My Final Semester


Back to work with my first peer portfolio review meeting of the semester.

Hello everyone!

Welcome back to my first blog post after an extended—and much needed—winter break. I used this break to rest, relax, and create a solid separation between school, since I know this spring semester will be busy. To ensure I was creating this separation, I enjoyed a lot of time doing things that are not related to school.

One of my favorite hobbies is watching movies, and this break provided plenty of time to enjoy some new and old favorites. I am a massive Harry Potter fan, so a winter break without a HP movie marathon is not a break at all. Additionally, I watched 16 Marvel movies in one week because my partner had never seen any of them. I grew up watching the Marvel movies in theaters as they were released, so this was a wonderful walk with nostalgia. A new movie that I found particularly fascinating was Disney’s Soul. The movie was a refreshing reminder to reflect and pursue your passion and purpose.

Additionally, I finally had time to read a few books for pleasure—once again, not related to school. Over the break, the first book I finished was Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life by Ozan Varol. This book provided excellent strategies to think creatively and problem solve to ensure success in your work. Another novel I completed was The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, which delivered a thought-provoking and philosophical outlook on life and the choices we make. The last book I finished was Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. The stories from her life are absolutely thrilling and engaging and offer a new perspective on the importance of education. I highly recommend all three.

While I really enjoyed my break and all of the free time that came with it, I’m glad to get back to work and continue learning. This semester is especially exciting, since it is my last one and I will be graduating in May! (I know you are all cheering with excitement and wishing me an enthusiastic “congratulations,” so thank you!) All of the classes I have enrolled in this semester offer new skillsets that I have been wanting to develop, which really excites me and motivates me to finish strong.

The last semester also brings the inevitable portfolio and oral exam. Much like Harry and friends and the Avengers, my cohort and I are facing our final battles in the MPA program. We have quickly realized the immensity of the work involved in defeating this monstrous final assessment. It is a massive undertaking. However, as I have been reflecting on the material from my classes, it is amazing and refreshing to see how much I, and my peers, have learned. I want to be clear, though; the process is not a pleasurable flight on a Nimbus 2000 above the Hogwarts grounds. Nevertheless, the outcome will be worth the struggle when I can finally begin working as a full-time public administrator!

Throughout the remainder of my time writing blog posts, I am excited to keep you updated on the portfolio process as well as other happenings within the MPA program. I hope you continue to follow along.

Wrapping up the Semester (Part 2)

The spring semester for MPA students is always an exciting time. The first-year students are exploring different classes and searching for the perfect Professional Work Experience (PWE) while the second years are preparing their portfolio and applying for jobs. During the winter break before the busyness of the season ensues, I wanted to give the students some time to think about what they are excited about in the coming semester. Here are a few thoughts from current residential MPA students:

Hallee Haygood (3rd year, dual-degree student)
I cannot wait to start my local government career! Only one semester between me and the best job ever.

Laura Robinson (2nd year)
Next semester I am hopeful that I can hone in on professional opportunities for my time post-MPA. I would like to see my professional background in education mesh with an open position in Public Administration, whether that is in local government or the nonprofit sector. The MPA Portfolio, while stressful and overwhelming, can offer an opportunity to synthesize the ways in which the MPA program has allowed me to grow as a leader and public servant. This, I hope, will not only help prepare me for interviews, but will help me to enter a new position with confidence.

Nikki Abija (1st year)
I’m excited for my PWE! I’ll finally get to work in a field I’m very passionate about.

Mira Singhal (2nd year)
I am interested to learn more about how public leaders solve (or try to at least lessen) the wicked problems we face in our communities. COVID seems like the perfect example of a wicked problem for so many reasons. As we deal with a global pandemic, I want to see how our leaders at the local level still maintain services and resources for their residents.

Mallory Verez (1st year)
I’m looking forward to learning more about PWEs and the core of public administration work.

I am excited to work on my PWE. All my work experience is with the federal government and am excited to work with a local/state government or non-profit. I imagine budget management may be much more difficult when working with a smaller department.

Sally Moore (1st year)
I’m super excited for Organizational Theory! I’ve heard it’s a lot of reading, but the course material seems super interesting to me.

Francesco Tassi (1st Year)
I’m excited to learn more about the financial and budgeting aspects of local government (Professor Afonso’s class) and taking my first elective in the Public Policy Minor. I’m also considering a dual degree in City & Regional Planning. Overall, grateful for the numerous paths available when pursuing an MPA at UNC.

