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Experienced city employees gain knowledge in new local government-focused master’s degree program

Midcareer professionals find class conversation richer because they directly relate to the concepts, professor says

Exterior of the entrance to ASU's Chandler Innovation Center.

The School of Public Affairs' first-ever local-government MPA cohort meets weekly at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center in downtown Chandler. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU

October 20, 2023

Experienced employees who decide to return to school for a master’s degree are well acquainted with their fields.

They no longer need the introduction that often is given to much younger undergraduates, said Professor Thom Reilly, who is teaching six veteran public employees from East Valley cities in the ASU School of Public Affairs’ first-ever local-government-oriented MPA program.

What they need, he said, is to be able to relate course material to what they know and what they do so they can apply it to advance their careers.

The six meet weekly in what is their first class together at the ASU Chandler Innovation Center (ACIC), a partnership between the university and the city of Chandler. ACIC is housed inside a 33,297-square-foot building in downtown Chandler. The structure contains event and co-working spaces to support ASU-affiliate entrepreneurial programming as well as a do-it-yourself fabrication shop.

“From a teaching perspective, it’s a little different style, because you have a group that has been practicing in the field for a long time and they understand how local government operates,” Reilly said. “The conversation is richer, because when concepts are presented, they are able to relate it to specific work-related experiences.”

Students in the program said Reilly is helping them gain new skills and perspectives as well as learn real-world applications.

“The class is awesome. We show up and launch into a current topic that’s important locally or federally, and discuss it from the point of view of someone who is a public administrative professional and how it relates to what we’re learning,” said Abe McCann, a veterans services coordinator for the city of Tempe.

“Professor Reilly doesn’t just say what the book says,” McCann said. “He knows how to make it relevant to what we’re doing every day. He asks, ‘In your realm, how would you do this every day?’ It’s an application of: I learned it this week, and now I’m going to go practice it.”

‘Very eye-opening’ discussions

Dana Alvidrez, a transportation engineer for the city of Chandler, said she had been thinking about earning her MPA and identified the local-government program as a good fit for her.

“Not only does it provide a comprehensive public affairs education, the normal opportunities to learn from professors in the field, but also to learn alongside my peers and from my peers,” Alvidrez said. “Our discussions in class have been very eye-opening.”

Amy Rebenar, a budget analyst for the town of Paradise Valley, said this approach differs from many traditional MPA programs.

“When you’re working with a cohort of other local government professionals who have something they can share, it creates an environment where we can have a deeper interaction and take a different track than someone who hasn’t started their career track,” Rebenar said.

McCann said while he had experience helping veterans during his Arizona National Guard service, “I never had experience in actual government. I got here (to Tempe) and saw the way the city works and wanted to be a part of that, but I needed some additional education.”

McCann said he learned about the program at an employee development meeting and "jumped on it."

"I can’t tell you how much I benefit from people doing similar work," he said. "It’s really beneficial. Of all the courses I’ve taken, this has the most practical applications to what I’m working on.”

Alvidrez said as students review the readings and textbook chapters, Reilly, who once was county manager for Clark County, Nevada, which includes Las Vegas, “puts his own spin on how it happened in his career, beyond the book and applying it to real life. Some of those things are outside the areas we are currently working in, so how it’s (applied) to our public administration roles is more meaningful and impactful than just the text alone.”

‘I can affect more change, have a bigger impact’

McCann said after graduation he knows he will be better at what he does, “so I can get into a position where I can affect more change and have a bigger impact.”

Thom Reilly, professor, ASU, School of Public Affairs, MPA, local government

Professor Thom Reilly of the School of Public Affairs teaches the school's first-ever local-government MPA cohort. ASU photo

“I want to be an example for other members of the community, maybe veterans who are hesitant to go back to school,” he said.

Rebenar said that in some ways, completing the master’s program proves someone can take that next career step.

“In today’s world, competition is fierce, whether in the public or private sector,” she said. “By working in a cohort like this, it creates skills you might otherwise wouldn’t have. ... Whatever your ultimate goal is, you have a sounding board, you have professionals around you to ask, ‘I’m struggling with this, how does your organization handle it?’”

Alvidrez said that whatever she chooses to do after earning her degree, the leadership skills she’s acquired “are going to make me better in my current role even if I don’t move (to another position).”

She added, “I think I’m going to find there’s a wide range of opportunities with an MPA. It opens the door to many possibilities,” including exploring new interests or becoming a director with Chandler or another municipality.

“I’m glad I did it and glad ASU is offering it,” Alvidrez said.

The School of Public Affairs is a part of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.