Back in 2011, as a colonel with more than 25 years of experience in the Army, John Waller was suddenly faced with the reality of starting a second career.
After years of serving as a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, Waller loved the adrenaline of jumping out of a plane, but his body suffered the consequences.
Waller experienced several injuries, including breaking his back while parachuting for the Army.
“By the time I was a colonel, my back was so bad that I came to Fort Gordon to go to, what they call, the Warrior Transition Battalion,” Waller said, explaining the WTB is a unit for soldiers looking to return to active duty or re-enter civilian life after illness or injury. “I wanted to get fixed so that I could continue to serve. But they honestly told me, ‘Listen, you’re old and broken. Just go ahead and retire.’”
Waller said he needed to find a “bridge” from his life in the Army to an entirely new career.
“I found that bridge with the Master of Public Administration program at Augusta University,” Waller said. “I was still an active-duty officer at Fort Gordon when I began the program in 2011 and what drew me to the program, initially, was the fact that, at the time, Augusta University had a concentration in homeland security and, as an Army guy, I said, ‘Well, now that could be interesting.’”
However, once he enrolled at Augusta University in 2011, Waller quickly learned the MPA program offered a number of courses that helped enhance his existing talents and opened the door to a variety of new career opportunities.
“I soon realized there were a whole lot of skills that I could bring from a couple of decades of leading, teaching, coaching, coordinating and planning that I had been doing most of my career in the Army that could be easily transferred to the nonprofit world — which is where I started after the Army — or to local government, which is where I ended up,” said Waller, who serves as the city administrator in Thomson, Georgia. “The MPA program opened my eyes to careers I had never considered.”
One of the final classes Waller took before he graduated from the MPA program in 2013 was a course on nonprofit management, he said.
“It had never occurred to me in a thousand years to go into nonprofits, but it ended up being a very important class for me because I could suddenly see myself working in nonprofits and giving back,” he said. “So, while still on active duty and after having graduated from the program, I began work in a veteran support local nonprofit known as the America’s Warrior Partnership.
“It ended up being a great transition from the Army into, what people call, the ‘real world’ before I got the opportunity to go into local government.”
The 25th anniversary
For the past 25 years, the MPA program at Augusta University has worked diligently to offer students a path to success in their chosen or future careers, said Dr. Wesley Meares, director of the MPA program and an associate professor of political science in Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.
“Our program is flexible and allows students to pursue their interest in the field of public administration,” Meares said. “Our graduates work in city and county administration, public safety, emergency management, economic development, human resources, planning and higher education, just to name a few of the different areas.”
“The United States has more than 300 graduate programs in public administration, policy or affairs. Of those programs, there are more than 15 Master of Public Administration programs in the state of Georgia,” said Dr. William Hatcher, interim chair for the Department of Social Sciences. “The rankings are based on peer evaluations of each program. We were excited to be ranked as one of the best public affairs programs in the nation.”
The Augusta University MPA program’s national ranking is a testimony to the work being done by our faculty, students and alumni, Hatcher said.
“The ranking shows what we already know — that Augusta University’s MPA program provides our students with a quality education that will help advance their careers,” Hatcher said.
But the MPA program at Augusta University had a modest beginning, Meares said.
“More than 25 years ago, there was not a program offered to train professional public administrators in this area,” Meares said. “In the early 1990s, Georgia Southern University entered a memorandum of understanding with Augusta College, at the time, and we held a joint program with a joint faculty with them.”
Through that partnership, Augusta University developed a fully accredited MPA program that was officially launched in 1996, Meares said.
“We accepted our first class in 1996,” Meares said. “And we graduated our first class underneath our name and our program two years later in 1998.”
The first cohort
One of the members of that first graduating MPA cohort in 1998 was Todd Glover, the former city administrator of North Augusta.
Glover, who in 2019 became the executive director for the Municipal Association of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C., served as North Augusta’s city administrator for nine years. He was instrumental in the development of the multimillion-dollar SRP Park at Riverside Village and was heavily involved in the project from the moment it was first announced in 2012 until its completion in 2018.
