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Q&A with Nicole White-Gamble: Why an MPA degree was critical to her leadership growth plan

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Nicole White-Gamble is the Operations Director for the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office. She graduated from the USC Price Master of Public Administration program online in 2016. White-Gamble discusses how the MPA degree helped her analyze and solve problems, which ultimately led to her becoming a senior leader in her organization.

Q: What factors motivated you to further your education? Did something change in your career, work environment, or in your field?

A: I was motivated to go back and pursue my education about 15 years into my career when I realized that I wanted to elevate in leadership. I knew that preparation was going to be key because as I took on greater roles of responsibility, I felt that my skill set needed to be expanded. So at that point, I wanted to pursue formal education that would allow me to utilize better scholarship in research and apply it to my work. I also knew that the difficulty and complexity of the problems that I would have to face would require that I had systematic ways to address them. And I just knew that going to USC and participating in the Masters of Public Administration program would give me the necessary tools.

Q: How did you first hear about the MPA online program, and what drove you to pick USC’s program over other graduate programs?

A: There were several factors that led me to the program and also had me select this program. One is that I had a sister who is a proud graduate of the USC program in public administration. Although she graduated decades before me, she really benefited from her education there. So part of it was that there was this history, but it didn’t stop me from, of course, researching other programs. I wanted to make sure that I could participate in a program that would allow me to still work daily. I have a very demanding job so I knew that I didn’t have the luxury of being a full-time student. I also wanted to ensure that I was in a program that was going to be rigorous, and that I knew I’d be walking away from it with the confidence that I’d received a really solid education that would be respected.

Nicole White-Gamble

Q: What were your outcome goals and desires going into the program?

A: I knew that I wanted to be able to get into a program that was going to be very engaging. Again, I knew that it was going to be difficult for me to be on campus daily because of my work schedule, but I still wanted to have that type of experience. And so from the very beginning, when I got to participate in the residency program, I realized that this was going to be the perfect mix of both elements. It was going to allow me to participate and pursue my degree, but also continue to work full-time. And, I was going to have all the elements of, like I said, a really scholarly program. I wanted to be able to engage with my colleagues and the participants in the cohort and the program gave me all of that.

From day one, I went on the campus and met Dr. Dora Kingsley Vertenten, Professor and Faculty Director for the MPA online, and I knew then, based on her commitment, her enthusiasm, just her interest in me that very first day, that this was going to be a very engaging program that would check all the boxes. It would allow me to receive a very formal, structured education. It would allow me to network and engage with people all over, which was pretty phenomenal. And I think the other piece of it was that I was not only engaging with people that were in my field or my level in local government, but that I really got to engage with people in all the different sectors and all different levels of government, so their perspectives were valuable. Overall, I was looking for the right people, the right professors, the right curriculum and the right environment for me to grow and the program gave me all of those things.

Q: Tell us about your experience with the MPA online modality?

A: There were so many different tools that allowed for interactive experience and the ability to interact with both the professors and my classmates, which I really wasn’t expecting. And actually, a lot of these tools were things that I went back to my own organization and said, “We need to be utilizing these.”

When it came to my cohort there was a lot of communication. We took advantage of video chats in different ways so we could get on phone calls and email. And so you always knew that you could reach out to people. And even though many times we were working on many different time zones, we found ways to connect in meaningful ways. And so I think in a lot of ways because of the type of program it was, we probably engaged more. I can say for myself, I probably engaged more with my cohort than I would have if I was just in a classroom.

Q: What about your experience with the in-person residencies?

A: The in-person residencies were always a wonderful time because you really look forward to them. You knew that many of the people that you had seen before would be attending. Sometimes you knew there would be new colleagues that would be attending. And, the professors really made it a point for us to do many things. It was a tremendous way for us to network, have fun, have the ability to socialize and get to know each other on a different level. But also, there was always some type of activity that was academically rigorous. So we found ways that we could go ahead and work on projects in-person, that we could break up into groups, have dialogues, discussions, analyze data, and all those things were very meaningful.

Over the years, I participated in many of the capstone residencies. Even after I graduated, I felt that it was such a valuable tool because I know that when I was there it wasn’t only the people that were participating in the program at that time, but oftentimes you had graduates that came back and who still wanted to be a part of it because it was so engaging. It was so meaningful. And so for several years, I’ve actually gone back and participated in as many residencies as I can, because I knew the value of that interaction.

Q: How did you balance the demands of study with your life?

A: Well, in terms of me working and being in the program, I have to be honest and candid. It was challenging, but it was worth it. You really have to have a very structured look at what’s happening and you have to realize that you’re not going to be able to do everything. So there were some real honest conversations with my family members and friends, but thankfully I had their full support.

And then in terms of work, I had to be very structured. The weekends really were dedicated to the program. Of course, depending on the subject matter, the courses and my load, that would vary somewhat. But, I found that by creating a plan, a structured time for reading, et cetera, those were things that allowed me to be successful in the program and not be overwhelmed by all of the different facets of my life.

