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Q&A: From Fortune 500 to nonprofit management and consulting with MPA Annalee Habstritt

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Annalee Habstritt is a community leader and author who graduated from the USC Price Master of Public Administration program online in 2017. Habstritt discusses her experience in the program, her award-winning capstone project, and which skills she was able to immediately apply to her professional career.

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

A: I was working in the community as a stay-at-home mom. I had worked for a Fortune 500 company before I had kids, and I had spent a lot of time after they were born volunteering and doing different community leadership work. When my youngest one started to approach school age, I thought about how I wanted to move forward in my career, whether it was to go back to the type of role I was in at the Fortune 500 company or to build on what I had learned in the last few years being at home. And I found that I really did have a passion for nonprofit consulting, nonprofit management, as well as the public sector. So I started looking into different options.

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

A: I first encountered USC’s online MPA program on LinkedIn actually, and I of course, was familiar with USC and the program, but that’s really what piqued my interest. I started researching other programs as well, knowing I wanted to further my education, particularly in the nonprofit management field and public administration. I compared and contrasted several programs. And where I live, there’s actually an excellent program, but I went to undergraduate school there. So, I’m very familiar with our community here in the nonprofit landscape, as well as a lot of the people here. I wanted a more diverse experience in terms of diversity of nonprofits and the public sector, as well as new people and new ideas. The USC program really brought together a lot of people with different backgrounds and perspectives and I thought that would really help round out my education and make me a better leader.

Q: When you were applying to the program, what were your outcome goals and desires?

A: There are three things I was looking for when I joined the USC family for the MPA online program. The first was looking to achieve competence and confidence as I move forward in that field, knowing that I’m employing the best practices and making the most impact I can for the communities I serve. The second thing I was looking for was hands-on experience in the communities, and in the nonprofit world. And then the third thing was developing a network of peers that I really respected and trusted so that we might work together in the program as well as beyond as we all pursue our individual career interests.

Q: Can you tell us about your experience in the MPA online program, both the online modality and in-person residencies?

A: I really enjoyed my experience at USC and there are three main parts actually that I participated in – the online program, in-person residencies, and international lab. So the first thing I’ll talk about is the online modality, and I found that surprisingly easy to schedule. The schedules were set up well in advance so I could plan my day and week and month around them. I was engaged throughout each week with the material that was assigned as well as some of the other requirements, like online posts back and forth and exchanging comments. So while it was an online program and we were all separated we were connected surprisingly well throughout the week.

The second piece that we did were the residency programs. And I really enjoyed that because it helped develop relationships with my peers, with the professors, and with the Trojan community. When we first started, we were able to meet one another in an initial residency. We even went to a football game and tailgated, and it really did kick off the program. I got my sweatshirt at the bookstore and it was a lot of fun. The people that I met at that residency and in the program, I’m still friends with today, and I still wear my USC sweatshirt. I even brought my family to the USC Notre Dame game in Notre Dame, and we wore our gear. I think those residency programs are essential to the experience – so that you feel like you’re part of something larger than yourself.

The third thing that I did – that I would highly recommend to anyone who had the opportunity – was the international lab experience. I participated in the Brazil experience. We spent a couple of weeks in the spring semester working on social enterprises within a community. Working with folks there so they could make some money and still do some good work in the community. And that was wonderful. That blended students from the online program like myself, as well as students that were in on campus public administration or public policy programs. So that was really interesting. I still keep in touch with the friends I made on that experience. It’s really something I would highly recommend to anyone who has the opportunity.

Q: How did you balance studying with your life, both personal and professional?

A: I think the most challenging part about balancing your school experience with your life, for me and really for anyone, is just understanding that there’s going to be some sacrifices and then planning for them. So I’m a mom, and during the program I had two kids at home and was caring for my aging father who at the time was living with Parkinson’s and living in our house. So, it was very difficult to balance everything. However, engaging your village, whatever that might look like, whether it’s friends or family and helping everyone to be part of the team with you. I thought it was very helpful in balancing it – just knowing that I can’t do everything and I can’t do everything perfectly.

A tactical thing to do is plan how you allocate your time. I used an old fashioned planner as well as a digital calendar that I shared with the people that were involved in my life. Really blocking off the time for lectures, group time, and study time so that I could manage the stress knowing, okay, there’s a big assignment due, however, I do know on Tuesday from 2:00 to 4:00 is when I’m going to get it done and I’ll hold myself accountable to that. And then working ahead. I mean, that’s just old fashioned advice, but do it as far ahead as you can. All of the information is available to you, so a lot of it you can work ahead on.

And then I think perhaps the most important thing, at least for me, was knowing that while I’m making sacrifices and I’m working hard, I’m also inspiring others around me that it’s never too late to learn, that we can always have more information. As a mom, as well as a community leader, I had people watching and rooting for me, and I’m really proud that I was able to fulfill my goals and show all those folks that were rooting for me, that they can fulfill the goals that they’re working towards as well.

Q: How was your interaction and experience with your professors as well as your fellow students? Do you keep in touch with any of them?

