Carolina on My Mind: The Residential MPA Experience

Posted on November 11, 2013


This is another entry in Rafael Baptista’s ongoing column, “Carolina on My Mind.” Rafael is a first year student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Masters of Public Administration program. 

Connect with Rafael: LinkedIn and Twitter

While applying to MPA programs, I considered both online and in-residence options. I opted for an in-residence program, and – several months into the program – I am delighted I did. However, the two options offer an important and useful contrast, and the optimal choice is specific to the individual and his/her circumstances. Because application deadlines for MPA programs are fast approaching, today’s post is focused on why a residential MPA was the right decision for me.

On-line programs are a particularly attractive option for individuals, such as Josh2.0 with circumstances (such as families or careers) that make moving or taking a full class load difficult, if not impossible. They are also a way to pay-as-you go for your degree, by allowing one to have a concurrent job, even if not one’s dream job. But as a 23-year old male with no anchoring commitments, I was able to search for the best fit for me, educationally and culturally, without outside constraints. Yes, money was a concern, but I was hopeful that I could avoid going deeply in debt, though a combination of approaches.

I got my undergraduate education from a small Liberal Arts college. There, I was fortunate to have a close-knit group of classmates who constantly challenged each other to be the best we could be. Additionally, I learned from passionate faculty members who were easy to approach and who invested in each student’s individual success. When searching for an MPA program, I was hoping to discover something similar at the graduate level. That, more than anything, disqualified on-line programs for me. In fact, every online program I looked at marketed the ability to get a quality education on the student’s own terms, in sharp contrast with the focus on interaction and collaboration that I was looking for.

As I searched for in-residence programs, it became clear that not all offered what I was looking for, either. Many programs appear to be designed as strongly competitive environments, where individuals are encouraged to outperform others as a key to success.   That is why I focused my search on programs that appeared able to reconcile the concepts of individual and collaborative excellence. My view is today’s most challenging societal problems often require individual creativity and expertise, but in a team-based context.

I feel very fortunate that UNC delivers the type of education that I was searching for. I belong to a program with roughly the same number of students as professors. My cohort is a diverse group of individuals whose life experiences, ambition, passion for public service, and wisdom amaze me every day. Faculty are nationally recognized experts in their fields, and they passionately share their expertise with us. While the program is demanding in the classroom, many very productive educational interactions have occurred while I was relaxing with classmates, talking to a professor during a class break … or even sitting in Kenan Stadium watching the football team lose.

Only time will tell where my choice of an in-residence program, and of the UNC program in particular, will lead me. However, I know that UNC is providing me with the education that I was seeking. And, for now, that feels exactly right.

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