps the illusion that they were getting better.

As a public administration and policy student, the most painful and sobering part of this pandemic has been to watch the opportunity to innovate and embed humanity and justice in new policies be lost in the fight to maintain current systems in fear of not risking the unknown, but at the expense of the continued suffering of others. The reality is that we have been using band-aids on issues that have long required an ambulance to the emergency room. Although this has been a difficult year, the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has (I hope) opened our eyes to what our perception of normalcy wrongfully allowed for far too long. 

The pandemic has exaggerated the existing inequities including – homelessness, poverty, public health inequities, food insecurity, unfair immigration laws, racial tensions—the list goes on. Why has the government not fought harder for these communities? Why does the government continue to patch-up issues with shelters and vouchers instead of looking hard at committing to aggressively tackling the core of these problems? This pandemic has shown us the extent and gravity of social and economic inequalities and at the same time shown us the resources we have as a nation to alleviate them. As a student of public administration I have been faced with my own discomfort and my role in the perpetuation of said normalcy, maybe, unknowingly, we have been and felt paralyzed because change requires so much sacrifice and uprooting of everything as we know it, but it is our responsibility. More than ever, I have a newfound commitment to the field of public administration and to people. 

Public service is the realization that change lies in the organization and empowerment of people, and we are simply there to facilitate that change, in informed, sensible, and compassionate ways. Public service understands the need to decolonize the field as we know it because all communities deserve to be fervently and courageously fought for.  The solutions may be unpalatable to our old way of thinking, but if there is anything we should have learned as public servants is that going back to the old way would be unconscionable.  

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About the author:

After earning a bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 2015, Silvana’s public service background began at the Guatemalan Maya Center in South Florida as the Assistant Director of the early literacy-based, Parent-Child Home Program. Now in her last year of the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Central Florida (UCF) Silvana is focused on the future for community resilience and development through a policy lens. Silvana is the Vice President for Nonprofit Outreach of the ASPA Central Florida Chapter and the Graduate Assistant to the Director and Assistant Director at the UCF Downtown Center for Public and Nonprofit Management (CPNM), and recently received the 2020 Equity and Inclusion Student Fellowship for the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM). With a strong foundation in public service and applied studies in Public Administration, Silvana’s primary career interests include education, immigration, and economic development initiatives that aim to build up vulnerable communities. Whether her pursuits are through the private, public, or nonprofit sector, her efforts in advancing public service will always uphold community-building at their core.

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

COVID-19 Pandemic Response & the Dilemma of American Federalism

usa flags on wall of governmental building facade in city
by Amanda Studor Bond:

It is no secret that the federal response to the global COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has been clumsy and disorganized. As I am writing this today, the United States leads the world in COVID related deaths. Many of the 5.31 million people who have recovered from COVID survived with long-term health effects and are now without health insurance. The national unemployment rate reached a historic peak of 14.7% in April while unemployment claims continue to remain high (and unfunded) during partisan Congressional stonewalling; and these statistics do not begin to describe the disproportionate effect COVID-19 has had on people of color and indigenous communities. With all of this, the question I keep coming back to is how did it get this bad?

One notable feature of the COVID-19 pandemic, and one possible explanation for the above observations, is that the government response has largely been driven by state and local officials. This is counter to historical precedent – federal power generally increases during a time of national crisis, with the FDR Administration’s approach to the Great Depression as a prime example.  Indeed, a unified, central response is common beyond national crises, especially as it relates to issues between multiple states. One of the first examples that comes to my mind is the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s (FEMA) National Response Framework developed to provide a “scalable, flexible, and adaptable” doctrine for how the Nation responds to an incident. Among the five guiding principles is “unity of effort through unified command”, which states that having a unified command ensures effective and efficient response across multiple jurisdictions, agencies, and organizations. During a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, FEMA follows its own framework by leaning on the National Hurricane Program and operationalizing the Hurricane Liaison Team to facilitate the rapid exchange of information to their partner agencies and local emergency management community.  

Like the COVID-19 pandemic, hurricanes and other natural disasters can be unpredictable, making FEMA’s planning, coordination, and emphasis of unified leadership invaluable in a crisis situation. With States, businesses, and citizens physically, economically, and socially connected, it seems that the need for an interstate, or national, solution to mitigate the spread of the virus was, and is, necessary. We knew early on that the primary spread of COVID-19 was through respiratory droplets and that it spreads quickly in close quarters and in large gatherings of people (airplanes, churches, concert venues, to name a few). Based on what we knew about the virus and effective emergency response, the pandemic response seemed to lack a unified federal directive to reduce the spread. Instead, what resulted was a fragmented response driven by state and local officials. With the absence of federal leadership, governors, mayors, and town councils, all with different values and objectives, took action by issuing executive orders ranging in efficacy, stringency, and language. 