While Glover says he always wanted a career in government service, he wasn’t totally sure which path to take to best achieve that goal.
“I was debating whether to attend graduate school or attend law school,” Glover said, adding that he was working full-time at Lower Savannah Council of Governments in Aiken back in 1996 when he came across a flyer on the wall for a new MPA program that was starting at Augusta University. “I liked that I could work full-time and attend the MPA program at Augusta University, so for me, the choice was fairly easy.”
Being part of the first MPA cohort at Augusta University was a special experience, Glover said.
“I still look back fondly on my time in the program,” he said. “We were on the quarter system at the time so our classes were four hours a night and our small group became like a family. To this day, I still keep in touch with many of my classmates.”
After graduating from the MPA program, Glover accepted a position as a special projects manager in Columbia County, Georgia. He was later promoted to the management services director for the county.
While serving Columbia County in 2001, Glover offered the then-MPA students at Augusta University a unique service project.
“I utilized the MPA students to evaluate the first election using the new electronic voting machines after the ‘hanging chads’ election of 2000,” Glover said. “Their work was instrumental in helping determine how many electronic voting machines the county would need to purchase. Since the voting machines were expensive, the students’ findings were a great help to prevent purchasing too many of the machines.”
Whether it was 25 years ago or this year, the professors in the program have always been dedicated to mentoring MPA students at Augusta University, Glover said.
“For me, Dr. Ralph Walker and Dr. Gwen Wood were both instrumental in my success in the program,” he said. “I enjoyed my discussions with Dr. Walker on his vast knowledge of Augusta politics. And Dr. Wood was such an encouragement to me. She supported me my entire time there. In fact, because I worked full-time, she once started the registration process for me so that I could finish before the office closed.”
Meares, who is also known for his willingness to mentor MPA students, strives to see students succeed in their chosen careers.
“Right now, we have between 30% to 40% of our students who are full-time public service employees,” Meares said. “So, understanding their crazy schedules and their need for flexibility is something we’ve worked toward since the beginning of this program. We understand they’re working, they have jobs, they have families and this program is a big commitment. We want to help them reach their goals.”
Caroline Thomas, the director of volunteer and pastoral care services for University Health Care System, recently graduated from Augusta University’s MPA program in 2021.
When she was first accepted into the MPA program, Thomas feared she would not have enough time to dedicate to work on her degree because of her full-time job and busy schedule.
“Pursuing a master’s degree was something I always wanted to do but never thought I had the time to do,” Thomas said. “It wasn’t until I received an email from Dr. Will Hatcher telling me about the program, its course content and the conveniences for working professionals that I felt like it may become a reality.
“After several conversations with Dr. Hatcher, I applied and was accepted and began the program in May of 2019. I graduated two years later in May of 2021.”
Thomas says the MPA program at Augusta University was a “fantastic experience.”
“There are several ways, I believe, the program stands out from others like it at colleges in Georgia,” she said. “First of all, the class size is relatively small, which allows the students to get to know one another and work together on projects. Secondly, the professors are interested in the success of their students and provide great support and resources to help students succeed.
“Third, the courses are structured in a way that staggers deadlines and keeps the course load manageable given work schedules.”
The MPA program at Augusta University enables its students to establish solid, professional relationships with others in related or similar fields in the community, she said.
“Without hesitation, I would recommend this program,” Thomas said. “Just a few words of advice to those considering the program: You can do it. You do have the time. And, yes, it is absolutely worth it.”
Going the extra mile
Waller said he couldn’t agree more about the tremendous support offered by the professors in the MPA program.
Even after graduating from the MPA program in 2013, Waller said he kept in touch with some of his former professors, such as Dr. Saundra Ribando.
Ribando, who joined the MPA program in 1999 after a long career in the United States Air Force, understood the challenges Waller was facing as a retired colonel in the Army.
In fact, Ribando was the first person to tell him about a job opening in the city of Grovetown, Waller said.
“Literally, the reason I approached Grovetown, a city where I ended up becoming city administrator, was 100% due to having connections with the MPA program at Augusta University and staying plugged in,” Waller said. “By getting that email from her, I leveraged that into an interview and subsequently became a member of the Grovetown staff. And 13 months later, I was the administrator.
