By Chris Keefer, Finance/HR Director, Town of Blythewood, SC, LinkedIn
Local government administration is my second career. I devoted the first 30 years of my work life to producing technical, corporate, and marketing communications—half the time as someone’s employee, half as my own boss. As my one and only child left for college, I realized that I should seriously start preparing for the next age and stage of life: retirement. So I was hired as the assistant municipal clerk job in the town where I live.
Four years later, I am the finance/HR director and hope to one day become a town administrator. When our current town administrator was hired three years ago, having an MPA and several years of municipal experience were the two most important job qualifications. A few of my coworkers at the time respected my abilities and experience enough to say that they thought I could be the town administrator. Not that time around, I knew, but maybe the next go-round.
So at age 52, I enrolled in an MPA program and completed it in two years, earning straight A’s while working full-time at town hall and volunteering for several nonprofits. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. For those of you who may be “non-traditional” MPA students, you can do it, too. To paraphrase French poet, journalist, and novelist Anatole France, you can accomplish great things—like a mid-life MPA—if you act, dream, plan, and believe. Everyone’s situation is different, but here’s what worked for me.
Have a support system in place. Before even mentioning the idea of grad school to my family, I seriously considered how my studies would impact our lives. My weeknights and weekends for two years would be filled with classwork instead of shopping, cleaning, and managing household finances. We’d be eating take-out pizza and Chinese more often, not that anyone would mind that too much. As my husband, daughter, and I discussed my grad school plans, we agreed that I should go for it and they would back me up every step of the way. And they did, starting with the first assignment of my first online class, which was due on Day One of our 2014 summer vacation. When the professor assigned the 100-question U.S. citizenship test on the day we were making the 500-mile drive, my ever-resourceful family turned the assignment and the family van into our own nerdy version of “Cash Cab.” I’ve learned to chill out, lean on my support network, and appreciate them!
Set boundaries on the time and resources you’ll need. I opted not to use my employer’s tuition assistance program (too many strings attached for the little tuition assistance it offers), so we self-financed it as a personal educational pursuit. I made my superiors aware of my studies, but I also set boundaries between my work life and my school life. For me, that meant school work was accomplished with my resources (time, money, office supplies, etc.), not my employer’s. When I was at town hall, I gave my professional work 100 percent; when I was in my home office, I gave my school work 100 percent. Everyone benefited from this compartmentalization.
Appreciate a bigger, better learning environment. As a journalism undergrad in the early ‘80s, I researched information in the campus library card catalog and wrote papers with a typewriter and correction fluid. The learning environment involved showing up at a classroom on an appointed day and time to be lectured to, and gathering in the campus coffee shop to complete group projects. Today, it’s possible for any learner anywhere, equipped with a powered-up device and internet access, to search digital content worldwide. Equally valuable, online courses enable shared learning experiences that often span great distances. For me, a mix of on-campus and online classes were a must so that I could complete the program in two years. Others in my cohort insisted on only taking on-campus courses, which delayed their progress and limited their exposure to just our small, tight group rather than the larger, more diverse student body in our virtual campus.
Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Everyone struggles to some extent with composition and writing. The educational institution to which you are paying tuition knows this, too. That’s why they offer online writing labs and personalized tutoring services. My daughter, who worked in her university’s “student success” center, helped several graduate students develop and refine their papers. She saved my butt early on by showing me how to use Microsoft Word’s References function to create an APA-compliant bibliography. With the resources and tools available to students today, there’s no excuse for producing less-than-professional papers or presentations.
Use work experiences as class material. When faced with finding topics for your class projects, turn to your work experience for inspiration. My experience with administering state and local accommodation tax funding and responding to FOIA requests served as the basis for two school papers and presentations. Conversely, your coursework will offer opportunities to explore topics outside your normal work responsibilities. My interest to learn more about transportation planning led to a research design project on how our town could collect data justifying an intermodal transit station serving commuters between our town and the state capital 20 miles away.
Celebrate the little victories—and that big one too! Along my two-year MPA journey, I would post on Facebook my little victories, like “Final paper done. It’s Miller time!” and “Got an A in my HR management class!” The best posts were ones my family shared of my photo on commencement day, diploma in hand, saying how proud they were of me. I am also very grateful that my mom and two sisters drove over 700 miles to celebrate graduation weekend with me.
As a graduation gift, my mom custom-framed my diploma and suggested I hang it in my office where others can see my accomplishment. It’s more important that I see it because it’s my daily reminder of what I can accomplish if I act, dream, plan, and believe.