While research into the content of these executive orders is still ongoing, I would postulate that the content and language contained within them vary based on that state’s general public opinion and/or that of their elected official. Regardless of intent, each decision state officials made, and continue to make, about the pandemic have tradeoffs rooted in variable values of state leaders, administrators, and their constituents. The primary problem is that these decisions within a state and between states can be at odds with one another, creating a patchwork of regulations confusing to citizens and businesses. This confusion is the primary reason for strong, centralized government during a time of national crisis.   

One key theme underpinning the study of public administration is the understanding that people have different values and opinions, which leads to challenges when making leadership decisions. As a current student of public administration and future leader, it is in moments like these that I must reflect on my own values and be reminded that no decision will ever be easy. However, during times of crisis it is not always necessary for a leader to have all of the right answers, but rather to act with clarity, confidence and conviction with the public’s health, welfare, and safety in mind.

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About the author:

Amanda Studor Bond is a Watershed Specialist with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. She has worked for the Office of Water Quality since 2017, shortly after she earned her Bachelor of Science from Purdue University in Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology with a minor in Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences. She is currently seeking a Masters of Public Affairs in Environmental Policy and Sustainability, with a primary interest in the intersection of environmental justice and water resources.

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

Shifting Perspectives During a Pandemic: Community Engagement Perspectives from Indianapolis

hands with latex gloves holding a globe with a face mask
by Ciana Sorrentino:

The threat of the COVID-19 pandemic became imminent to our country during my first semester of graduate school. While I did not have much MPA education at the time, my professor offered our class a research position involving state/local government action and individual response. Through this position I was entrusted with the primary knowledge necessary to capture and record these governmental actions by coding Governor’s executive orders. In a way, the COVID-19 pandemic led me to realize my true capabilities as a woman in graduate school; I lost my first full-time job at my sorority’s headquarters in April, and since the pandemic, I was granted a position closer to my true goal of being a lifelong learner and catalyst for change. 

A very striking memory of the very first online policy analysis class that spurred from the introduction of the COVID-19 pandemic was some very ominous words from my professor; we are no longer living in a democracy. The face-to-face interactions, such as town hall meetings, on which many governmental actions depended were not possible. 60-70% of states were giving blanket authority to directors of agencies/non-elected officials. State budgets were no longer discretionary as governors  have more authority during times of public crisis. A dilemma for shouldering the responsibility of public health ensued ; some states believed that the pandemic was a local municipal responsibility, while some states believed that the federal government should have more responsibility than what their actions portrayed. 

These were elements of the public sector I had never even considered as possible to change, but the fluidity of political analysis continued to enchant me; as a result, the epidemic of homelessness prevailed as one of the most urgent issues facing communities during the pandemic. I lived down the street from one of the largest homeless communities in Indianapolis and rode my bike past the communities nearly daily, sometimes stopping to have a conversation. With a lack of community resources, these members of society  were seemingly forgotten in the rush of cultural individualism that pervades our country. At this time in mid-March and early April of 2020, it was every individual for themselves – and quickly, I noticed the homeless population growing in size, occupying more length on the side of the White River than I had ever seen in my four years of living in downtown Indianapolis. 

Continual immersion in the depths of this community motivated me to continue pursuing MPA education to the utmost extent. Never has my perspective shifted so abruptly, which I believe is a result of exposure to many different ways of life by virtue of living in a highly diverse urban environment throughout the onslaught of a global pandemic. Typically, the adverse effects experienced by global disaster are exacerbated in urban communities, and Indianapolis is no different. In addition, I have the privilege of graduate education, a resource so often overlooked by community decision-makers. I have been granted opportunities to make a difference in the way communities encounter public health crises. Above all, I have immense amounts of support from my institution to not only be educated about these global situations but to be granted the tools to make a difference.

