This is part two in the ELGL feature “An MPA From My Apt” by Josh Halladay. Josh is pursuing his MPA degree from the University of Southern California online MPA program. You can read his first column here. Josh is a graduate of Willamette University and has local government experience at the campaign level. He is currently working for Americorps in Reno, Nevada.
When speaking with most people about the USC distance learning MPA, I generally receive positive responses. Occasionally I encounter a passionate traditionalist who points out the difficulties that come with a distance-learning program. Having never attended graduate school on a university campus, I welcome this feedback because it lets me know more about the tradeoffs of my program, what I’m missing, or, as I prefer, where I need to work harder. The aspect I hear about the most is networking, or as one of my professors says, “Where the rubber hits the road.”
(Feel free to ask me questions or point out perceived difficulties that come with distance learning. I really do welcome them.)
There is no easy answer to the question of how one makes up for the missed networking opportunities in a traditional campus setting. All I can do is share what I have done so far and issue updates as they come. But as I said in my first article and have already reaffirmed in this one, it takes hard work to create networking opportunities when a foundation is not brought to a campus you attend or located blocks away from your residence. My experience over the last 10 days demonstrates how someone in a distance-learning program can effectively close the gap in networking:
10 days ago – Saturday, February 23: I woke up at 7:00am, as if it was a week day, and headed to the University of Nevada Reno’s Local Leaders Institute pilot. This weekend training session targeted elected officials, teaching them the basics of public management so that they could more effectively serve in their roles. The facilitator, a USC Public Policy alumnus whom I networked with over coffee, invited me to attend. When I arrived, I sat down next to the only other USC alumnus in the room. In looking back, I should have bought a lottery ticket that day.
The institute required us to complete small group projects with the rest of our table. This gave me the opportunity to actually work with public service professionals, including the USC alumni who I am meeting for coffee tomorrow. One Saturday allowed me to meet many currently serving in my field of interest and also show how I can hold my own amongst them. After that, my task boils down to taking business cards and inviting my new connections to coffee and conversation.
7 days ago – Tuesday, February 26: I took off early from work and headed west to Sacramento. I would like to relocate to Sacramento once my AmeriCorps service ends which means I need to start building a network there. Having spoken with one of my professors over the phone after a LinkedIn exchange, she offered to help me shake some hands. She started her efforts by inviting me to the Asian Pacific State Employee Association’s Lunar New Year Reception. Of course I attended.
At the event my professor introduced me to a number of people including two directors of California State Departments. I followed up with both after the event, which lead me to applying for jobs in both of their departments (fingers crossed!).
6 Days Ago – Wednesday, February 27: Knowing I would wake up in Sacramento, I had contacted one of my other professors that lives in the city and asked him to meet me for coffee. Over a small cup with non-fat dairy creamer we discussed his career path and what he would recommend I do to get a job with the state. He pointed me to a few options. Towards the end of the meeting he informed me that I was the first one of his online students that he had ever met in person. Apparently my peers have not taken advantage of one of their best resources. Their loss.
4 Days Ago – Friday, March 1: I headed west again. A friend pointed me to one of his friends who works in a campaign-consulting firm. I met her for a cup of coffee.
3, 2, and 1 Day(s) Ago: I didn’t attend an event or coffee. Don’t Fault me. Everyone needs a break.
In the last 10 days I have met more people than I care to count in multiple cities. Some had a predisposition toward networking with me as they studied public policy at USC. Others, I had to impress myself. With any luck I will find a job in Sacramento soon, which will make networking in the city much easier. If I do not, then I am happy my car gets good gas mileage.
From the last 10 days, which are likely only the start to a greater effort, I have learned that when it comes to distance learning:
- Professors are a great resource.
- A top-notch school network is still valuable and can be leveraged even in a place like Reno.
- Friends and others in one’s network can help expand it.
- Hard work, given some direction, can close most gaps.
- Coffee can stimulate networking, just as well as a professional’s energy level.
Tomorrow I will be having coffee with a USC Alumnus and attending a Citizen’s Institute for the City of Reno. I am also in the process of being appointed to a Neighborhood Advisory Board. Networking is essentially a third job, along with my fulltime one and classes. But if one treats it as a job, they should be no worse off than a traditional student.
If you know anyone in a fulltime online program or considering one, you can greatly help them by inviting them to coffee and explaining the extra networking effort they will have to put in if they wish to get ahead.