A: I really enjoyed all of my interactions with the faculty and my peers at USC. As far as my relationships with the professors, of course, they were professional. They are skilled, knowledgeable and experienced in the areas that they teach and so there’s that professional element. But also there’s a personal piece where you do get to know them, and they get to know you, and those relationships do continue to this day. Sending notes and so on, back and forth. And, I know that if I ever needed anything, whether that would be advice or perhaps a letter of recommendation or an introduction, that I could count on those professors to help me out.

As far as my peers, I made some really wonderful life long friends. I think when you work towards a common goal together with people who are like-minded, and those that have differing opinions as well, actually, when you have a shared goal, you really do get to know one another and develop relationships that you may not in a different circumstance. So those have continued to this day. In fact, our whole family traveled internationally to a wedding of one of my classmates that I enjoyed working with at USC.

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

A: The capstone project for the USC MPA program online is exactly that. It’s the finishing touch on all the work that we completed during our program together. And I was fortunate enough to work with an excellent team for my capstone project. The organization we worked with is called Pathways2Possibilities, which is located in Mississippi and serves the Gulf States. What they do is they help eighth graders learn about themselves so they can make choices in high school and beyond that lead to a career that they enjoy and that contributes to society.

It started off with Pathways2Possibilities seeing that there are very high college and high school dropout rates. This results in students that aren’t prepared to enter society and support themselves and support their communities. That really starts in high school, and so that high school time can be valuable. Pathways2Possibilities helps find the right path for them, whatever that may be, so students don’t end up starting a program, dropping out and having debt that they don’t need.

We offered Pathways2Possibilities a four pronged approach to expanding their outreach. The first part was an educator’s toolkit, and this would be used in partnership with the teachers and administrators that bring students to the Pathways2Possibilities expo. This would provide touch points for those educators so they can prepare their students in advance so they might get the most out of the experience at the expo. The second piece is an advisory board for Pathways2Possibilities with stakeholders, to help guide them to really increase the effectiveness and broad reach of the program. The third thing we suggested was a multi-phase approach to integrate performance metrics so that they might see how their dollars are being spent, which is helpful for supporters, whether that’s state funding or private contributions, and so that they can build on the program and expand those areas that work and revise those that don’t. Then the fourth thing that we suggested was a community of practice. So partnering with other organizations across the country that do similar type interventions and working together to learn from one another.

We won the Haynes award, which was exciting. And we were really proud of it because we worked really hard for an organization that we thought was very worthy. Pathways2Possibilities was also able to increase their state funding by 50% as a result of the work that USC and our capstone project provided to them, so it was an excellent experience. We’re really proud of the work that we did, and we’re really happy that Pathways2Possibilities was able to partner with USC for the program.

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 program online were the most impactful to you?

A: As soon as I finished my program at USC, I was able to apply the skills that I learned immediately. Through my work in the community and leadership, whether that’s fundraising or program development, right away, I could hear the professors in my ear reminding me of some of the best practices that I had learned. I was able to add this to conversation and to some of the processes that we did immediately. In fact, it wasn’t upon graduation, it was throughout. I would say right away when I started, I was learning things and able to apply them in what I was doing.

One of the things that I focused on and learned a lot in the program at USC was the power of collaboration. Whether that’s working with individuals, the public sector, the private sector, nonprofits, I learned that working together, we can accomplish so much more. And I was able to use that right away. That idea of collaboration is so important, and I think USC does an excellent job of not only telling you that it’s so, but also showing you how to get it done.

I will say that I was also able to see that impact right away. I have two family members, one, a senior with Parkinson’s, who I ended up caregiving for. And so I was working with a lot of different organizations to help him and other people in his position, through the COVID era, to really get what they needed during a difficult time. It was in that confidence that I gained at USC and how to get groups to work together, that I really found myself effective in that way. I also have a family member with special needs who lives in residential care and I found that same thing. I felt like I had the tools, the knowledge, and the vocabulary to speak in a way that gets things done.

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

A: Now that I’ve graduated from the program at USC, I have been able to further my career by having the confidence that I need to pursue opportunities that I’m interested in and the credibility to back it up. I think the USC Price School degree carries a lot of weight, and people understand that by earning that degree, you’ve learned best practices. And, what you have to say is rooted in evidence-based research and it matters.

Q: Would you recommend the degree program to a prospective student? And what advice would you give them?

A: I would definitely recommend the USC MPA program online. It’s an excellent, rigorous program that allows you to gain confidence and credibility in your career and promote your ideas going forward. Someone might say that it’s two years of your life and that’s a big commitment. And it is, I’m not going to lie. It is. And there are sacrifices that you have to make, but the way I thought about it at the time, and it sure was true, was that those two years are going to go by either way. So at the end of those two years, what do you want? And for me, I wanted a degree that I could be proud of.

The advice I have for prospective students is that when you start at USC, know that you’re going to work hard, but that work matters and it will pay off. And then more practically, stay on top of your work. Don’t get behind. Make relationships with your professors. Come to the campus. When you’re there, have fun. Go to the football game or do whatever it is that you like to do. So you really can feel like you’re part of the Trojan community because you are. And just like anything else, what you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it. So good luck, best to you, and go Trojans!

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