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USC Price students go beyond the classroom to tackle real-world issues

At the 2014 Policy Analysis Practicum, students work with organizations like the United Nations, Price Charities and the California State Treasurer's office

by Ben Dimapindan

During the 2014 Policy Analysis Practicum, USC Master of Public Policy (MPP) students served as consultants for high-profile clients on real-world issues. Working in groups, students gained practical consulting experience in policy analysis, working collaboratively in small teams to conduct research on an important policy issue and identify policy opportunities on behalf of their client.

2014 Policy Analysis Practicum

USC Master of Public Policy students Liana Elliott, Yolanda De La Paz, Julia Johnson and Erica Liepmann (Photo/ Tom Queally)

“The goal of the practicum is to give our clients something that they can use,” said Gary Painter, director of graduate programs in public policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

The array of projects that students created during this year’s practicum has shown both the range of real-world policy issues our world faces and the innovative approaches that MPP students found to help address many of them.

Developing safer neighborhoods

The Institute for Nonviolence in Los Angeles asked students to analyze their organization’s unique contribution to the community — local elementary school peer mediation programs funded by USC Good Neighbors grants.

Group member Raven Jackson noted how her fellow group members share her interest in social policy and education policy.

“It’s very important to society to have both of those policies be equitable, and I plan to work in those sectors creating and reforming those policies,” Jackson said. “It’s a passion of mine.”

Jill Frank, program manager at the Institute for Nonviolence, added that the students’ report is “very helpful in terms of not only giving an internal analysis of what we’re doing and how we’re delivering the program, but also giving an objective opportunity to the funder to look at what the success is of this program and what the challenges are of delivering it.”

One group of students worked to implement a program that would reflect the transition from gasoline to vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which alternative energies like electric cars use to measure efficiency. The California Chamber of Commerce website and the popular politics and business blog Fox & Hounds featured posts about one group’s analysis of how increased fuel efficiency might necessitate the transition from a gasoline tax to a fee on VMT as a way to fund the state’s roads and infrastructure.

Integrating military women into direct combat

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was similarly approving of another student group’s evaluation of the progress of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps in integrating women into direct combat positions.

“We got a memo from one of the clients in the General Accounting Office saying how excellent they thought that report was and how appreciative they were of the students doing the work and helping,” said Daniel Mazmanian, who co-teaches the practicum course with Painter. “When clients say this is valuable, that’s the litmus test.”

When clients say this is valuable, that’s the litmus test.

Daniel Mazmanian

Client Foster Kerrison, senior policy analyst at GAO and USC Price alumnus, explained that the National Defense Authorization Act for this coming year might require a GAO review of the women in combat issue, and the students’ work is “already being used in terms of helping us to know the landscape of issues associated with this topic.”

“That was definitely a crash course in learning about the military,” student Joshua Pynoos said. “It was valuable to do policy analysis in an area that we don’t have experience in because it makes us better writers and gets us to see issues that we wouldn’t normally see.”

Increasing healthy food access in LA

The students who consulted for the California State Treasurer’s Office worked on another relevant and timely project: an analysis of increasing healthy food access in Los Angeles County through corner store conversions.

While conducting in-person interviews with corner store owners, the student group learned to expect the unexpected, ranging from language barriers to lack of cooperation.

“In terms of skills that I learned throughout the entire academic year, it was really about having to readapt and having a plan B and even a plan C or D sometimes, and understanding that that’s OK and that’s what’s going to happen,” said group member Stephanie Gomez.

Najia Rosales, acting executive director of the California Healthy Food Financing Initiative Council in the California State Treasurer’s Office, said, “It’s always good to get a fresh perspective on a different age group because I find that people that are in a certain age group or going to school have a quicker way to look at things in terms of being more dynamic, more adaptable.”

Bringing public spaces to urban areas

Darryl Ford, management analyst in the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks’ Planning, Construction and Maintenance Branch, also gained a fresh perspective from the students’ analysis of the 50 Parks Initiative, which brings new public spaces to underserved neighborhoods.

“The students were able to look at the project from truly a research perspective and look at whether there was data to support some of our ‘gut reaction outcomes.’ So it was very helpful,” Ford said.

The students evaluated the 50 Parks Initiative over a sustained period of time for their client, the Los Angeles Parks Foundation, which works closely with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.

Learning about international policy at the United Nations

Another group analyzed the Millennium Development Goals for the United Nations’ Division for Public Administration and Development Management (DPADM). According to student Heidi Greenhalgh, “one of the greatest skills that we gained as a team was actually learning how to work with such a large project, narrowing it down and assigning it, learning to work with people’s best attributes and applying that evenly throughout the group.”

Through the practicum, students were able to gain valuable professional experience in the international policy arena.

The students’ research and recommendations have provided us with really valuable insights and information that we can use in our decision-making on redevelopment issues.

Becky Modesto

“During this process, we got to travel to the United Nations, and we met with all the different divisions,” she said. “We were able to actually publish a paper jointly with one of the professors, Frank Zerunyan.”

As chief of the DPADM Public Administration Capacity Branch in the U.N. Department of Economic and Social Affairs, John-Mary Kauzya added:  “They did impressive work, and they are a very serious and focused group.”

Making housing affordable for all

One nonprofit client, Price Charities, worked with students to develop an analysis of the impact of two high-quality but affordable apartment buildings that their organization developed in the culturally diverse City Heights neighborhood of San Diego.

“The students’ research and recommendations have provided us with really valuable insights and information that we can use in our decision-making on redevelopment issues,” said Becky Modesto, director of university relations for Price Charities.

Matthew Hervey from Price Charities Community Development added: “The research and the theoretical development of ideas will oftentimes start in that classroom or university setting. So to have the students be able to bring those ideas to us and share them with us and feed us in terms of our own thought process is very invigorating. It’s helpful for us to see things in a new way that improves the end product that we try to deliver to this community.”

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