Three years ago, Dacey Curtis, ’20, was back in her hometown of Mannford, Oklahoma, when she met two deaf high school students. They were accompanied by an interpreter. “But the sign language was not great,” says Curtis, who checked the state’s list of certified interpreters and saw this person’s name was not on it. Curtis had to jump in and start interpreting for them through lip reading. “The school seemed not to care. It seemed we were going backward instead of forward,” she says.

The moment made Curtis realize that she wanted to know more about how these policy decisions were being made — and that she wanted to be involved in making them.

That is why Curtis came back to Gallaudet to enter the Master of Public Administration Program, which prepares students for careers in government and nonprofit organizations. She gets her degree this spring, which marks ten years since Gallaudet’s first MPA cohort graduated.

Directed by Assistant Professor Dr. Geoffrey Whitebread, the program has thrived, and now serves 50 students. About 60 percent of them are already professionals working in the field, while the other 40 percent are recent college graduates looking to launch their careers. This mix has made it important to build in flexibility, Whitebread notes, which is why the program offers both on-campus and fully online options and holds classes in the evenings, allowing students to balance the course work with jobs and family responsibilities. “It’s growing and growing fast because it meets students where they are,” says Lecturer Sean Maiwald, ’16.

A group of students sit in a classroom and have a discussion. Participants are smiling as they interact.
MPA students can attend classes on campus or choose a fully online option. Either way, they can expect to learn from their classmates through discussions and group projects.

This aspect of the program appealed to Jonathan Kessel, ’09, who has three young kids and works at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf. Classes meet every two weeks — with asynchronous assignments in between — allowing him to have a good deal of control over his schedule. He also appreciates being in a learning environment that connects him to people from all over the country. “It’s nice to get that diversity and different perspectives,” Kessel says.

Kessel, who ran the Youth Leadership Camp for the National Association of the Deaf, and served a stint in the private sector as operations manager of a farm in Colorado, brings his own variety of experiences to the program. He has enjoyed being able to build on that background and develop into a better leader. “Right now, I’m focused on studying ethics and moral principles and seeing how I can apply that,” he says.

For Ivy Berry, who is 48, the program has been a chance to change gears after several decades of working in education. “At the beginning, I felt like I was too old. Some of the other students are my son’s age,” she says. “But I have been able to adapt and build some great relationships.” When one of the first assignments was a challenge, Whitebread gave her a few examples and encouraged her to turn in a rough draft for comments. That process helped her get comfortable quickly.

“He has been a great mentor and guided me to where I am now,” says Berry, who has developed more confidence as she has excelled in her courses. She discovered a unexpected love for money management and budgeting, topics she had previously shied away from. The frequent collaborations in lively team environments strengthened her time management abilities and increased her motivation, Berry adds.

So much of what they do is applicable to real life, Curtis says. She remembers that in one class, they split into groups to decide how to figure out a water system for a town. They ended up going well past the amount of time allotted for the activity because everyone had big ideas to share. In another favorite class, they practiced pitches for a grant. “It was a nice chance to convince everyone to set up our program,” she says.

All of the faculty members bring a wealth of expertise to the table, says Kessel, who has been impressed by the range of networking opportunities, the quality of guest presenters, and the support toward achieving their goals. His graduate advisor Dr. Hao Sun recently took a group of students on a visit to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The program also hosts online events, including a recent Zoom panel with very senior agency leaders who serve as a part of the Senior Executive Service (SES). The event was co-hosted by the program director and MPA student Milicent Alexander. The leaders who participated in the panel were able to share their career journeys and strategies for building and maintaining productive mentoring relationships, which is a recurring challenge for deaf employees in Federal service.

What makes these experiences even more meaningful is the access to communication, Curtis adds. Having interpreting support on field trips and holding class discussions in American Sign Language leads to better learning outcomes. “I’m not looking back and forth between an interpreter, the teacher, and the board. I can just focus on the teacher,” she says. “So I am able to understand and do more.”

As a result, Berry says, students are truly prepared to take on more challenges after graduation. She is grateful that she found Gallaudet’s MPA program, and encourages anyone interested to go for it. “I believe the government — at the federal and state level — needs more deaf leaders,” she says. “Through my work, I hope to promote a future in which people with all backgrounds and abilities can flourish.”

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