Taking the time now to really appreciate the opportunities that lie ahead is important, as there is a lot to look forward to next semester. For me, I’m excited for the job search. Finding a position that will welcome me as part of the team and encourage me to flourish is a thrilling experience. I’m ready to land a job that will challenge me in new ways and help me cultivate new skillsets. Attaining a job that is a perfect fit will be a fun adventure, and I will have my Carolina MPA experience to thank.

A Salute to a Legacy of Public Administration

This weekend, I had the pleasure of traveling to our nation’s capital city for a few days. While in Washington D.C., I toured the monuments honoring historical figures and events and gazed at the many important buildings that offer space for decision-makers.


The most impactful moment of the trip was paying my respects to the former Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her casket was on display for public viewing on the steps of the Supreme Court building. The line to walk up the steps for a closer viewing weaved back and forth along First Street for a few blocks.


Across the street from the Supreme Court building, many individuals left flowers, gifts, notes, and signs expressing their gratitude for her legacy and the difference she made in their life. While the emotions of the environment still had an element of sorrow, reading the notes and experiencing the incredible outpour of love left me with hope.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg dedicated her life to public service. She was motivated by her passion of fighting and protecting the rights of the most vulnerable. In our MPA classes, we discuss the power of public service motivation. RBG’s life and legacy is a testament to that power.


Celebrating Work and Managing Endings

On Day 1, the public forum, things went forward nearly seamlessly in our virtual environment. SOG faculty and staff presented on collective impact, summarized two-year project, and facilitated excellent break-out sessions with team members who had expertise on topics like transportation, housing, and employment and recovery courts. There were some hiccups with the keynote speaker, Sam Quinones, the author of the highly acclaimed book Dreamland. As a journalist, he had a specific perspective of the opioid crisis, which did not always mesh with the experience and expertise of these community teams. For example, he spent over five minutes talking about how the word “addict” should be used to describe people who use drugs or who have Substance Use Disorder (SUD), despite the fact that community members in the chat attested that it was stigmatizing language. Despite these issues, the first day was a great spotlight of the project as a whole.

The second day of the forum was a teams-only event, summarizing the results of their efforts in 5-minute presentations, as well as workshops to focus on their sustainability and further work moving forward. Although there were some minor technical problems with showing some of the first presentations, these were ironed out as the day went on. Teams praised each other’s accomplishments and videos, which allowed them to make even more connections among communities using similar strategies. The teams were also able to use breakout rooms to discuss public values, collective impact, sustainability, and more, and then debrief with SOG faculty as facilitators. It was not the ending that partners may have wanted; their work, and the forum itself, were greatly complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it seemed like a fitting celebration of the teams themselves, one of the ways that ncIMPACT is managing the end of such a momentous and publicly-involved project.

Working with Clients during Covid-19

In theory, helping the teams create a 5-minute, multimedia presentation would have been fairly easy before COVID. They likely would have visited Chapel Hill during the summer for meetings, and I could have set them up for audio or video recording with professional equipment at the SOG. Worst case scenario, I may have had to make a road trip to the communities in order to co-create the presentations. However, COVID-19 has made client relationships much more complicated, especially in communities that may lack strong broadband access or public health infrastructure. Many of the individuals and organizations in the ORP are doing double duty as COVID-19 contact tracers, care providers, or policymakers. They are often extremely busy, even overwhelmed, with pandemic-related work, which makes finding time to meet difficult.
Additionally, travel restrictions and bans on in-person meetings have made all of our work on the presentations virtual. Instead of a day’s worth of recording, I have to schedule weeks of time in which I provide drafts to project managers and teams, they record audio, and I put the final products together. This has made working with clients much more difficult than it likely would have been without the influence of coronavirus. However, the teams have also expressed their gratitude for my help during this time, as they are overworked and already coping with drastic changes to in-person programs and services, including drug courts, syringe exchanges, and medical care and counseling. Although the pandemic might have made it more complicated and time-consuming, it has also taught me how to work with diverse clients virtually, and has thereby been a valuable professional experience both now and in the future.

Self-Care, Work-Life Balance, and Working from Home

This week was my eighth in my PWE, and I have just over a month to go to finish my MSW-required field hours, as well as my MPA program requirements. The School of Social Work field placement system relies on a thorough learning agreement and a mid-year and final competency evaluation that measures my abilities and growth throughout the placement. When completing it with my supervisor and field instructor this week, I was able to reflect on my progress, work products, and experiences with ncIMPACT so far this summer. Although I have been involved in multiple interesting projects that are expanding my hard skills, reflecting this week has allowed me to evaluate my soft skills growth, as well.

