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Alumni Become A Resource for the Classroom

By Emily Yaghmour

Catherine Spage
In an address to the World Congress on Information Technology, held in June of this year, President Alan Merten pointed out that educators have begun to recognize that the lecture-centered, professor-oriented mode of teaching may not be the best. On college campuses today, many courses consist of class discussions in which students play as important a role as the instructor. Students, particularly in upper-division and graduate classes, are often experienced in the work place and very knowledgeable. To view the instructor as the only source of knowledge and experience would be a waste of resources.

Jim Conant, director of Mason's master of public administration (M.P.A.) degree program, has taken advantage of another source of valuable knowledge and experience: alumni. "We wanted to find a mechanism to bring alumni together and help connect them with the classroom," he says. Two years ago, Conant strengthened the emphasis on state and local government in the M.P.A. program. Not only did he create a concentration in state and local government for those students particularly interested in it, but he made the study of it a component of the Administration in Public and Nonprofit Organization course, which is mandatory for all M.P.A. students. Since more than 25 Mason alumni from the M.P.A. program now work in state and local government, Conant decided to organize an event in which alumni working in Fairfax County government discuss their work with students in the class. The event was such a success that it has been repeated every semester since. This year, 12 alumni, 5 faculty members, and more than 40 students participated.

The purpose of the event is for students to gain insight into the inner workings of local government, says Conant. It also provides an opportunity for students to "get to know people in the institutions we are studying" for mentoring and networking purposes. Brack Brown, associate professor in the Department of Public and International Affairs, points out that the event gives students a chance to meet people in government service face to face and "to see the honor and importance" of government service.

Sponsored by the Department of Public and International Affairs, Alumni Affairs, and the M.P.A. Alumni Association, the March 19 event featured presentations that provided a wealth of information about Fairfax County and its government. Susan Cable, a 1985 Mason graduate who works for the Fairfax County Park Authority, presented a survey of the county's 400-year history. Peter Clark, a 1983 graduate who works for Human Services; David J. Harvey, a 1996 graduate who works for the Office of Management and Budget; Steve Kirby, a 1984 graduate who works for the Office of Personnel; and John Yeatman, a 1982 graduate and employee of the Department of Tax Administration, each discussed the role of his respective department in the government. Catherine Spage, a 1995 graduate and winner of the 1997-98 Wayne F. Anderson Award for Distinguished Public Service, discussed the role of the Department of Transportation, where she had worked until she transferred to the Office of Management and Budget. Though not a graduate of George Mason, Robert J. Breads, of the Personal Property and Business License Division, also spoke. The event concluded with the remarks of elected official Gerry Hyland, vice chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, who pointed out that politics is all about "a balance between what we can afford and what we need to do in the community."

According to Conant, George Mason University is fortunate to be located in Fairfax County. "It's a model of what a county can be," he says, "and it has a solid reputation as a leader." Not only can students in Mason's M.P.A. program learn from county employees, but, as one of the largest counties in the country, Fairfax County also serves as a good source of jobs for Mason graduates.

Mason's M.P.A. program, which has 175 students enrolled and more than 600 alumni, was ranked in the top 20 percent of such programs nationwide by U.S. News and World Report this year. Students within the program may choose from nine concentrations, including public policy, financial management, and nonprofit management, in addition to state and local government.

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