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About the author:

As a passionate advocate for human rights, I am dedicated to the pursuit of freedom, justice, peace, and the inalienable rights of all human beings.Chairing committees, leading and participating in cross-functional teams, using technological concepts and relevant computer programs to solve business problems, as well as quantitative analysis, have assisted me in leadership positions within various student organizations throughout my undergraduate career and have prepared me for graduate education with a concentration in Environmental Policy and Sustainability.In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was presented with the opportunity to conduct research with Drs. Peter Federman and Cali Curley capturing, recording, and coding executive orders and state-level responses to COVID-19.As of August 2020, I have been awarded a Graduate Assistantship position working with Dr. Christian Buerger, whose current studies focus on policy analysis, public finance, and education policy. His work also analyzes the impact of school finance reforms and tax and expenditure limits on school district funding, as well as the effect of recessions on school district revenues.

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

Racism in Healthcare: How Communities of Color are Affected by COVID-19

pensive black woman in medical uniform of patient
by Madison Byarley:

The With the recent (and ongoing) protests over police brutality and systemic racism toward Black Americans, the talk of equity and inclusion has become a priority for more and more people. Black Americans often have higher rates of various diseases and higher infant mortality rates; this disparity has not stopped with this pandemic. The combination of both the protests and the pandemic has led me to consider how the treatment of Black Americans is not equitable in how the pandemic is handled and how people are treated for COVID-19, and how the things I have learned in my MPA education have led me to notice what considerations are important to this issue–particularly in the areas of collaboration and program evaluation.

Throughout the country, Black and Latinx Americans face higher rates of contracting COVID than their white counterparts. The inequality that exists in healthcare in the treatment can affect the likelihood to contract covid in several ways–the discrimination that healthcare workers give their BIPOC patients, healthcare access, education levels and awareness, wealth gaps, and housing differences among other things. All of these factors contribute in many ways to the healthcare inequality that exists in the United States.

 Beyond there just being more cases for BIPOC Americans, there are also issues with the vaccination process for COVID. The early phases of the vaccination tests were done almost exclusively on white people, which raised concerns over how well the vaccine would work on the overall population and concerns over healthcare researchers not caring about BIPOC as much as they care for white people. Some healthcare workers are worried that the rush to get the vaccine as fast as possible is leaving BIPOC behind. The first trials only included Black people at 5%, but in the United States they make up roughly 13.5% of the overall population. By leaving out BIPOC from these studies it has the chance to increase healthcare disparity with COVID vaccinations.

The continuing trials for the vaccine do plan on including a more diverse group of people in the research process. However, because of the long standing disparities in healthcare, some communities of color are having a hard time trusting the vaccine, making them less likely to be willing to participate in these clinical trials. Black scientists, healthcare workers, and churches have been working together to try and get more BIPOC Americans to participate in the COVID-19 vaccine trials so that there can be data on a diverse group of people that better represents America as a whole. 

When I consider all of these issues arising due to the pandemic crisis I think of what I have learned about stakeholder engagement, program evaluation, and collaboration during my MPA education. It seems that BIPOC stakeholders are consistently being left out of the conversations that affect them the most. Collaboration efforts like the ones being done for the vaccine need to be insistent on making sure the right stakeholders are at the discussions–it is clear that collaboration is needed for tackling this crisis, but we have to make sure we do not leave valuable voices out and that we do not overlook the importance of trust. The lack of inclusion of BIPOC in the trials also highlights the importance of good program design that has been discussed in my courses and how important it can be to have a diverse group of people behind the planning of these trials. Without trust and good relationships, these vaccines will not be as successful, the collaborations on handling the crisis will not be as productive, and the health care disparities will continue to harm communities of color. 

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About the author:

Madison Byarley is an Urban and Regional Governance MPA candidate at IUPUI. She graduated in May of 2019 at Purdue University with a BA in Political Science and a Certificate in Public Policy. While at Purdue, Madison was a member of the Purdue Student Government Sustainability Council, Secretary of the Environmental Science Club, and the Secretary of the Political Science Honors Society-Pi Sigma Alpha. Currently, Madison acts in the role of research assistant for Dr. Peter Federman, assisting in investigating collaborative governance efforts to address climate change at the state and local level. She is the primary author of a paper-in-progress, titled: “Collaboration in Climate Action Plans — The Role of Interagency Collaboration for Developing Robust Plans”. She is also assisting in Dr. Federman’s research on COVID-19 state level executive orders. Her interests in environmental justice and urban sustainability continue to propel a committed work ethic and ongoing exploratory nature in coursework, employment, and extracurricular activities.

