One yellow smiley face ball surrounded by grey sad faces to illustrate depression or internal sadness

What We Resist Persists

by Dr. Ruth Zaplin, Senior Executive-in-Residence, Key Executive Leadership Programs, American University School of Public Affairs

How often do these tapes play in your head just like a radio playing in the background?  “I’m not…”

Various images of people experiencing forms of sadness and self doubt

…good enough

…perfect enough

…thin enough

…rich enough

…successful enough

…smart enough


Brené Brown calls these “scarcity” tapes.  Do you have one of these scarcity tapes playing in your head? Or another scarcity tape? Can you think of a time when a scarcity tape got the better of you and kept you from doing something you really wanted to do?

The good news is that we can deal with our scarcity tapes by bearing witness to them and responding with kindness to ourselves. Kindness to ourselves, self-compassion, doesn’t mean self-pity, self-absorption or self-indulgence. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche identified a syndrome he termed “idiot compassion.” Towards self, idiot compassion is self-pity, self-absorption, or self-indulgence. Towards others, idiot compassion is more an enabling behavior. It manifests as the general tendency to give people what they want because you can’t bear to see them suffering. In other words, you are more concerned with your own feelings than with attending to what will actually be truly helpful to another.

You could think of self-compassion as a “putting on your own oxygen mask first before helping another” approach.  Doesn’t it make sense that we can’t relate with others’ suffering if we can’t deal with our own first?

A woman grabbing at puzzle pieces to fill her missing parts

So, how do we create a more open and loving relationship with ourselves? We start by treating ourselves as we would treat a dear friend. When we notice we are playing a scarcity tape in our head, we hold it as “object.” With an open and curious mind, we ask ourselves, “What if this scarcity tape were not a problem to resist, but something I could actually learn from and accept as it is?”

It’s important to remember that what we resist persists. Examining whatever we notice without judgment and with an open and curious mind, is practicing self-kindness. By practicing self-kindness in this way, we’re able to actively soothe, comfort, and care for ourselves, just like we would for a dear friend.

One way to cultivate our capacity for self-kindness is through mindfulness. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Mindfulness meditation practice enables us to see our habitual mental and emotional patterns, including the scarcity tapes we may not normally be aware of. Mindfulness meditation also helps us cultivate our connection to our inherently aware, basic nature which is a direct portal to our deeper qualities like self-kindness.

By practicing mindfulness and gathering our attention here, in the present moment, we gain familiarity with our basic nature. We begin to see ourselves more clearly, including those parts of ourselves we do not normally see. And, with confidence in our basic nature of inherent awareness, we make the invisible visible. By so doing, we bring awareness even to those parts of ourselves we may have been ashamed of.

The Buddha once asked a student: “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” He then went on to explain, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.” By cultivating familiarity with how our mind works and fostering self-kindness, we can actually do something about the second arrow.

Think of mindfulness meditation as mental hygiene, not unlike dental hygiene. You wouldn’t leave your house in the morning without brushing your teeth. Once mindfulness becomes part of your routine, you’ll find taking a few minutes to check in with yourself—see how you are, just as you are, each day—will come to feel just as indispensable as you prepare to go out into the world and interact with other people. And if you keep at it, you might even find that scarcity tapes aren’t playing in the background quite so often.

About the Author

Zaplin, Rith Jan 2018Dr. Ruth Zaplin is an Executive-in-Residence, School of Public Affairs, Department of Public Administration & Policy and Director of International Programs, Key Executive Leadership Programs at American University. Dr. Zaplin served as a senior advisor and project director with the National Academy of Public Administration in Washington, DC and founded the Academy’s Global Leadership Consortium. As a Senior Manager at BearingPoint, she led enterprise-wide transformation plans, large-scale government reform, workforce restructuring, and work redesign initiatives in both the public and private sectors. Selected achievements include: leadership development, succession planning, and diversity study for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; designing a Government Center for Innovation to strengthen the capability of the State of Qatar’s public sector leaders and serve as a leadership development model of excellence for the Middle East; and leading the organizational change effort to integrate the core IRS financial management systems. Equally adept at bridging research, organizational theory and practice, her background includes executive leadership of a nationally known non-governmental organization and social science research in criminal justice. Dr. Zaplin has two nationally known textbooks in criminal justice and numerous book chapters related to leadership development. She holds a DPA, MPA, MA, and BA. She is certified to score the subject-object qualitative research methodology developed at Harvard University. She received her Executive Coaching accreditation from Georgetown University and is certified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by the International Coach Federation.

