The first cohort of Iowa’s Master of Public Affairs (MPAff) degree recipients walked across the stage at commencement on May 13. This new program began in the fall of 2020 and was created with the help of retired, long term director Dr. Charles Connerly; current director of the School of Planning & Public Affairs, Dr. Lucie Laurian; and participating faculty.
Travis Kraus, associate professor in the School of Planning & Public Affairs and director of the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities, dives into why this MPAff program was formed at Iowa.
“One of the main motivations for this program to start is the market demand for people that are trained to do public administration,” Kraus stated. “Iowa has a big need for city managers and public administrators, which this MPAff program prepares students to become, but we also educate future leaders that will work in non-profits as well as federal and state governments.”
Before the MPAff program was established, Urban and Regional Planning (URP) was the School of Planning and Public Affairs’ only master’s program. URP prepares students to take on socioeconomic and environmental issues and systematically design spaces that will enhance community lives, and the MPAff program expands on those issues through the lens of public administration and policy.
“Public affairs provides and avenue for people to access career options that aim to tackle major and social and environmental issues,” Kraus said. “We have a lot of work to do at all levels, especially at the local level, and we train people that have the interest and desire to be part of solutions to these problems.”
Two of these students looking to be a part of bigger solutions are graduating MPAff students, Michaela Dohleman and Caleb Smith. This past semester, Dohleman and Smith have worked with their classmates on their capstone projects administered through Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC).
“IISC is the University’s foremost program for identifying real world experiences and capstone projects,” Kraus gleamed. “All MPAff students are currently working on their capstone projects identified through IISC, but this program has expanded beyond just the School of Planning & Public Affairs students. Because communities have lots of needs and opportunities, IISC works with students from engineering, law, art, marketing, and film.”
Dohleman’s capstone project focuses on creating a zero waste and decarbonization plan for Muscatine Community College where she and her teammates work directly with administrators, faculty, and a student-led group. This project has given her real-world experience of forming a sustainability plan from beginning to end.
“We started from scratch and created a baseline by performing a waste audit and surveying the school to measure the sustainability literacy, practices, and attitudes,” Dohleman explained. “Soon we will be presenting a framework for MCC to to create and implement a sustainability plan.”
Smith and his team work directly with Maquoketa City Council to improve best practices for their local government. They work towards fleshing out the town’s established government goals into actionable items and are assisting the city council in their onboarding procedures. Smith describes how his capstone reflects the MPAff program’s goal of providing service to others.
“Our capstones are about providing a need or service to a constituency of people. In my group’s case, it is the citizens of Maquoketa,” Smith said. “While we’re not directly working with Maquoketa’s citizens, by helping the city council set and achieve goals we are indirectly helping the constituency. It’s really important to remember when getting a public affairs degree that we are here to better serve others in our community.”
While many graduate program capstones projects are completed individually, MPAff students work in groups of three or four to accomplish their task. This teamwork prepares them for their future careers in the public sector and the diverse backgrounds MPAff students bring helps further develop their collaborative skills.
“By bringing together [the student’s] collective experiences, skills, and world perspectives, the quality of the project enhances,” said Kraus. “The group dynamics formed during the execution of the projects leads students to take on bigger leadership roles. The capstone experience is an intense process that prepares students for doing something similar once they graduate and collaborate with people in their workplace.”
Teamwork is a theme across the School of Planning & Public Affairs with faculty collaborating with its first graduating students to expand the MPAff program’s reach and depth of study for future students.
“Once a semester our program holds a ‘town hall’ meeting where students are able to address any concerns publicly. As the first cohort we’ve been given surveys about our experiences and the faculty are very receptive to our voices,” Dohleman explained. “It’s mutually beneficial because they know if they listen to our concerns and suggestions, it would be making the program better for future cohorts.”
Incoming MPAff students can look forward to well-equipped faculty members, a refined curriculum, and real-world experiences to prepare them for dynamic, real-world challenges. This program intends to provide myriad career opportunities ranging from politics and policy to nonprofit organizations. Kraus and MPAff faculty are always interested in talking to prospective students who have an interest in public service.
“There are many tracks the MPAff program can lead to,” Kraus said. “For any student that is passionate about social justice or climate change but unsure of where that may lead as far as a career path, we would love to hear from them and explain how our program can help them be successful in their future career goals.”