Public Service Spotlight
Program Manager at College Possible Omaha
Tell us about your current public service work. Can you briefly describe your employment organization and position responsibilities, as well as any relevant volunteer or entrepreneurial activities?
I serve as the Program Manager for College Possible Omaha. College Possible is a nonprofit organization that makes college admission and success possible for low-income students through an intensive curriculum of coaching and support. Students join the two-year program as juniors and College Possible continues to support students through college to ensure retention and graduation. 98% the students that complete the program are accepted into a four-year college and 80% have gone on to graduate or are still in school! Nationally, only 8% low-income students graduate from college; College Possible is truly breaking down the achievement gap. While the organization serves over 8,000 students nationally, Omaha started with four AmeriCorps members, two high schools and 74 students in January 2012. Since January, our students prepared for the ACT and saw a 13% increase in their scores. In the fall, we will begin the process of applying for college and scholarships. We will also expand to six schools in the fall and our AmeriCorps team will grow to 11. I can’t wait to see our students begin their path to college!
Please summarize your professional and academic background. What has been a highlight?
I grew up in Wichita, Kansas and attended the University of Kansas, graduating in 2004. While at KU I studied political science, international relations, and Spanish. After college, I served in the Peace Corps from 2004-2006 and returned to intern for a small non-profit in Washington, DC. In DC, I realized an advanced degree is required to move up in the non-profit world. I chose Wagner for its non-profit management program, evaluation/statistics courses, and the location. While at Wagner, I heard about an internship from a fellow student (networking works!) that knew I was interested in evaluation. The internship, at ICF International, a research and consulting firm, turned into a year-long introduction to real world evaluation of federal public health projects. After graduation, they hired me full time and I worked there for three years, earning a promotion to Senior Associate.
What led you to pursue a master's degree in Public Administration? Why did you decide to study at Wagner?
Wagner provided the three variables I desired in a graduate school: a top-tier university, a focus on evaluation, and a location in a city where I wanted to continue my career. At Wagner, I took every statistics and evaluation course offered and focused on finding an internship that needed these skills. This wasn’t hard since Wagner is in New York where are many firms that require evaluation skills as well as data-driven non-profit organizations. At Wagner, several classes involved either case studies or working with actual clients on performance measurement or evaluation tasks. This was not theory, but real-life work to improve organizational performance and outcomes of individuals in need. Today, I use these lessons learned on the data we gather on our students at College Possible (grades, ACT scores, attendance) to highlight students that need extra attention- or just a little more practice on the ACT Math section.
In your current position, how do you use the knowledge and skills that you gained at Wagner? Which skills do you use most frequently?
When I think about what I took from Wagner, I think about the intersection between research and action. At College Possible, we constantly focus on our outcomes, but also on the training and morale of our AmeriCorps members that work with the students in our program. Wagner provided me with the knowledge that I needed for this position- how to effectively achieve outcomes while managing inspiring the people that make the organization great.
Reflecting on your academic experience, what Wagner courses, professors, and / or projects had the greatest influence on your professional development? How?
Carolyn Berry’s class on program evaluation had the greatest impact on my future career. I came into Wagner knowing that I wanted to focus on how to improve program performance through evaluation and performance measurement. Her class provided a theoretical backbone while also building our skills through analysis of published research and a mock evaluation proposal for an actual program. This class reinforced my belief in the power of data while also learning how to communicate these results to those that implement the program.
Reflecting on your time outside of the classroom (social events, orientations, trainings, etc.), can you describe one or two key moments at Wagner that impacted your passion for public service?
On our orientation I met several of the people that became my closest friends at Wagner. All of them are now incredibly successful in their fields of choice. Being able to learn and grow with such an exceptional group of fellow students is a moment that continued for my two years at Wagner. These friends become your network, the people that will move the world in the future, and they’ll be in your email contact list!
Are there any programs, opportunities or other aspects of the Wagner experience that you wish you had leveraged during your time as a student?
I worked with the Wagner staff to build the degree that I wanted to complete- one focused on evaluation, performance measurement, and statistics. However, if I started again, I would focus on finding a graduate assistantship, TA position, or a research position with a professor. Not only do these positions expand your knowledge and network base, but also provide help with your tuition!
How are you involved with the Wagner community as an alumnus (i.e. attending events, mentoring students, maintaining connections with other alumni, recruiting at Wagner, etc.)?
Before I moved to Omaha in October 2011, I co-organized the Recent Alumni Committee. I love talking with my fellow Wagner alumni on all of their achievements and updates. I strongly believe that graduate school is equal parts class and networking. Your classmates and professors are amazing and the more you reach out, the stronger your ability to help others and for them to help you! Go to every event, join clubs, talk to the wonderful folks in Career Services, and always remember that your career is less than two years away!
Prospective students have expressed interest in learning how alumni funded their living expenses and education during their time as a Wagner student. If you feel comfortable, would you please tell us how you made it work?
While at Wagner, I had a 50% scholarship from my Peace Corps service and the generosity of the Shriver family. However, I also worked 20 hours a week my first year as an ESL teacher and then 25-30 hours a week with ICF International as an intern my second year. I only took loans for tuition, not for rent or living costs. To any potential student at Wagner, I would recommend the following: apply for private scholarships (cappex and fastweb, for example), live within your means, and find a part-time position related to what you want to do after you graduate. You will thank yourself later with a lighter (or no) debt load.