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs


Thinking about the Future: Lessons from Yesterday for a Better Tomorrow

Thinking about the Future: Lessons from Yesterday for a Better Tomorrow by Dr. Patrick Malone, Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs

Have you ever noticed how difficult it can be to think about the future? I’m not talking about what our schedule looks like tomorrow or what we may have planned for next month. I’m talking about the future. The real future. As in, way down the road.

Far too often we find ourselves wrapped up in the day-to-day challenges that keep us from thinking ahead. There are reports to write, meetings to attend, and presentations to prepare. Ever since COVID-19 arrived on our shores, it seems that we are busier than ever.

Those who study such things have several interesting predictions for our future. It is expected that the size of the global market will double. The economies of the United States, Germany, and Japan will likely drop below their current rankings on the world stage. Meanwhile, India, Indonesia, and Brazil are anticipated to make tremendous gains.  And, many foresee a growth in the world population by approximately 26%. Advances in healthcare should serve us well. Automobiles will be driverless.

January is the traditional time of year when we make our New Year’s resolutions. As the previous 12 months concludes and the new year dawns, it’s a time when we naturally start thinking about what’s to come. Interestingly, this practice of making a New Year’s resolution dates back to the Roman God Janus in 153 B.C.

Janus was the God of transitions and passages. He had two faces that allowed him to simultaneously look forward to the future and back to the past. The Romans used this belief every year on December 31 to reflect on the previous year and look forward to the new times ahead. They believed that Janus would forgive them for mistakes they made and would bless them as the new year got underway.

The year 2020 has taught us a lot of things. Life is short. Too short. There is so much out there that we have taken for granted for so many years. Safety, health, friendly crowds, live music, peaceful protest, and respectful discourse. Life and work look different now. Specifically, we now see our world over the rim of a face mask. We don’t hug anymore. Nonverbal communication through video is difficult to navigate, creating a gaping chasm in our ability to physically and emotionally connect. Whether it was due to a pandemic, global uncertainties, social reckonings, and challenges in leadership, we feel the impact.

As we welcome the new year and say farewell to 2020, I want to take a moment to speak directly to those who took an oath to serve in government. To the public servants at all levels of government, who valiantly face the impact of the pandemic and a supercharged social, political, and economic landscape, we in the Key family extend our deepest gratitude. It has been a difficult year. Yet once again, regardless of the barriers, our public servants continue to care for our nation, ensuring safety, continuity, and consistency, even in the most difficult times. Your job is among the toughest there is and it takes fierce resolve and a resilient person to devote their career to delivering civilization to our country. So from under our mask, we say thank you!

In looking back over the previous 12 months, we have a lot to learn from. It is almost as if someone pressed the reset button on our lives. Even so, we have a chance to come together and make this year better, maybe even extraordinary!

So let’s do it.

Perhaps in the next 12 months we can commit ourselves to being more loving and more caring. Maybe we can be a little slower to judgment and a little quicker to forgive. In the Key program, we often talk about assuming noble intent. Not a bad idea! Kindness works. Laughter. Love. So does gratitude. We might consider spending a bit more time focusing on how we live our lives and how we can make the lives of those around us better than ever. In our jobs, in our homes, in our communities, it doesn’t matter where we are, it’s what we choose to do. And we can do this.

Last week during an especially intense yoga session, my yoga instructor made the following comment. She said, “sometimes I think we spend too much time being human doings instead of being human beings.” I immediately fell out of my Shirshasana practice!

What a lovely thought. Let’s spend the coming year as a human being.


