MPA Q&A: Alum Erica Robles shares her capstone experience
Erica Robles works for Tyto Athene, a federal contractor, and supports the United States Space Force in the special programs area. In 2018, she graduated from the USC Price Master of Public Administration program online as a double Trojan! Erica discusses the value of the Trojan family, her experience in the capstone course, and the impact the USC MPA online degree program has had on her career.
Q: What factors motivated you to further your higher education journey? Did something change in your career, work environment, or field?
A: After attending USC as an undergrad, I told myself I would return to grad school within three years. I worked at a law school, I worked at the Rand Corporation, and during those three years, I was like, I would like to go back for public administration. Knowing about the Price School already, I did a little more research and found that there was an online option. This was back in late 2015, and I needed that flexibility because I was still working full-time at the Rand Corporation.
I wanted to continue my educational journey; I’m always an avid learner and trying to better hone my skills. With this degree, my brain works as an administrator, I’m there to be on the ground, implementing policy or different programs, which honed those skills.
Q: What were your outcome goals and desires going into the program?
A: The goals I wanted to attain from getting this degree would be leading chief of staff or being on the ground and implementing policy. I wanted to be there and be involved with writing the policy and actually doing it. It’s great to be talking at a very high level about stuff, but being there and seeing something through from the beginning to the end is so rewarding.
Q: Tell us about your experience in the MPA online.
A: [In class] they do a good job placing you in different sections, rotating you around, so you’re not just with the same people over and over. Putting you in different situations helps you stretch your comfort zone.
What I appreciate about USC and USC Price overall, they’re constantly revamping the curriculum, not in a bad way, but in a positive, impactful way that you’re going to really feel that this is important, and it really will help your degree.
Q: You mentioned that you were working while you were doing the degree, and that was part of the reason you chose the online program. When you were in the program, how did you balance the demands of study with your job?
A: While attending USC Price, I worked full-time, which can be challenging for anyone. I faced the rigor of USC as an undergrad before, to having a full-time job, and then doing both simultaneously. Communication is vital overall. So, talk to the people you work for and tell them you’re doing grad school. Tell them, “Hey, I’m going to be doing this, it’s going to be a little bit of an effort, but I promise to do these things,” and make sure you make these priorities.
Q: What was your interaction and experience with faculty members like?
A: During my time here, I had a lovely array of professors and they were always available by email, sometimes by phone and other calls, but definitely by Zoom. They were just there, they were always available, and that felt good. Especially, on very complicated projects or projects [where we] had to deal with group dynamics. And that was very good, having someone have your back on things like that. I still talk to professors from both undergrad as well as grad school, because they’re just very invested in you.
Q: Do you keep in touch with anyone from your cohort? How have those relationships gone?
A: One of my best friends now, we actually met at the [in-person] residency. We sat down next to each other and then eventually at the end of the day it was kind of like, “Oh, we’re friends now.” And it’s wonderful to see that. It’s kind of like this weird bonding experience where you struggle through something and everybody has the same experience.
I keep in touch with several very good friends from Price and it just feels good to see them thriving. They got this degree and they’re like, “I’m going to go towards getting a job with the city, or I’m going to go run for office, or I’m going to go work over here or in the private sector.” I did whatever I could do to help them by reading their resume, talking to them, and then just being a friend and being around.
Whatever you put into it, other people will put back in. In order to get this degree done, you’ll have to talk to people, which I think is a good thing.
Q: What was completing your capstone project like? Tell us a little bit about your project, what client you worked for, and what the takeaways or benefits of the capstone were.
A: Our capstone was during the summer of 2017. I had a project talking about data, policing, and new policing technologies. I picked that because the focus of my career has been mostly on law enforcement and military and defense projects.
During that process, there was a list of different projects that you could choose from, so I put my bids in and I got this project with a very good client – he was always available. We had the opportunity to travel during this project. I got to go to Reno for a site visit as well as Alabama for a site visit to see the product in action.
It was really interesting because all of the different classes we had done leading up to this were very important building blocks. Eventually when you get to capstone, all of it comes together and you’re doing a live project with a live client, so you need to make sure you hit all your marks. It is a hard class, I’m not going to lie. But at the end, you will be very proud of what you’ve done. In the end, we presented in front of our client. They were very happy with what we presented to them and still use our report to this day for their company.
I’m so happy that it was not just ‘write a paper, submit the paper, and then you’re done’. It was a practical application. And, in that time you could even get hired by your clients, some people have been hired by their clients. So that’s also a thing to think about, to be putting the best foot forward because it’s like a job interview at times. People will remember how hard you worked on this. It was just a wonderful experience
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: It was kind of a weird coincidence because while working at the Rand Corporation we had gotten a large contract for the department of Homeland Security at the same time doing this grad school program. So, the different skills I was learning, I was not only applying immediately, but my job eventually shifted at the Rand Corporation to basically do capstone every single day. I enjoyed seeing all of the skills I learned from Price, using the skills I learned from capstone, and being able to walk confidently into a room, sit down in a meeting, and talk about policy.
Q: Now that you’ve graduated, how has the MPA online helped further your career?
A: The MPA has helped me develop what I want to do. I’ve seen both the academic side of doing things and I’ve done all the operational side of things. I’ve had different flavors of working at an FRDC, and now I’ve shifted to working for a government contractor in support of the United States Space Force.
So it’s interesting to see all of this come together. It’s government in different ways in action. Knowing how to handle long term projects, as well as understanding the government and public side is really important, if you want to be in these types of positions. You can do that in the private sector, but it’s kind of a different flavor.
Q: Would you recommend the MPA online degree to a prospective student? What advice would you give them?
A: I have recommended the online program to several friends and several family members, and I always tell them, look, I think it would be great for you. I think having the flexibility of having this online option is a great idea. I’m biased in my beliefs, but I will always defend what I’ve done and what I’ve experienced to people and say that it was one of the best decisions that I’ve made.