I found things like working out, diet, sleep, all those things became really important because I had so many things that I was juggling. And, I also felt like when it came time to get advice or talk to my instructors, they were very receptive and understanding of some of the other commitments. My classmates also always found ways to support one another and to move things along and to enrich each other’s educational opportunities.

Q: How was your interaction/experience with your professors? What about your fellow students? Do you keep in touch with any of them today?

A: In terms of my interactions with my instructors and professors, I do. And it’s been really incredible because working with them has led to opportunities for me to participate in USC discussion groups. Likewise, they have also participated in some of the forums that I’ve held at work, which have been really important in terms of leadership and management. Like I said, you’ll hear this name come up a lot, but Dr. Dora, not only was she a professor at that time, she’s someone that I consider a mentor and someone that I can talk about in terms of my professional aspirations.

And other professors, of course, when you talk about the acumen and the esteem of those professors, it’s really wonderful to be able to interact and engage. And I found that they are wanting to be on a very personal level – staying engaged and finding out about your career, your advancement, and working with you.

In terms of my cohort, yes, there are several of the participants who I feel are treasured friends that I stay in contact with. And then, like I said before, what’s so wonderful is once you’re really a part of this family there’s always events. You’ll always have those folks that are super extroverted, who are trying to pull everyone together for different events. Whether it be football games or social events for networking, there’s that connection that remains. And I think that there was such an effort by the administration, by the professors, to create that environment. But, I think what’s wonderful is that the students actually embraced it and several of them have made sure that continues.

Q: What was your capstone experience like? Tell us a little about your project, what client you worked for, and what your takeaways from the capstone were?

A: The capstone experience was everything that you’re doing up to that point culminating in a project that is not going to be only academic in nature, but something that can be very much practically used for the benefit of local government or nonprofit organizations.

I had a team of four people that worked with me, and we did a project on tax and collecting revenue with Orange County. So we worked with the local government there and they had several issues. Of course, revenue is key for us to fund services. So what they were finding is when it came to collection, there were several challenges. We really wanted to work on a capstone that would allow them to create best practices for collection and also to provide them with resources and tools that they could put into practical application.

It was very important that, again, you’re not only just looking at something from a scholarly perspective, but the program allows you to really put the practical application to work and I think that’s what was so important for me. I did not go back to school just so I could have letters behind my name. I wanted it to be something that was meaningful and that could allow me to be more effective as I elevated throughout my organization. So that’s what the capstone was – a kind of culmination of all the work we did in the program over the two years. It also allowed me to take those tools back to my own organization and use them to manage my large teams and be more effective.

Q: How soon were you able to directly apply the skills you learned into your professional role? And what knowledge or skills that you learned in the MPA online were the most impactful to you?

A: In terms of applying what I learned, it was immediate. Literally, you would be working on something, whether it was SWOT analysis or system thinking, and as I was learning, because I was a full-time public service administrator, I was applying those things daily. And that was what was really kind of cool. Also, it allowed me the benefit of taking problems back to this group of people to get insights and input. So, it wasn’t like I applied them after I graduated. I was literally taking these things and using them to supplement my knowledge and experience in real time, which was really important and impactful for me.

I think that one of the main things, as we look at the public administration and local government level, is just the ability to analyze data, which is huge because there’s so much information. But, what’s pertinent, what’s relevant? We need to be able to reframe an issue and look at it from different perspectives. So when we’re looking at the large number of people that we’re working with on a daily basis, and we’re talking about impacting a community, it’s important that you’re not looking at any problem from just one perspective. You have to be able to dynamically look at it from many different perspectives. How that program will impact different people is really important. So being able to have program analysis to see how it can be impactful and effective is really important.

Q: Now that you’ve graduated, how has the MPA online helped further your career?

A: I am proud to say that since I completed the program I have been promoted two times and I now am a part of the senior leadership of my organization. I think that the program helped in many ways. Again, I’ve talked about the different tools and how it gave me a framework to look at issues and problems. I think also, obviously, there is something to be said about just taking the initiative to get the credentials. When you’re getting your credentials from a school like USC, that speaks to leadership in terms of my tenacity. And, also a demonstration of my belief that it is important to be a lifelong learner and that I actually took the steps to do that. There are many things that I can consider to be tools that I received from the program, but I think the most important thing is really the people, the relationships, and their ongoing investment in me.

Q: Would you recommend the MPA online degree to a prospective student? What advice would you give them?

A: I have recommended the program. And I actually have several colleagues or a couple colleagues in particular who participated in the program and I’m proud to say that they graduated and are fellow alums, so Fight On!

This is something that you have to invest in, that you have to be committed to, and you have to make the space and the time to be successful. Like anything else, what you’re going to get out of it is in big part going to depend on what you’re willing to put into it. If you’re thinking that this is just some kind of easy program that you’re going to go through and get rubber-stamped, this will not be a program for you. It’s very rigorous.

And, so I think that the important things are to really know what you want to get from the program. Stay focused on that. Make space for your success. Engage with your professors. Engage with your cohort. Whenever you get an opportunity to participate in the residency, I think that’s a really important thing to get the in-face, in-person interactions and work hard.

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