About the Author

Dr. Patrick Malone

Professor Malone is an Executive-in-Residence in the Department of Public Administration and Policy where he teaches courses in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, action learning, leadership ethics, and public administration and policy. He also serves as the Director of American University’s Key Executive Leadership Programs. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics in state and federal agencies, professional associations, and universities. He has extensive experience working with federal sector leaders from DHHS, EPA, IRS, USDA, HUD, DHS, and DoD among others. Professor Malone also regularly presents in international forums to government leaders from the Republic of Vietnam, Panama, Poland, Belgium, and Mauritius. His research interests and scholarship include work in public service motivation, leadership, ethics, and organizational behavior. He is one of only thirty researchers in the country certified to score the Subject/Object qualitative research methodology developed at Harvard University.

Dr Malone spent twenty-two years in the Department of Defense where he served in a number of senior leadership and policy roles including as a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Academic Director; and Dean of Academics for Navy Medicine. His most recent publications include “Thinking Up,” “Selfies in the Workplace: Narcissists and the Public Manager,” “Making Assumptions? Try the Power of Inquiry,” “The Challenges That Set Public Service Apart” and “Enhancing Your Leadership by Tapping into Staff Attitudes.” His TED Talk, “Thinking about Time,” is available at and his co-edited book, The Handbook of Federal Leadership and Administration, was published in November 2016. He is also the host of the monthly podcast “Take It From Key.”

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs


Fostering Innovation and Resilience in a Year of Unknowns

Fostering Innovation and Resilience in a Year of Unknowns by George Reese, TSA Leadership Institute Program Coordinator, Key Executive Leadership Programs, American University

The end of a year is a time many of us take a moment to reflect on what we’ve done or accomplished in the past year, and perhaps set some new goals, aspirations, or dreams for the upcoming twelve months. 2020 will be a year many of us will remember for a long, long time, not for good reasons, and for good reasons, wish we could forget.

I remember joking to myself and a few friends this time last year that I’d like to take a Rip Van Winkle type of nap and wake up November 4th when what I was anticipating would be a nasty presidential campaign and election would be over. You know, stick my head in the sand to avoid all the toxic negativity until it was all over.

Now just imagine my fantasy self waking then and realizing how much my life and the world had changed in unimaginable ways that no one predicted or could have even dreamed of a year ago.  Oh, what a year it has been! And the election arguing still isn’t over! Makes you want to go right back to sleep.

It’s been a year of devastating change and tragedy for so many all over the world. No one has been untouched by the events of this past year and some of us, who have survived so far, may never fully recover.

But what has also struck me is the amazing strength and resilience of people in facing an incredible, unexpected challenge that we were unable to anticipate or prepare for. We’ve created whole new systems for interacting with others, sharing space (carefully), working, playing, learning, even presidential campaigning.

I have been incredibly impressed with how we at Key Executive Leadership Programs adapted to this new normal. In March we were told to begin working from home. We didn’t know how long this new work from home policy would last and how it would impact our work delivering leadership programs to numerous government agencies (who were also moving to work from home).

Students attending class from home

Since then, in a manner of a few months, we moved from full in-person/live instruction to completely delivering online classes and programs. How did we do that? We had no plan, or experience with online delivery of programs. But we needed to continue to deliver programming to our clients, so we needed to adapt and radically change our method of delivery in response to an incredible, unexpected situation.

I was so impressed with how the Key staff responded to the challenge, learned new skills, taught those skills to a bevy of faculty and classroom coaches in a short period of time so that our mission of delivering high quality leadership development programs continued. We were also incredibly supported by Key leadership in our efforts. In essence our Key leaders gave us the autonomy to develop new skills, practice and teach those new skills, and most importantly I believe, trusted us to deliver.

Dec-Blog-Feature-Image-2 At our recent Roger Jones Award Ceremony (on Zoom of course) during a panel discussion with the awardees, the awardees were discussing leadership excellence. Matthew Alessandrino, Assistant IG for Investigations with FDIC, talked about the current situation and what leaders could do enable their employees to be successful in their jobs.


“It’s all about the people. Making sure the work that they have, the mission they have is important, and they understand what it is. Give them the tools and resources to get that job done and then get out of the way and give them the autonomy.

If there’s one thing the last 9 months has shown us is that giving people the resources and the autonomy to get their jobs done in this situation… shows we’ve made some great decisions in our development of folks to be able to handle a situation like [they’re] handling in such an incredible manner.”

