Undaunted by the pandemic, the new MPA cohort is off and running

This year’s Master of Public Affairs (MPA) cohort at the Watson Institute will have experiences unlike any other previous cohort: by all accounts, the group is responding to pandemic-driven changes with resilience, grace, and grit. Given the pandemic, faculty deftly pivoted last March to adopt a remote education model. And, in response to feedback from last year’s MPA cohort, faculty are tweaking their virtual lectures, office hours, and more to preserve a dynamic and rewarding learning experience for students.

On the personnel front, Olivia Whalen succeeds Carrie Nordlund as associate director, and Brown University’s Deputy Provost Shankar Prasad – instrumental in establishing the MPA program – is serving as interim director during MPA Program Director Eric Patashnik’s year-long sabbatical.

This new pandemic-driven approach for the MPA, Watson Institute’s flagship master’s program, offers both opportunities and challenges, said Whalen. She anticipates broader consultancy opportunities for students, as employers may be more receptive to virtual consultancies. Pre-pandemic, the 11-week consultancy – a key component of the yearlong curriculum – had to be in person. Now, students will have greater opportunities to do projects for clients located across the country and even abroad.

With more control over their learning, “students will be able to watch videos of course lectures on their own schedules and rewatch lectures multiple times to gain a better grasp of materials,” said Patashnik. With this new blended learning model, building collegial relationships will be a challenge. “We are working to create a nurturing and supportive community through Zoom conversations and office hours, orientation events and affinity groups on social media platforms,” he said. 

“Students are in Australia, China, Hawaii, and Oman, and it’s pretty incredible to be able to talk with them on Zoom, in such far-flung time zones,” said Nordlund. Student cohorts are always diverse, and this year is no exception: at least 27 students are international and 13 are Brown fifth-year students. Toran Seth, BA ’20, for instance, will work for the Singaporean government after earning his MPA. Other students, including Alex Triplett, stationed in Oman on active duty with the U.S. Army, and LaTausha Rogers, who holds a master of social work degree, bring their unique perspectives. 

Despite staff changes and the shift to a virtual learning model, key elements of the highly competitive MPA program remain unchanged. “Brown continues to be an extremely desirable destination for top-notch students pursuing careers in public service, and Watson’s faculty includes many of the world’s leading social scientists conducting cutting-edge research in economic mobility, education, health, and spatial inequality,” Patashnik said.  

“Whatever your interest is, there is someone at the top of their field at the Watson, including Senior Fellow Richard Boucher, Professor of Economics John Friedman, and others,” said Daniel Fitzgerald, MPA ’20, who enjoyed Boucher’s class, Skills for Future Diplomats, which incorporated research projects involving simulated United Nations’ sessions and nuclear security conferences. Now, said Fitzgerald, “I have the skills to understand the importance of evidence-based policy-making … they will be directly applicable in my job” at ASR Analytics, a federal government consulting firm.

“Having only 48 hours to write a thoroughly researched and cohesive policy memo on a randomly drawn subject was a formative experience,” said Eesha Bhave, MPA ’20, who dreaded selecting – and then drew – tax policy as her topic, for a class with Patashnik. “It showed me what’s possible in policy analyses. Working on the 11-page research memo and spending most of those 48 hours with her peers turned out to be really fun,” said Bhave.   

“This is a critical moment in the nation’s history. While we remain a deeply polarized nation, I believe some of the barriers to reform are beginning to weaken,” said Patashnik. “The mission of training public service leaders who know how to confront urgent problems, analyze data, craft and implement evidence-based solutions and build broad-based support for needed social change – precisely the skills we impart through the MPA – has never been more important.” 

“It’s impossible to study public policy without critically thinking about everything happening right now, be it police brutality or the pandemic,” said Bhave, who is currently consulting with Futures Without Violence while seeking a policy position focusing on gender equity. “The MPA program, with its close connections to the Rhode Island and Providence communities, taught me to think more about the importance of state and local policy implications, which are particularly heightened due to the pandemic.”  

Lamenting that many people get news from Facebook, Fitzgerald has developed a healthy dose of skepticism. “When you’re in the trenches [of coursework], you’re bombarded with content, but you [develop] a more discerning eye. The program changes how you consume information and make decisions.”  

With a pandemic, an economic crisis, and rallies protesting police brutality and racism, not to mention a pending presidential election, it is impossible to overstate the importance of public policy. In these tumultuous times, Watson’s MPA program is more valuable than ever.