“Now, six years later, I’m the administrator at Thomson. That was all due to the MPA program at Augusta University.”
The future of the MPA program
Amanda Cruz graduated with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a minor in kinesiology from Augusta University in 2019. By the fall of 2020, she was already enrolled in the MPA program, ready to take on the next challenge.
“I’ve always loved higher education and I knew that I wanted to do something specifically in either higher education as far as research and teaching or even in educational administration,” she said. “So, I thought that a master’s in public administration could really help me get there.”
Cruz, who recently began her second year in the MPA program, was so impressed by the courses that she now serves as president of the MPA Student Association.
“The MPA Student Association focuses on peer mentorship,” she said. “We are really big on helping our students in the program, especially if you need help with research ideas or studying for a particular class or maybe finding an internship. We really try to work together.”
“I reached out to Dr. Hatcher wanting to be a graduate assistant at the very last minute and he put me in contact with Dr. Samudra, who was the interim director at the time. She got me help immediately,” Cruz said. “She really wanted to know what my passions were and what I was experienced in, so that way she could find me a great placement.
“As a result, I became a graduate assistant and I worked with a lot of the public administration professors on their research, which really helped expose me to the field.”
Cruz, who recently began working as an administrative assistant in the Office of Academic Admissions at Augusta University, said she was thrilled to receive a job within the university.
“Without the MPA program and meeting the people who I have now, I don’t think I would have been able to find a job on campus,” she said. “I will say that after I received my bachelor’s degree, I was applying to hundreds of jobs all the time at Augusta University because I knew I wanted to work in higher education. Unfortunately, I wasn’t offered any interviews. And then, as soon as I became an MPA student and I started applying this summer, I was actually interviewed for every single job that I applied for, which was amazing.
“I just think people on this campus recognize the MPA program as a really great program.”
A lot to celebrate
Laura Sherrouse Hubbard, a brand strategist for the Georgia Cyber Center, said she couldn’t be prouder of the fact that she graduated in May 2021 from the MPA program and received a Certificate in Urban Planning and Community Development.
“I consider myself to be a lifelong learner and am always eager to continually build upon my existing knowledge base with new ways of understanding my community and colleagues,” Hubbard said. “When I received my MBA in 2006, I was working for a private company. After working for Augusta University in several roles for almost 10 years, I was able to appreciate that Augusta University, along with their key partners in local and state government organizations, required an additional level of knowledge to successfully work within these public fields.”
Hubbard said she wasn’t afraid to take on that challenge.
“I believe Dr. Hatcher describes the MBA as the go-to degree for those in the private sector and the MPA is the go-to degree for those in the public sector,” she said. “Well, my MPA experience was incredible and one I would recommend to anyone interested in the field of public administration. The first year of the program was in person and the second year was virtual during the pandemic.
“This dual experience, while stressful, allowed me to connect in ways I never thought possible with others in my cohort. The comradery of my classmates was one I will always cherish.”
The MPA program provided Hubbard with additional skills for understanding the nuances of local and state government along with a deeper understanding of analytical research and writing, she said.
“Many of the classes required me to stretch past my comfort zone, which was one of the reasons I decided to enter the program,” she said. “I wanted to challenge myself to think about our community through different lenses.”
Hubbard, who was born and raised in Augusta, is deeply connected to Augusta University and is honored to have both an MBA and MPA from the university.
“I grew up across the street from the old Augusta College soccer field, which is now a parking lot for Augusta University,” she said, laughing. “My mother is a retired economics and finance professor from Augusta University. She was able to join me on the stage at graduation and hand me my first master’s degree, an MBA, from Augusta State University, in 2006. So, I’m a Double Jag.”
As a proud alumnus of the first MPA cohort, Glover said the MPA program at Augusta University has a lot to celebrate during its 25th anniversary.
“I highly recommend the program,” Glover said. “I have never regretted my decision and believe it is a quality program. I have hired several of the MPA graduates since I left the program and they were all top achievers.”