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The Value of CIPA and an MPA: Why I left the Working World to Return to Grad School

Susie Monsell is a second-year CIPA student who is concentrating her studies on Public and Nonprofit Management, and pursuing the Infrastructure Policy, Management, and Finance Certificate. 

“…if you want to build a budget with the goal of making as a big a difference as possible with as little money as possible, pursue an MPA.”

Attending graduate school was not always the plan. When I finished my undergraduate degree in 2011, I couldn’t wait to take everything I had already learned and put it to the test in the real world. I had a vague idea of what that would look like but no specific vision of what I wanted my career to be. I took a job on a political campaign, which led to a job on another political campaign, which led to a job on yet another political campaign. So it went for five years. While hopscotching around the country for half a decade, I didn’t give much thought toward what I wanted to do for the next half decade – or the decade after that. By the end of the 2014 election cycle, however, I had discovered a passion I never knew I had: public management.

After the years of campaigning, I knew I was tired of building something only to tear it down after Election Day. I wanted to contribute to something that would last longer than a news cycle and reach farther than a single campaign. Campaigns allowed me to learn very much, very quickly. I discovered I really liked building a budget and dealing with the inevitable complications to that budget. I wanted to learn how to work with a budget the right way – not just the haphazard way I had taught myself through each campaign.

I decided I wanted to pursue either an MBA or an MPA. Through various conversations with friends and mentors, I was given a piece of advice that made the decision for me: if you want to build a budget with the goal of turning a profit, pursue an MBA but if you want to build a budget with the goal of making as a big a difference as possible with as little money as possible, pursue an MPA.

I decided to pursue an MPA.

When I began the grad school application process, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to study. As mentioned earlier, I liked public management and budgeting. When I was considering which schools to apply to, I looked for programs that were especially strong in my chosen field, including CIPA. I ultimately decided to attend two open houses, one for each of my top two programs. On a classic Ithaca March day – rain, sleet, snow, and intermittent sunshine – I drove up to Cornell from Washington, DC, where I’d been working at a small campaign consulting firm. As I walked into the CIPA Open House, the first thing I noticed was the number of faculty sitting in the back of the room.

And they didn’t leave.

We saw presentations from current students, alumni, and some of these faculty and I was overwhelmed by this sense of pride. I could feel it from every person who spoke to us throughout the day. They could not be prouder to be Cornellians and – more specifically – CIPAs. I met an alumni working in NYC, eager to tell me everything he remembered and enjoyed from his time at CIPA. I met John Foote, a seasoned veteran in the field of Infrastructure Finance, who got me interested in all things infrastructure – something I never thought I’d say about myself. And I met five CIPA fellows who showed their enthusiasm for the program with every smile and inside joke. I left that Open House feeling like it was the only place for me – that no other place could measure up to that feeling.

After attending the second Open House, that feeling didn’t go away. I was halfway through a presentation on career services at this other university when I received an email from CIPA Executive Director, Tom O’Toole. It was personalized to my proposed field of study and provided the syllabus for a class he thought I’d be interested in taking. He was right; I really wanted to take it. It didn’t even take the flight back to D.C. to decide that CIPA was the program for me. I accepted CIPA’s offer of admission the next day and have not regretted it for a moment ever since.

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