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Public policy grad adapts capstone project to create inclusion plan, new position in his job developing local workforce

headshot of Ricky Duran, ASU School of Public Affairs alum

Ricky Duran received a master's degree in public policy from ASU's School of Public Affairs in May 2021. Today he works for the city of Phoenix's business and workforce development division. Photo courtesy of Ricky Duran

August 04, 2021

New graduates often wonder how much of what they learned while in school will translate into their careers. Ricky Duran didn’t have to ponder that question; he devoted his capstone project to examining and supporting equity efforts in his community, and immediately began applying the concepts from that effort before he even left grad school.

Duran, who received a master’s degree in public policy in May 2021 from the ASU School of Public Affairs, is a data and research manager for the city of Phoenix’s business and workforce development division. He used his education and previous professional experience, including his former position with Opportunities for Youth in the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions-based Center for Human Capital and Youth Development, to evaluate the city’s workforce program as it aligned with community needs. Then he pinpointed areas of opportunity which, if targeted, could better align city programming with those needs.

Since completing his master’s capstone project, Duran’s research has been expanded upon and is being used in the development of a "diversity, equity and inclusion" plan for the division. It is also being used as the research-based foundation for the city’s application for the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2021 Global Mayor’s Competition and other workforce equity efforts with program partners. More on that is below, along with how Duran, a first-generation college student, overcame early educational challenges to find he had an interest in data and spatial analysis — as well as one of the biggest lessons he learned from 2020.

Question: Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years.

Answer: Although I was born in El Paso, Texas, my family moved to Phoenix when I was 2. School started out rough. I had a speech impediment, which caused me to have below average reading and writing skills. With speech therapy and time, I eventually improved on my reading and writing skills, but found many workarounds that also helped me to be successful in work and school.

My parents never went to college, but education had value in our home. As a first-generation college student, I changed majors quite a bit during my undergraduate degree. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career, and it took me extra time to figure out that I liked data and spatial analysis. When I went back to school, I knew I wanted to do this kind of work again, but with people. I wanted to use data to help our communities thrive.

Q. What was your degree in and when did you graduate? What are you doing now?

A. In May 2021 I received a master’s degree in public policy from the School of Public Affairs with a graduate certificate in data analytics and program evaluation, both from Watts College. Now, I am the data and research manager for the business and workforce development division of the human services department at the city of Phoenix. That is fancy language for: I examine data for the city’s workforce program and local community, looking for trends and ways to better align programming with community needs.

Q. Your capstone project for your master’s degree is the basis for the city of Phoenix business and workforce development creating a "diversity, equity and inclusion" plan, the city’s application for the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ 2021 Global Mayor’s Challenge and creating an AmeriCorps/VISTA position. Tell us about how this went from academic assignment to real-world plan.

A. Although I hadn’t moved into my position with the city by the time I had reached the start of my capstone project, I had been working with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act program for three years. I understood the desire to better help the communities we serve and designed my capstone project to better understand their needs.

As I worked with the team at the city to better understand what they wanted, I also listened to what they wanted to do with this information. The goal is to begin using this research to make decisions based on the actual needs of the community, and not on what we just assume they could benefit from. We are still working to better understand our community (as this is intended to be a continuous effort, not just a point in time analysis). But we are able to use this information to prioritize efforts as we begin to transition out of COVID-19 and recover from the economic strain we have been seeing over more than 16 months, both as a community and as individuals.

Q. What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A. When I found myself working with Opportunities for Youth in the Center for Human Capital and Youth Development at Watts College. I was part of a team that was looking at data to figure out how to better re-engage young adults (ages 16–24) in education and employment. I found myself getting really into exploring our data and data of our partners, and I eventually decided to go back to school. I chose to pursue public policy because it allows me the opportunity to use research to help community leaders make decisions to better serve our communities and their members.

Q. Why did you choose ASU?

A: Growing up in Phoenix, I knew that I wanted to work in making my own community a better place for its residents. With that in mind, attending ASU for my degree was an easy decision. It gave me an opportunity to learn and work in my own community, while also learning from a faculty of experts in research for social impact, using a curriculum that is internationally recognized. It is awesome to be able to point out a professor’s office window and be able to talk about the real-life issues occurring in our community and realistic approaches to making a difference.

Q. How did your time at Watts College prepare you for life after college?

A. My experience at Watts College was very rewarding. The college and its schools ensure that the students have access to resources that can be used for career development. In addition to classroom learning, I also took part in opportunities put on by the School of Public Affairs, like Toastmasters, Arizona City Managers Association, International City Managers Association and networking opportunities. I also made it a point to connect with professors whose research I found interesting. This allowed me to begin developing a professional network that has followed me after graduation.

Q. What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or that changed your perspective?

A. One of the biggest lessons that I think we all learned in 2020 was the power of interpersonal engagement, interactive opportunities and an appreciation for one’s community and network.

Even though it was not the most fun to finish up my degree online during COVID-19, and not be able to make the most of interactive opportunities, the experience taught me to stop taking these valuable resources for granted. Today, I have a renewed sense of making the most of our ability to come together, to find a common goal and work as a team to make something remarkable happen, and to keep everyone engaged and passionate about what they do and how they do it.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A. Push yourself to have the confidence and assertiveness to step out of your box and do something that scares you. I went out of my way to reach out to professors and community leaders whose work I was inspired by. I learned about how they did what they do, and I am using those conversations to make important decisions in my own career. I am also beginning to collaborate with some of these individuals as we work together on finding solutions to issues that are of common interest to us.

Q. If you could clone yourself, what other career would you pursue?

A. If I did something else for a career, it would probably be creative. But who says we can't find a way to fit another one of our passions into the lives we are already living? I’m about to start taking drawing classes at the local community college!

Q. What is in your Netflix queue, or what movies/shows have you been recently hooked on?

A. I must admit, I recently started to realize that the nation’s racial equity issues have struck me more than I first thought. I discovered this through some of the shows I have been watching: “American Gods,” “Blindspotting,” “Ginny and Georgina,” “In the Heights” and “Woke.”

These shows have also helped me stay passionate about equity efforts in our local community and the collaborative projects that I am a part of with organizations like Chicanos Por La Causa and Maricopa Community Colleges, as well as with centers at ASU Watts College.

Q. What is your life motto in one sentence?

A. You already have a world full of barriers to overcome; don’t let yourself be yet another one.