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Q&A: MPA Online helps Career Shift to Nonprofit Consulting

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After a midlife career change, Steve Ozinga from Grand Rapids, Michigan dedicated his career to nonprofit fundraising. Currently working with Coral Ridge Ministries, he engages donors across the nation in conversations about supporting the ministry. Despite being Michigan-based, he seized the opportunity to enroll in the USC Price Master of Public Administration program online.

About a decade ago at the age of 45, Steve made a profound career shift. Despite his experience working with for-profit organizations, he felt a calling to the nonprofit world because of its mission-driven initiatives. Consequently, he transitioned into the fields of fundraising and nonprofit consulting, seeking the necessary credentials and expertise to excel in this new endeavor. His pursuit of an advanced degree in public administration was driven by the desire to complement his existing MBA and contribute to the nonprofit sector. The USC Price program proved to be an ideal solution, offering an online format enriched with practical, real-world applications.

Q: Why did you decide to pursue a program in California?

A: I decided to pursue a program in California because I love the state. I also love the city of Los Angeles, it’s actually my favorite city in the world. USC was a school I always wanted to go to, and this gave me the opportunity. The fact that it was in California was just that much of a bonus for me. I ran into some challenges with the 3-hour time difference when we were trying to turn in assignments as a group and those types of things, but it was a tremendous opportunity.

One of the strong reasons for choosing Los Angeles, is the uniqueness of the city. The diversity is tremendous. The socioeconomic statuses are all over the map. It’s the ultimate place to work on implementing a lot of the policies we learn about at USC Price. We get to see the successes, learn from some of the challenges as well, and see what works. Some of those things might be scalable to the rest of the country or the rest of the world. Los Angeles is as good as it gets from that perspective. I mean, it’s just unbelievable. All of the layers and all of the things that are going on there. It’s just an absolutely fascinating place.

Q: How did you hear about USC and specifically the MPA program?

A: I have a lot of friends who ask me: why USC? Full disclosure, I’m a lifelong USC football fan going back to the 70’s and 80’s. I was one of the odd ducks in Michigan because it’s either University of Michigan, Michigan State, or Notre Dame, but I was a USC Fan. It was only natural to look at that school when I wanted to pursue an advanced education. 

I looked at law schools and I looked at public policy schools and USC met all of the criteria. The online program at the USC Price School is usually ranked top 5 in the country, so that was outstanding. I knew the rigor would be tough and I’d be able to meet some wonderful people. It was always a dream to get a degree from USC and I was able to take advantage of that from Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Q: What were your outcome goals and desires from the MPA program?

A: I wanted to learn from the best and the brightest. I wanted to learn from the professors at USC and the student cohort as well because I knew they were a tremendous group of students coming in from all over the country. 

I wanted to be able to apply theory to my job and my work right away, which I was able to do in many cases. I wanted to take on a strong challenge, and I knew this would be a challenge. I was able to graduate in the end, which also helped me to increase my confidence. I figured if I can do this, I can do anything. The goals were to give me the advanced degree and the training I needed to do my new job, but also how to apply that training and what I’m learning at USC into my current work environment.

Q: California’s government and policy decisions often make national news. What do you think the perception of California is nationally? Was this a factor in deciding to join the program?

A: Being based in Michigan, the perception of California is what I would call a mixed bag. California has been on the leading edge of such things like green energy and those types of things, but there are also a lot of challenges with the homeless population. 

For example, COVID policies were all over the map nationally, and California was one of the leaders with lockdowns. Whether people believe a policy works, or doesn’t work, we can still learn from it. Whether it’s a successful policy or a failed policy, it’s a learning opportunity. 

Q: Can you tell us about your experience with the online modality?

A: The online modality was exceptional. I know USC, Dr. Dora, and some others within the Price School spent some really challenging years getting the program up and running to where it is today. I started back in 2014; online programming was just coming into play. There were some universities that did it, but not many major powerhouse universities like USC. It was the wave of the future back then, and I’m glad USC took advantage of it. 

People were always accessible, whether it was professors for a one-on-one counseling session or other students in a project group. It was very, very simple and very, very easy.

Q: A cornerstone of the program is the in-person residencies. Did this stand out to you when you were researching the program? What was your experience with the residencies?

A: I always called it a hybrid program because of those visits out to Los Angeles. There was the initial kickoff where you meet your cohort that are probably terrified at first. These are mid-career adults a lot of times. So people have work perspectives and family perspectives as well. 

It’s so important to put a name with a face. We can talk on Zoom and Google Hangouts all day long. But to meet people, to get to know them, to go to a tailgate, to go to a football game with them, to actually do some class work in person was a tremendous opportunity. 

