Schools Prepare Future Public Servants to Meet the Needs of Marginalized Communities

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There’s little need to motivate students in the University of Central Florida (UCF) School of Public Administration to want to serve the marginalized communities around them, says Naim Kapucu, PhD, director of the school. After all, he says, most students who choose to pursue a degree in public policy or administration do so because they hope to improve the status quo.

Naim Kapucu
Naim Kapucu

What these students do need to learn, says Kapucu, is how to most effectively serve these communities. The Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) — which accredits programs of public policy, public affairs, public administration, and public and nonprofit management — places a high priority on students obtaining this knowledge as well as the related necessary skills.

[Above: CUPA students outside of the Center for Women’s Leadership at PSU]

“Because graduates of NASPAA-accredited programs across the world are expected to be leaders in promoting public service values and protecting the public interest,” NASPAA’s website reads, “it is particularly important they be prepared to communicate and interact productively with a diverse and changing workforce and citizenry.” One of the organization’s five Universal Required Competencies, which are necessary for accreditation, calls for students to graduate with this ability.

NASPAA provides several online tools to help schools better prepare their students to function effectively in diverse communities. A workshop that teaches strategies for creating effective diversity plans, which was originally presented at a 2017 NASPAA event, is now available online for free. Additionally, real-life examples of self-study reports, logic models, assessment plans, curriculum maps, rubrics, diversity and strategic plans, and faculty qualification policies from accredited schools are available on NASPAA’s Commission on Peer Review and Accreditation website. These examples, while not endorsed by NASPAA, provide schools with a starting point as they work to build a program-wide commitment to diversity that both supports underrepresented students and encourages them to serve marginalized communities.

At UCF, the School of Public Administration’s dedication to preparing students to work with underserved populations starts with its mission statement, which explicitly calls out the need for graduates to be able to address “complex societal issues” such as poverty, homelessness, and intolerance, among other challenges. “These [issues] are priorities in our research, in our course curriculum, as well as in our … activities,” Kapucu says.

The school offers two types of experiential learning opportunities for students: internships and service learning. Kapucu says that as participants work with the community, they’re pushed to move beyond textbooks and address issues in real life. Several UCF classes incorporate service-learning projects as a requirement for completion, but students can also choose to pursue these experiences individually. Additionally, undergraduates in the School of Public Administration are required to complete an internship; in the past, this has included opportunities at more than 40 community organizations.

UCF graduate Marsha Noel
UCF graduate Marsha Noel

Students also complete projects ranging from strategic planning for minority-serving nonprofit organizations to crisis communication and disaster planning for vulnerable populations. Kapucu says participants often list these hands-on experiences as some of their best opportunities for learning.

At Portland State University (PSU), Dean of the College of Urban and Public Affairs (CUPA) Stephen Percy, PhD, says that the school consistently hears from students — both graduate and undergraduate — who feel that “issues of equity, inclusion, and social justice are a key interest and top priority.” Because of this, he says the college embraces issues of equity and inclusion across its curriculum, “particularly as they relate to traditionally marginalized populations in urban communities.”

Experiential learning is also one of the tools PSU uses to prepare students to address the needs of underserved communities. CUPA’s Department of Political Science now offers a public service option for individuals “who want more hands-on experience in governance,” says Percy. Those who go this route are required to complete an internship. Options are broad, and in the past, students have worked with organizations whose foci range from food security and equity — like the Surplus People Project — to working with people struggling with addiction.

“Experiential learning like this substantially expands student understanding of human needs and advances their capacity to formulate strategies to remediate problems through innovative solutions,” Percy explains.

Although hands-on learning is important, Kapucu points out that unlike social workers, for instance, most public policy and administration students end up in positions that concentrate more on policy development than one-on-one interactions with community members. According to NASPAA, 68 percent of 2015-2016 schools of public policy, affairs, or administration graduates were working for governments or nonprofits six months after completing their degree.

UCF Office of Emergency Management’s Seminole County Emergency Operation
UCF Office of Emergency Management’s Seminole County Emergency Operation

However, that doesn’t mean that working directly with community members doesn’t provide crucial knowledge, says Marsha Noel, a graduate of UCF’s Master of Public Administration program. She thinks that learning to communicate well with community members is essential for public administrators addressing the needs of marginalized communities — exposure that experiential learning offers. “Relationship-building is key for [developing] trust within all segments of the community, especially the underserved,” says Noel. “So in essence, it all boils down to communication, listening, and considering their input during the decision-making process.”

Noel credits the internship she completed while she was a student at UCF with helping prepare her to serve diverse communities. “[The] experience improved my interpersonal skills in regard to communication, leadership, and teamwork,” she says.

Because the county where she interned and her current community share a similar diversity of race, education, and culture, she believes she’s better equipped to serve now that she’s started her career with the City of Fort Lauderdale. “It’s a very rewarding experience,” she says, “to see how my skills assist me with making an impact in the lives of others on various levels.”

Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran our March 2018 issue.