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

Promoting Social Equity and Public Service Values During America’s Dual Pandemics

photo of woman carrying a cardboard
by Gwen Saffran:

The dual pandemics of the novel coronavirus and ongoing, systemic anti-Black racism has laid bare the deep inequities already present in the United States.

As much of America was shocked by the violent and wrongful death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of the Minneapolis police, Black Americans were already three to four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts. In New York City, protests in support of Black lives were met with violence from the police. The devaluing of Black lives in New York extends past interactions with police: essential workers, a group heavily impacted by COVID-19, are overwhelmingly Black and brown. Public hospitals in communities of color have worse health outcomes for their patients than private hospitals in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Children of color are more likely to experience homelessness or have limited or no access to the internet, which negatively affects their ability to engage in distance learning. People of color and lower-income people are less likely to be able to work from home, either forcing them to go to work and potentially be exposed to COVID-19 or not be able to work at all, with disastrous financial consequences. COVID-19 has been called the great equalizer—and while it is true that the virus does not discriminate in its infection, its consequences only highlight and exacerbate existing inequality. 

As a public servant, the last several months have been troubling, and we as city employees face a particular challenge: how can we use existing structures of government that were built on stolen Indigenous land and the labor of enslaved Africans to support and uplift the most marginalized New Yorkers? How can we make the biggest impact while operating within our limited ascribed powers? In my time pursuing an MPA at John Jay College, we examined the tension between the public sector regime values of equity and justice and the role public agencies play in creating and perpetuating systemic inequality. The critical discussions about hard choices and creative problem-solving have been invaluable to me as a public servant.

As we learn from our past, we also have incredible opportunities to improve the present and shape the future. New York City has suffered tremendous losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the tragic deaths of tens of thousands of our community members. We as public servants have a responsibility to rebuild a city that is more just and more equitable, and I am buoyed by recent efforts, including the repeal of 50-a, and the ban on the use of chokeholds by the NYPD. However, it will take far more than a few reforms to gain the trust of a traumatized community. Collaboration among government agencies, community organizations, and constituents is imperative in fostering equity and creating justice, as we all have a responsibility to create a just society. In the Office of the Public Advocate, staff includes community organizers who work with constituents and community organizations on grassroots campaigns, as well as policy and legislation. Reports, research, policy, and legislation is informed by and created in collaboration with constituents, community partners, and advocates. I am grateful for my education’s grounding in public service values—as Bryan Stevenson said, we can’t change the world with only ideas in our minds; we need conviction in our hearts.


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About the author:

Gwen Saffran is a Policy Associate at the Office of the Public Advocate for the City of New York. She holds an MPA from John Jay College in Public Policy and Administration with a specialization in Criminal Justice Policy and a BS in Juvenile Justice/Youth Advocacy from Wheelock College. Previously, Gwen worked with Professor Nicole M. Elias as a Research Assistant in the Public Management Department at John Jay College, studying sex, gender, and issues of social equity in the public sector. 

Gwen’s comments are entirely her own and may not reflect the opinions of, or be endorsed by, the Office of the Public Advocate.

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

Balancing My Life During COVID-19

light blue one use medical protective masks
by Megan Bermea :

The COVID-19 pandemic brought forth a The mission and values of a public servant become crystal clear amid a public health emergency.  The mundane tasks of bureaucracy suddenly transform into life-and-death projects and decisions that require competent and compassionate leadership. Not only was I in my last semester of the MPA program at Texas State University when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, I also held a full-time management position at Texas Health and Human Services (HHS) working on the front lines of the public health emergency. 

HHS swiftly mobilized to help Texans statewide as public health threats impact both clients and providers. We are responsible for implementing strategies to mitigate healthcare personnel staffing shortages; disseminating infection control basics, information for hospitals and healthcare professionals, and provider information communication; curating reliable and evidence-based public health resources; and focusing on the priority areas of primary and behavioral health services, Medicaid and CHIP services, and regulatory services. 

In addition to responding directly to the COVID-19 pandemic, HHS must also evaluate and respond to the indirect impacts on the state budget due to the economic hardship related to the pandemic. HHS is carefully and strategically balancing the increase in public health and healthcare demand with significantly reduced available resources. It is a complex, challenging, and rapidly-evolving situation that requires agility, dedication, and skilled leadership. 