Daniel Pink writes about this in his book, Drive.  He writes that if employees are paid fairly and therefore money is not an issue, that what motivates employees in work and life are three things: autonomy (our desire to be self-directed), mastery (our desire to get better at what we do – and truly care about what we do), and purpose (that what we do has meaning and is important).

In my leadership classes I’ve told my students the difference between leadership and management is your ability to affect change. Here was an example where our purpose was clear. We faced a challenge that allowed us in Key to demonstrate our mastery largely because we were given the autonomy to create a new learning paradigm for our clients.

I don’t think we would have been any more successful in accomplishing that if we had had the luxury of planning for it. It’s a huge credit to the Key staff for their mastery and our leadership for having the faith and trust in us to carry it out. I wonder if we could have accomplished what we have this year at Key if we had the luxury of planning for it.

About the Author

ReeseGeorge joined the Key Executive Leadership Programs office in December 2018 as the Program Coordinator for the TSA Leadership Institute. Prior to coming to American University he was a trainer and the Training Coordinator with Training and Organizational Development at Georgetown University for 18 years. George started out as an elementary school teacher many many years ago and has taught learners from kindergarten through adults. George also was an adjunct instructor in the Bachelor of Arts Liberal Studies Program at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies.


About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs



Black women in discussion around a table and smiling

The Struggle Continues But Victory Is Assured: Inspiring Women and Girls to Leadership in Africa

The Struggle Continues But Victory Is Assured: Inspiring Women and Girls to Leadership in Africa by Josephine Ashia

Leadership is a globally acknowledged avenue that affects life skills, talents, and knowledge from individuals to the larger society. The community usually benefits from the exceptional individuals who have excelled in their respective fields, having had the opportunity to develop themselves through education and training on the job, and professional experience. Leadership is also a necessary resource to harness in order to actualize development in both the developed and developing countries.

Africa has produced some great leaders, including Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Haile Selassie, among others. Interesting that the continent and Ghana, where I live, can boast of many great male leaders but very few female leaders. Growing up in Ghana in primary school, I only heard of the great Yaa Asantewaa, the Ashanti female warrior, who fought the British Army thus delaying the annexation of the then Ashanti kingdom, now Ashanti Region. In modern times however, very few females have stood in the leadership space – Madam Joyce Aryee and Gifty Afenyo Dadzie to name a few.

There are many reasons for the scarcity of female leaders. Between the ages of six and thirteen, the reaction from my close friends anytime I expressed strong opinions on any subject, was to take it easy. They would tell me that being opinionated and passionate about societal issues would make men afraid of me, even as girls wearing braces and corn roll hairstyles.

Many girls and boys have been oriented to believe that being a female leader equals a life of singleness, and this sure scared the hell out of many girls who wanted to have the best of both worlds.

Indeed this advice was not a peculiar one, as many fathers and mothers took the time to drum the same into the ears of young girls to curb their aspirations. The agenda to dissuade many young girls stemmed from examples of females around us who had to choose between marriage and careers.

women kneeling in office with a laptop and a child at her side

Leadership in Africa is not an easy endeavor, especially in places where the percentage of the illiterate population is higher than the educated or literate. In fact, the first people to discourage any female aspiring leadership at any level in the community are the members of her family. The autocratic African father will usually say no and advise their daughters to stay away from politics and leadership roles. The loving mothers usually persuade their daughters to pursue other interests that will give them enough time to be wives and mothers, as opposed to being a head of a school, CEO, or a head of a marketing team, which will take too much time away from fulfilling domestic responsibilities. The reason being that most men in Africa want stay-at-home wives while they pursue their dreams, a norm which remains popular in the 21st Century.

A few women like me whose parents supported their aspirations have had to contend with condescending males, determined to undermine every effort of women’s’ aspirations in the workplace. In December 2017 I competed for the position of Chairperson of Welfare Association in my office. I was not selected, not because of my lack of qualifications, but due to a few influential staff members who were convinced I might get pregnant and be unavailable to sign applications forms for them to access their loans. A flawed thinking but this mindset discredited my candidature.

