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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.
By Angela Pool-Funai
August 21, 2015
A well-orchestrated public administration program is like a symphony: different elements feature their own specialties, but the piece comes together as a whole. The bassists and violists, for example, read different lines of music but their collective contributions to the movement are critical. Certain fundamentals remain consistent from instrument to instrument within the orchestra. In the same way, some of our students may specialize in particular tracks – such as state and local government or higher education administration – but they are all being equipped as public administrators.
Experiential learning courses (like internships and professional projects) allow students to demonstrate their mastery of the fundamental tools learned in class and put their skills into practice in a hands-on environment. One of the things that I enjoy most about teaching experiential learning courses in public administration is that such classes enrich the “town and gown” relationship between our institutions and the local community. Too often, universities give the impression of living within a protective bubble, insulated from the surrounding neighborhoods. Experiential learning courses can help bridge the gap between the institution and community.
A dynamic experiential learning program can connect the university with local businesses, community nonprofit organizations and government agencies to develop partnerships that might not otherwise have occasion to develop. When we send students into the community to serve in internships and conduct professional projects, we extend the reach of the institution. These experiential learning efforts should provide a value-added service to the supervising agency or organization, which, in turn, would generate goodwill toward the university.
If all we do is send out students to fulfill “x” number of hours of work to check off the requirements for an internship, or submit a certain number of reports to complete a professional project class, then we may run efficient public administration programs on paper, but we are doing a disservice to our students by limiting their exposure to the breadth of public service. Furthermore, focusing only on the efficiency of our programs, rather than the extra value we could provide, overlooks a ripe opportunity to build bridges between our institutions and the communities where we live and work.
A 2014 article by Azhar Manzoor illustrated this notion of value as a complement to efficiency in public administration. In its infancy, public administration focused on systematic structure and efficiency above all else. As time evolved, the public sector has adopted more customer-focused strategies gleaned from the business world. Experiential learning courses are a dynamic way that we can train future public administrators to be problem solvers and seek ways to leave an organization better than they found it.
A few examples of value-added services from an experiential learning project could involve a budget analysis presented to an agency board, a training manual for the organization’s human resources office, or a recommendation made to a local city council for policy changes that impact local industry. We, as practitioners and educators, can also encourage students to share their experiences through conference presentations and campus showcase events.
Experiential learning courses are a great segue between learning that takes place in the classroom and application of that learning in the real world. By equipping our students to serve their communities, we not only provide them with valuable professional skills, but we also provide the avenue on which they can be role models of giving back to the community. This in turn makes them a valuable asset to both the university and the community.
Author: Angela Pool-Funai is an assistant professor of political science and public administration at Southern Utah University. Opinions are her own. She encourages feedback and can be reached at [email protected]