Our programs have experienced significant increased demand due to the COVID-19 virus, as well as economic hardships and a sharp rise in unemployment. We are responsible for implementing federal and state policy waivers to allow many of our programs to utilize telehealth and telemedicine services and other flexibilities to continue to serve their clients, many of whom are the most vulnerable among us. We are also responsible for administering federal grant funding from the CARES Act to increase budgets in many health and social services programs due to the surge in demand. 

We have had to amend contracts, write new administrative rules, adjust budgets and funding sources, apply for grants, push out COVID communications, host COVID webinars, and still maintain regular daily operations and oversight of programs and services. Without the skills, knowledge, and applied experience of my MPA education, I would have been lost in a sea of despair and panic amidst this global pandemic. Every class such as public policy, administrative law, fiscal administration, public management, ethics, and information technology helped to inform my understanding of the role of a state agency in a pandemic, but collectively this program instilled in me the confidence needed to meet these challenges head-on, lead with empathy and agility, and focus on the true meaning of public service.

It was exceptionally challenging to attempt to balance the professional workload that resulted from the pandemic with MPA school work and home schooling two children. Not to mention, I contracted the virus and was down for the count for over three weeks. COVID-19 impacted my life in tremendous ways, yet I am stronger because of it. 

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About the author:

Megan Bermea currently serves as the senior advisor for women’s health and family services programs at Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) in Austin, Texas. Prior to HHSC, Ms. Bermea worked as a curriculum policy specialist and rules coordinator in the Office of Academics at the Texas Education Agency. 

She was a contributing writer to the 17th edition of Practicing Texas Politics and worked as director of volunteer operations for the literacy nonprofit organization, Education Connection. 

Ms. Bermea is a summa cum laude graduate of The University of Texas at El Paso with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and is a Merrick Graduate Fellowship recipient at The Graduate College of Texas State University. She graduated with a master’s degree in public administration in Summer 2020.

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

An MPA Education and Returning to Work During COVID-19

man people woman girl
by Désirée Adair:

Since March, with the onset of stay-at-home orders, each of these events  have occurred:

  • My husband continued to work in-person as an essential worker despite the risk.
  • I worked on my Applied Research Project (ARP) with consistent interruption.
  • I became a major contributor to my children’s education by providing assistance for the online school learning curve, time management, and workflow prioritization.
  • Confusion, adaptation, and general upheaval of our personal and professional lives.

Sound familiar? I know that I am not alone in taking on additional roles due to the pandemic, but my public administration studies helped prepare me to do more with less.

My experiences as a student and a mother during COVID-19 have further contextualized my understanding of the theories that I have learned studying public administration. I am a non-traditional student with past experience in government who enrolled in the MPA program at Texas State University in order to return to meaningful work in the public sector. My courses have provided the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed to implement effective policies and public programs. My ARP focused on professionals returning to work after a career break, and how returner programs are an innovative tool for HRM (Human Resource Management). Many professional women leave their positions at some point in their careers to care for their families. A majority of these women would like to return to pursue their career but have to overcome the employment gap on their resumés.  This project raised my awareness of HR topics and gave me an opportunity to focus on women returning to work in the public sector. My research led me to discover how many women, and others,  have these career disruptions and are attempting to return to the workplace.  Returner programs allow organizations to gain access to an untapped pool of educated and experienced professionals, and candidates are provided with an opportunity to serve in higher level positions; this creates a win-win situation for both employing organizations and skilled professionals seeking positions after a career break. 
My ARP was a descriptive study of municipal human resources’ directors’ perceptions toward returner programs. While my timing was not ideal – I sent the survey in March of 2020 just as the WHO declared a pandemic – I was able to incorporate recent academic research.  The associated economic fallout from COVID-19 caused an unprecedented 14.7% unemployment level in April of 2020, thus many educated and experienced professionals found themselves searching for new positions (Chaney & Morath, 2020). Some have characterized this as a “Shecession” due to the disproportionate unemployment experienced by women who accounted for 55% of the jobs lost (Gupta, 2020). This finding provided motivation for me to contribute solutions to HRM issues including gender diversity in high-level positions. Returner programs offer one solution by filling open positions with qualified and experienced workers while reducing risk and improving organizational performance. My research benefits public sector organizations wanting to help reintegrate the workforce which is desperately needed for our economic recovery.  

COVID-19 caused my research topic to acquire new meaning and put it in a new context.  I realized that the government is always trying to do more with less and that requires innovation.  This predicament was only magnified by the pandemic and has created difficulty for HR professionals in the public sector competing for employees with the private sector. Through my courses at Texas State University, I gained a new appreciation of public servants as they face new challenges – such as work modifications, balancing risk for employees and the public, and rapidly managing change. I have a deeper understanding of how the HR world in the public sector needs to adapt. 