The MPA PWE process is meant to place students in outside organizations not only to help us learn about public administration, but also to help us grow as professionals. I have traditionally struggled, in personal, professional, and academic contexts, with saying no and managing my workload so that I have a healthy work-life balance. This summer, being on multiple projects has given me a substantive workload with meaningful tasks, but has also required me to prioritize some projects over others due to deadlines, organizational importance, or other factors. Thankfully, I have had guidance from my supervisor and field instructor as I navigate establishing reasonable boundaries for myself, even if that sometimes means saying no to additional tasks that are unrelated to my main projects.

I have also been able to establish a healthy work-life balance despite the fact that working from home makes distinguishing between the two much more difficult. Encouraged by my team, I have established distinct hours during which I complete my PWE, and off hours where I don’t complete work and usually do not check my email. This is a huge shift from our suddenly remote spring semester, where I struggled with establishing a daily routine while taking classes and working from home. I have also implemented regular self-care, including (mostly digital) time with friends and loved ones, as well as leisure time to unwind. Since COVID-19 is not disappearing before August 10th, I know that creating this routine during my time with ncIMPACT will assist me in doing the same in the fall semester and beyond.

Conferences in the Face of Covid

Screenshot of the NCLM virtual conference, CityVision.

This week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the NC League of Municipalities CityVision Virtual Summit, their online answer to their normal annual conference, cancelled because of COVID. I was able to hear speakers on diverse topics, including communication and emergency management, economic development for municipalities, and leadership and management during times of transition, fear, and uncertainty. The League did an excellent job of reimagining their conference content in an online format, including Zoom presentations and panels and pre-recorded lunch and learn modules that allowed attendees to learn more about very specific topics.

What stuck with me the most after attending the three-day event was that despite the incredible work that governments are doing to try to mitigate the effects of the virus, there is so much that we cannot control. Certain uncertainty, which Dr. Jim Johnson of UNC Kenan Flagler spoke about, is going to be the state of our society for the foreseeable future. Of course, this is not new; the uncertain is a part of life itself. However, the coronavirus has made this uncertainty more pronounced and powerful.

So how do we cope with this certain uncertainty? There isn’t really a clear answer. There are preparations we can make to avert a similar crisis in the future. There are relationships we can build and priorities we can reconsider in order to determine what our communities need right now. But really, we must learn to be flexible, forgiving, and empathetic in this time of severe, communal stress. And until we can all sit in slightly uncomfortable chairs and watch PowerPoints on projection screens again, at least we have virtual professional support and togetherness, thanks to Zoom and a little imagination.

Making an Impact

ncIMPACT Initiative is an applied public policy team that works with public officials to develop collaborative solutions to North Carolina’s wicked problems. They use an interdisciplinary approach, data driven high-quality analysis, and innovative practices to implement, evaluate, and publicize these solutions while remaining politically and policy neutral.

This is where I’ll be doing my Professional Work Experience.  My introduction  with ncIMPACT is a Zoom call with my new supervisor, Emily, on Monday at 9 AM. It’s the second to last day of exams and I’m still turning in a final tonight, but my MSW-MPA requirements mean I’m working 600 hours this summer; there’s no time to take a week or two and recuperate. The whirlwind of getting onboarded to a new organization coincides with the relief of finishing off an unusual and difficult semester, thanks to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has blurred the lines between work and life so thoroughly that transitioning from academia to work is almost effortless, at least logistically. I’m still working from home, likely through at least the end of May, if not longer. Instead of Zoom classes, it’s Zoom meetings as I get acquainted with ncIMPACT’s work and the projects I’ll be working on this summer. Part of the SOG, ncIMPACT runs applied public policy and research projects all over the state, building collaboratives in order to implement solutions to complex community problems. I’m curious to see how ncIMPACT straddles the academia-practitioner divide, aiming for direct implementation of research rather than the traditional route of academic publishing.

I’ll be working on at least four different projects this summer: their UNC-TV series, the Opioid Response Project, their federally-funded social capital project, and the EITC in NC project. Run by two different project managers, Emily and Brooklyn, these interesting projects will keep me busy as I work with a variety of staff and clients. I’m thrilled to have found an organization that will allow me to stretch both my social work and public administration muscles, doing research, policy, assessments, interventions, and evaluations of communities and systems.

