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From San Diego to Zimbabwe, online MPA students tackle social issues

Associate Professor Juliet Musso, third from left, with online MPA students Rachel Madewell, Eric Lardy and Sean Hallman

Online Master of Public Administration (MPA) students at the USC Price School of Public Policy showed the advantage of distance learning by conducting group projects for clients in a wide array of places, such as Washington, D.C., San Diego, Virginia and even Zimbabwe.

During the spring semester, this first group of capstone projects from online students illustrated the potential of the new distance learning program. As the students worked from their computers in various corners of the world, their projects could be undertaken anywhere and extend USC Price’s reach.

Jenna Green, Kyla Moss and Brandon Slater journeyed virtually to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, to assist the Precious Life Project, a nonprofit that aims to provide young women with marketable skills to give them an alternative to prostitution.

“It shows the reach USC can have globally in this program, and I think that’s really special,” Green said. “None of us have ever been to Zimbabwe, so getting a feel for the economy, culture and traditions there was a learning curve for us, especially since we’re working on such a sensitive matter.”

Using income from her job as a physical therapist, Precious Life Project was started by Agnes Kwenda and her husband. The USC group coordinated around challenging time differences to discuss the assignment with each other and Kwenda in Zimbabwe. Slater was in Seattle, Moss in Berlin and Green was traveling between Miami and her job, working for the nonprofit Project Medishare in Haiti.

The Trojans provided Kwenda with a list of recommendations for ways to improve fundraising, marketing and communications efforts through basic updates to the organization’s website, better communication with donors and greater social media engagement.

“It was really gratifying at the end because we could tell the woman who founded the project was extremely grateful and complimentary of the work,” Green said. “So much of what we do at school deals with hypothetical situations. It was such a great way to end the program, to feel like you actually made a difference and left deliverables she can use going forward.”

Distance learning was developed with the working professional in mind, so it’s no surprise that many of the students brought a great deal of experience into their projects.

A group that analyzed workers’ compensation costs for the City of Alexandria, Va., featured Ryan Bingham, mayor for the City of Torrington, Conn.; Ramona Smith, assistant city manager for the City of Fresno, Calif.; Lauren Balisky, associate planner for the City of Lynnwood, Wash.; and Justin Buchanan, vice president at First Niagara Financial Group in New York.

“One of the great things about our cohort is we had people who have been out there working in the field for a long time,” Balisky said. “Everyone is doing something really interesting.”

The students traveled to Alexandria to make their presentation to city officials in person — the only group to do so. Recommendations included ways to reduce injuries, return injured employees to their jobs in a timely manner, and contribute to an efficient and streamlined workers’ compensation claims process.

“We found the USC group to be engaging and knowledgeable,” said Gillian Chandler, who worked with the students as part of Alexandria’s risk-management team. “Their findings and recommendations were thorough and confirmed the improvements that we are already in the process of implementing.”

Another group put together a report on smart federal hiring practices for Partnership for Public Service, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is trying to change the way the federal government approaches workforce planning.

Mark Van Horn communicated with fellow team members Sean Hallman, Russell Pratt and Matthew Diaz from his post as a teacher and mentor for the U.S. Army’s Mission Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, through conference calls on Skype, and then they used Google Docs so that they could all add to and edit the report.

One of the main concerns of the Partnership for Public Service is how to ensure that the government is competing effectively with the private sector to get the best talent. The group presented research from USC Marshall School of Business labor economist Alec Levenson that, due to limited resources, the public sector really needs to figure out which positions contribute most to the organization to identify where top-tier talent is needed.

“Over the course of this program, I have had at least one or two classes each semester that I can apply to work every day,” Hallman said. “I’m going to take away a lot from this program, especially the capstone project with the research, literature reviews and interviews we were doing.”

Eric Lardy, Janet Little, Rachel Madewell and Michael Valentine tackled the issue of community gardens in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego, an area that became the focus of revitalization efforts by USC Price’s namesake, Sol Price, and his nonprofit Price Charities.

Urban agriculture can be a source of neighborhood pride, drive civic participation, improve health and food access, and be an economic catalyst. The group recommended ways these community gardens can become self-governed, sustainable enterprises through community engagement, leadership development, intersectional collaborations, and supportive structures and systems.

Many of the online students converged in Los Angeles to present projects in May, seeing each other’s work and meeting their professors in person for the first time.

“The challenges of having virtual group collaboration on a project are interesting,” said USC Price Adjunct Associate Professor Daniel Haverty, who served as the faculty supervisor for the students working with the Precious Life Project in Zimbabwe. “I think the way of the world is moving more to that type of distance team work.”

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