As I look forward to my internship during my final semester, and my children start school in a virtual learning environment, I wonder what adaptations and innovations will become normal. As I proceed back into the workforce after graduation, I know that it will require a great balancing act as a woman in the public sector labor force, yet I am motivated to look for solutions to serve my community.  


Chaney, S., & Morath, E. (2020, May 8). April Unemployment Rate Rose to a Record 14.7%; Unprecedented 20.5 Million Jobs Shed As Coronavirus Pandemic Hit The Economy. The Wall Street Journal. 

Gupta, A. (2020, May 13). Why Some Women Call This Recession a ‘Shecession’. The New York Times. Retrieved from 

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About the author:

Désirée Adair is a Master of Public Administration candidate at Texas State University. Previously she earned a BA in Economics and minored in Mathematics. Désirée’s current research interests include local government, human resources, and economic development. She hopes to obtain a position in local government post-graduation.

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

This One is Different

medical stethoscope with red paper heart on white surface
by Melissa Bell:

The coronavirus pandemic is a different kind of emergency than others I have encountered.  Just like everyone else, I am personally impacted:  suddenly working from home, adjusting my MPA study schedule, keeping up with quickly developing news, and making sure my family is safe, well, and has the provisions needed.  Even with these unexpected changes, I have no complaints.  My household has so far not been infected, and we still have our jobs, though my husband’s hours were drastically reduced at first.  Everyone I know has a stockpile of toilet paper, and I am confident disinfecting wipes will someday return to store shelves. here are students who are not comfortable with online instruction. They are either struggling through their online courses or deferring to a later semester when things get back to normal. Many people also take technology for granted. Not every student has access to computers or Internet connections suitable for their work and education. We must understand that such resources may be basic to some people, but unavailable to many. Inclusion does not only refer to racial or gender demographics but financial resources as well.

Despite the minor and short-term inconveniences of the pandemic, devoting extra time to responding to it has not been possible.  Previous local disasters such as hurricanes had me working overtime at a non-profit organization, serving people who are deaf or hard of hearing and making sure those who evacuated to shelters and temporary housing had access to information and communication so they could receive the same benefits and services as everyone else.  While the motivation is still there for this emergency, I am being forced to balance.  I put in my full effort during work hours, then turn to schoolwork, family needs, and a personal project to disconnect from the stress:  revitalizing my back yard.  

When the coronavirus spread to the U.S., I wondered how public administrators were responding.  Professors at Texas State University connected me with organizations that offered electronic news feeds, and I am finding it valuable to read about the actions of government on all levels and the values they promote during the crisis:  responsibility, perseverance, transparency, innovation, compassion.   
  The complex nature of the pandemic has made me reflect deeply about the real-world applicability of everything I have learned during the MPA program.  How are government budgets impacted?  In what specific ways should leaders guide people through a crisis?  How should organizations implement change quickly?  What role does intergovernmental relationships play?   Now I am more mindful and aware of the roles of state and local governments in emergencies.  Critical thinking skills and evidence-based decision-making emphasized in my MPA program have helped me educate myself on my role as a government employee and private citizen during unprecedented times like these.  

My Public Policy class is reading about governments that failed to respond adequately to natural and man-made disasters throughout history.  As depressing as that topic sounds during a global pandemic, it inspires me to endeavor to get this one right and to protect the health and wellbeing of the people we serve.  For me at the state agency where I now oversee the advocacy and technology program, it means supporting specialists as they work with government entities to provide live captioning and sign language interpreters at press conferences.  It involves answering inquiries about how to communicate effectively since everyone is now wearing masks that cover their mouths, making it difficult to communicate.  I value the information and skills I’ve gained from the MPA program and am applying it in my role in state government.  Now if my phone would just pop up with an alert about those elusive disinfecting wipes!

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About the author:

Melissa Bell is a graduate student at Texas State University and a member of its MPA Advisory Board.  She has worked as a program specialist with Texas Health and Human Services Commission, Office of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services since 2013, passionately serving alongside the community to make the world a more equal, accessible place for this population.  Her newfound 2020 hobbies include attending Zoom meetings, touring nearby cities and countryside (without getting out of the car), and hunting for household cleaning supplies with her husband of 22 years.  @TexasStateUniversityMPA