For one project, my team chose to tackle the opioid epidemic in Ohio. It’s still a terrible problem nationally, but we were able to look at solutions and challenges locally. That’s what USC gives you: real-world problems. We can study stuff that happened a hundred years ago and learn from it. But what’s going on today? What are some solutions we can put into place? 

Q: How did you balance the demands of study with your life, both personal and professional?

A: At age 45, I decided to make a major career shift and get my MPA. I will freely admit it’s a lot of work. It’s a full-time job on top of your full-time job on top of your family. I was able to resign from a number of volunteer committees I was on which helped clear the deck. 

Some of the advice I would have for students is that you have to make this program a priority. The homework demands are rigorous. They’re valuable, but they’re rigorous. Things are due very frequently, and if you fall behind it’s a challenge. You also want to have a conversation with your significant other, family members, and friends that you’re gonna be in submarine mode, for 12-week cycles, and come up for air every now and then. Also with your job, boss, and department, try to get flexibility there. You’re trying to better your work, so hopefully bosses will be generous and let you do things as long as you continue to get your job done as well. You want to make sure you spend enough time doing it because it can pile up quickly, but it’s very rewarding when it’s done.

Q: How was your interaction and experience with your professors?

A: There are many wonderful attributes of USC, but MPA online professors were probably the number one attribute. Real professors, real people, who’ve worked in the world and worked in academia. They are as accessible as you want them to be. I still have some of their numbers on my cell phone. I still talk to them from time to time. They will bend over backward to help you succeed. They will challenge you. They won’t tell you what you want to hear, sometimes they’ll tell you what you need to hear – and there’s a big difference in that. 

I remember one situation where I was struggling in a statistics course, and one of the professors took some time with me, a one-on-one counseling session just to walk through the spreadsheets and some of the issues, and he recorded it for me, which I appreciate. He then sent me the link so I could rewatch the areas that I was having challenges with. It was a wonderful opportunity. 

Q: How was your interaction and experience with your cohort?

A: The other students are absolutely exceptional. They’re the best and the brightest. They come from any type of background you can imagine – whether it’s military or public service, anything across the board. There were some fundraisers, nonprofit workers, executive directors, and people who want to run for office. You get a lot of wonderfully diverse perspectives.

We were able to have civil conversations about politics or policy disagreements, and that’s one of the hallmarks of USC. We were able to listen to somebody else’s side and actually listen to what they’re saying, and try to see if you agree with any of that, or if you’re gonna push back. But, you do it in a mature and nonthreatening way. All the students did this, which was a wonderful thing about them as well. 

Q: Was there a project you completed in the program that you’re particularly proud of? 

A: One of the wonderful opportunities was to try to tie everything together in a capstone project at the end of the program. We focused on a project for the Embassy of Austria to the United States out of Washington, DC. They wanted to know: What did the Americans think of how Austria was handling the Syrian refugee crisis? This was back in 2016 when a lot of refugees were coming to Europe from Iraq and Syria, and the Austrians were very concerned about our perception of how they handled that. 

We spent a 12-week period going over newspapers, Twitter, and Facebook to figure out what social media and the newspaper were saying and just the overall perception, which was positive. We had the opportunity to present it to the Austrian Embassy in Washington which was quite a thrill. We actually were honored to win the Haynes Award for the number one capstone project, which was a huge honor. 

The capstone is where you tie into all the disciplines that you’ve learned over the years from statistics to strategic planning to surveying to group work. Back then, I was doing a lot of strategic planning which helped as well. The Capstone ties everything together and reinforces that, if you can make it through this program, you can do anything you want to do

Q: What did you learn in the program that was most impactful in your career? And how did you apply it?

A: The most important thing I learned from the program is probably something you can’t learn from the textbook –  it’s confidence. The powerful thing about the USC program is in every class without exception, I could apply what I learned the next day on the job. Maybe it’s an article that we read where you can apply some new learning. 

For example, there was one article about mission statements. I did a lot of mission statement work with organizations in strategic planning. Some of those mission statements are paragraph upon paragraph. But the focus is to get it down to 8 words – can you fit it on a t-shirt? 

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

A: Yes, I would recommend the USC Price MPA online to anybody out there. My advice to you would be to research. Look at all the other schools. Find out what’s the best fit for you. But I think you’ll see that USC will rise to the top pretty quickly.

It’s going to be a lot of work over the next few years. Just make sure that everybody is aware that you’re gonna be doing this. I promise you it’s worth it in the end. So I would definitely recommend you take the plunge and pursue the MPA degree online from the USC Price School.

Learn more about the Master of Public Administration Online today.

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