In my first week, I’m already writing blogs for UNC-TV, attending virtual town halls, and getting involved with a literature review process for the social capital project, plus a variety of meetings to learn more about how I will be contributing to each of the four projects this summer. I can’t wait to see what I learn and accomplish as I look towards my final year of grad school. Let’s get started!

Public Administration Leadership (PAL) Challenge

2020 Pal Challenge invitation

The Public Administration Leadership (PAL) Challenge was created in 2013 by Master of Public Administration students. The main purpose of the Challenge is to engage UNC-Chapel Hill undergraduates in relevant, community-based issues of public administration in the form of a case study competition for a prize of $1000! Through this competition, the PAL Challenge has three main goals:

  • To educate undergraduates about public administration
  • Allow students opportunities to learn about careers in public administration, practice research and analysis, and writing skills to solve real-world problems
  • To promote the mission of the School of Government and Master of Public Administration programs.

2020 Pal Challenge invitation

This year’s PAL Challenge: 

This year’s case was centered on climate change resulting in flooding that was negatively impacting a small, fictitious town in North Carolina. As we know with our recent hurricanes from last year, floodwaters can destroy homes, infrastructure, agriculture, and threaten drinking water supplies and public health. This leaves local communities and economies reeling from the potentially catastrophic impacts, and local governments are the ones faced with the costs of recovery and clean up after flooding.  This is a current and relevant issue facing local government administrators.

 The teams were asked to research and consider funding options for mitigating factors that local governments can employ, citizen engagement, health and safety impacts, and peer municipalities to limit some of the negative impacts of flooding on this town.

All four Pal Challenge winners after their presentation
All four Pal Challenge winners after their presentation

2020 PAL Challenge Winners:

The 2020 PAL Challenge winners were: The Green Beans! This year’s winning team competed against ten other teams, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, transitioning to classes from home, and presenting remotely. 

Congratulations to Abi Blanchard, Olivia Huckel, Aakash Thumaty, and Zachary Walker, who are all seniors at UNC-Chapel Hill! They were a team of diverse backgrounds and majors. We are so proud of them! Want to learn more about our winners, check out this interview of the Green Beans Team and Cara Robinson, our MPA Director of Admissions.

Finding a PWE – Be Proactive!

My PWE wraps up this week. Though I am sad to leave my position at town hall, I am grateful to have benefited from working alongside skilled people and gaining practical experience in local government management. Between finishing final papers, preparing presentations, and sheltering in place, I’ve been reflecting about how my experience started. As a final blog post, I am sharing more about how I chose a PWE and the lessons I learned along the way.

While I previously worked in government, I never served at the local level. Given UNC’s highly ranked local government program, a local municipality seemed like a good choice for a PWE. I also interacted each week with a classroom full of Leslie Knopes. As if I needed more convincing, their passion persuaded me that local government would be a great place to work alongside other individuals committed to improving their communities. A few months prior to starting my PWE, I met with an MPA alum for coffee. I wanted to hear about his experience as a graduate of the UNC MPA program living and working in my area. This individual had extensive experience working in private and public positions and multiple levels of government. He explained that he had worked in many rewarding positions but emphasized that “local government is where you can really make a difference.”

Searching for and completing the PWE has been a learning process. The MPA staff shared a list of alumni in my area shortly after my acceptance to the program. Over the next few months, I met with multiple UNC MPA graduates and received some useful advice about surviving the program, finding a PWE, and pursuing a career in public administration. In one of those meetings, an individual recommended someone else who could be helpful in my PWE search. One email later I secured a PWE, just weeks before the spring term started!

I learned two lessons along the way: take advantage of UNC MPA resources and be willing to expand your network. One of the most beneficial resources has been the MPA program staff. (Shout out to Susan Austin, Allison Binkley, and Kristin Pawlowski!) From sharing the list of alumni, to helping tweak my resume, to guiding me through the PWE contract, they offered invaluable assistance throughout the process. I began sending emails immediately after receiving the alumni list, many of whom were gracious enough to meet with me over coffee. During the meetings, I asked for advice and for recommendations of other people I should contact. I also reached out to former coworkers who were incredibly helpful in providing guidance and support. After the meetings, I followed up with a note or email thanking each person for taking the time to share their advice. Those meetings were an important source of information and eventually led to my finding a PWE. Being proactive is not always easy, but (at least for me) it produced great results!