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MPA alums fill critical roles


When Martin Senterfitt, chief of Jacksonville’s Emergency Preparedness Division, was looking for a few good candidates to fill out his 13-member staff, he didn’t have to look far.


Senterfitt, a 2005 graduate from the University of North Florida’s Master of Public Administration program, went straight back to his alma mater.


“It’s a quality program that produces educated students with a strong interest in public service,” he said. “I’d know that better than anyone, being a graduate myself. It’s why I’ve hired many other [UNF] M.P.A. grads.”


George Candler, the director of the program, said UNF’s M.P.A. degree has one of the most visible alumni bases of any graduate program.


Other than Senterfitt, prominent alumni also include Jimmy Orth, the executive director of the St. Johns Riverkeeper; David Shoar, St. Johns County Sheriff; and Jim Overton, Duval County property appraiser.


“We’re represented in pretty much every level of government across Northeast Florida,” Candler said. “It’s a good feeling because that’s just more validation that the program is thriving. There’s no better indicator than seeing a strong network of alumni employed locally.”


The program caters to mid-career professionals, offering almost all courses in the evening, usually from 6 to 8:45 p.m. Internships and online courses are all offered to help prospective students juggle the demands of their jobs while still pursuing their education.

And with five different concentrations in key areas of public administration — general administration, health administration, local government policy and administration, national security and non-profit management  — the program is well suited for dozens of different public-sector positions.

Candler said the vast majority of M.P.A. students stay in the region to work.     


It’s a community-centered approach that UNF takes seriously.


It’s why UNF was classified as a community-engaged college by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, a higher education policy center in Stanford, Calif., in 2010.


“As a product of the program, I know the quality of the education UNF provides for its public administration students,” Senterfitt said. “They’re tested in and out of class and have a deep insight into how local government operates. It’s an easy choice when we have UNF graduates as candidates because we know what we’re getting. We’re getting quality.”


Public education


The UNF M.P.A. graduate pool has been a vital source of manpower for Senterfitt’s department. He currently has five UNF M.P.A. graduates on staff. He said he would likely hire another if he had an additional open job.


One of his most recent hires, Emergency Planner Donald Postway,

had already graduated from UNF in 2005 with a bachelor’s in communication and a concentration in public relations before taking a position within the Emergency Preparedness Division.


Postway worked at a small marketing firm shortly after graduating with his bachelor’s, but he said the profit-driven style of business left him feeling cold. He wanted to do something more community-driven and less focused on the bottom line.


That led him back to the familiar confines of UNF. He said his dream has always been to pursue a doctoral degree, and he used his discontent with his private-sector position as the driving force behind his quest for a graduate degree.


Choosing a degree program didn’t take long. Postway said he minored in political science for his undergraduate degree, but he knew he would never want to be a politician. And his brief foray into the business world made it clear that he wanted something more than just a paycheck.


“I wanted a way to use my skills and abilities to help the public, so a master’s in public administration made perfect sense,” Postway said. “I could either learn to be a public servant or a non-profit organization employee and use my knowledge to help the community.”


He pulled odd hours at a nearby restaurant and picked up some freelance communication work to make ends meet, but he never lost sight of his end goal.


He wanted to hold that graduate degree in his hand and find a position that used his skills to improve the city he’s lived in for years.


Postway’s colleague, Laura Black, followed a different career path but ended up with a job as a mitigation and recovery program coordinator within the same department. The Allen D. Nease High School graduate went to Florida State University for a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary social science and started working after college for FEMA as an independent contractor. She conducted household damage assessments after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, and the stories she heard from impacted homeowners stuck with her.

“Seeing the damage caused to the communities I visited, I wanted to do more to help the people I met,” Black said. “That’s why the M.P.A. program seemed to be a perfect fit. My family all lives in Jacksonville, so UNF was the perfect fit as well. It also helped that the classes I needed to earn an M.P.A. degree were at night, so I was still able to work while I went to school.”

Degree on your time


Senterfitt said he hired both Black and Postway because of their advanced degrees and their field experience. Each had multiple internships under their belts and a firm understanding of the public administration landscape.


He’d expect no less after what he went through to receive his own degree. Senterfitt was already rising through the ranks of the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department when he realized he needed a higher-ranking degree to continue his ascent.


He pushed himself through night classes after pulling long hours with the fire department. But he stayed motivated, he said, because he knew his degree would help him rise to the top of the administrative food chain.


“When I applied for the position with the Emergency Preparedness Division, I was the only candidate with a master’s,” he said. “It made me look like an even better candidate. I’d attribute my degree greatly to my success.”


Ready for anything


But Senterfitt said the long-term employment potential of the degree isn’t its only benefit. The graduate program offers intense, hands-on training that could benefit anyone in the public administration field.


Postway agrees. He said he learned a lot about managing employees, making the best use of the bureaucratic systems of governments and organizations and analyzing data. Those skills have helped him learn on his feet, a necessary strength in such a fast-paced field. Once he was hired, Postway said he was ready to hit the ground running.


“One of the best things is that you leave school with a toolbox, not a template,” he said.


Postway writes emergency plans for Duval County, to prepare for anything from a flood to a hurricane. He is also responsible for gathering all the different city agencies together and helping them decide how their agencies will work together in a time of crisis.


“I love it because it gives me a chance to learn about many different interesting topics,” he said. “I hope that a plan I wrote never has to be activated, but it’s comforting to know that we have it covered if the situation ever arose.”


Black said the program pushed her out of her comfort zone and forced her to interact extensively with city workers at every level of local government.

One day might involve giving a presentation on a project.  The next might include a host of public-speaking engagements.

One thing, however, is certain.

“I’m always on center stage speaking to people,” Black said. “And I’m prepared every step of the way because of the UNF M.P.A. program.”


Difference makers                       

Senterfitt said he remembers his time in UNF’s M.P.A. program fondly. He spent time in class with a diverse array of current and future public servants — police officers, city government employees and fellow fire and rescue workers — who were driven to give back to their communities.

That visceral undercurrent of public service helped guide him through the program and still shapes his policy decisions to this day, he said.

“It prepared me for anything that’s thrown at me,” Senterfitt said. “I wouldn’t be as qualified or as knowledgeable in the field without having the educational background. I spent many years working in the field at the ground level, but the master’s program gave me the chance to take a step back and see how everything fits together.”

Both Black and Postway said their long-term plans revolve around making consistent contributions to the communities where they work.


It’s a simple mantra, but it can be hard for many employees to accomplish over the course of their careers.


But Black said the M.P.A. program gave her the tools to advance up the career ladder while still acting as a dedicated public servant.


“My long-term plan is to continue to make positive impacts on my community,” she said. “My M.P.A. degree has given me the knowledge and experience to be well-equipped to help members of the community in many ways that will not only fulfill me but inspire those around me in a real way.”