This unfairness starts from the primary school level, where many ignorant boys taunt and are cruel to female students who become interested in becoming leaders. These boys tagged us as “Man-Woman” to wit, a girl who behaves as a boy. All these derogatory comments were attempts to discourage females from building confidence in order to pursue any meaningful endeavors.

Those of us who defied these mischievous boys had to eventually deal with some of them as grown men, many of whom are found in every sphere of the Ghanaian society and always ready to frustrate female employees, leaders or bosses. They are the first to gang up against females who dare to aspire or become leaders by spreading rumors that a successful corporate female leader is giving out sexual favors; the reason for their success. These men derail and discount the hours and efforts a woman puts into her job to merit a promotion. Very unfortunate but common issues female leaders have to deal with in this part of the world.

Additionally they sometimes gang up with like-minded colleagues to disrespect women at every opportunity to enable fear. This has resulted in some females leaving their jobs. These obstacles have ultimately reduced the number of female leaders in the public and private space as many of them fear having to deal with such challenges.

Having surmounted many of these challenges, I am determined to mentor young females in my community in order to boost their confidence. I am continually motivated and inspired to encourage females to develop a resilient mindset in order to overcome this significant adversity. In a country like Ghana, where the female population is over fifty percent, it is imperative to encourage more females to get involved in decision making at the Executive and Legislative arms of government as well as the private sector to harness the talents left to trust.

Indeed, it is a clarion call to fathers, uncles, nephews and husbands to support their female family members and friends to succeed. They should join the crusade to change the mindsets that an ambitious woman cannot be an amazing mum or wife.

Our collective efforts must reach every nook and cranny of the Ghanaian society.

I will do what I must to make sure the dreams of my little girls Nukunu Aniima and Abrafi are realized, despite some people in society cannot who accept the concept of female leadership. “Aluta Continua, Victoria Acerta”, which means The struggle continues but victory is assured.

Photos by Christina @ on Unsplash

About the Author

Josephine Ashia-TorkuJosephine Ashia has served in the Government of Ghana (GoG) in various agencies and capacities since 2007, where she currently works as Administrator of the Security Governance Initiative (SGI) Secretariat, as an analyst in the first National Border Fusion Center in Sub-Saharan Africa. As Administrator she contributes to the drafting of Communication and Implementation plans for GoG public policies and has also participated in groundbreaking training in support of the Fusion Center and the GoG’s security mission. She started her government service in the Communication Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then the passport office. In addition, she has worked at the operations office within the Bureau of National Communications where her duties included strategic communication and public affairs engagements. She has also served as a Trainer of Trainees, training Analysts at the Analysis Department under the Office of the President. Josephine holds a Masters Degree from the University of Ghana, a certificate for Training and Leadership from the Sanderlous African Training Institute, and a degree in Political Science from the University of Ghana. She is a published author of When Men Fell Asleep (2011), with the focus, “to encourage the ladies and women in the Ghanaian society to take up leadership roles.


About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs

Smiley face ball in the mud

Embracing False Positivity

Embracing False Positivity by Stephanie Hull, Management and Program Analyst, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Office of Investigations & Key Executive MPA Alum

Most everyone has some form of morning routine, whether you favor the snooze button or rise before the alarm, and like many, I awake each morning in search of three things: a large, steaming mug of my favorite coffee, a comfy spot to quietly enjoy the caffeine, and a little slice of inspiration to give me hope in spite of COVID-19 and our nation’s turbulent political arena.

This is exactly what I was doing a few weeks ago when I stumbled across a LinkedIn post by Susan David, PhD., a Harvard psychologist, author, and co-founder of the Institute of Coaching. The words “Emotional Agility” first captured my interest, along with the message, “When we push aside normal emotions to embrace false positivity, we lose our capacity to develop skills to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

As a federal supervisor, I was startled by the relevancy of Dr. David’s words to the message we, as leaders, have been sending to our workforce. Be resilient, stay focused on the mission, stay positive, adjust to the “new normal”. Our words are meant to be motivational and provide support, but are we embracing false positivity by encouraging employees to push aside negative emotions and keep their chins up despite the chaos? After reading Dr. David’s work, I believe we are skewing the message through a failed delivery. Despite our intent to encourage resilience, which is a powerful skill everyone should embrace, sprinkling our messages with optimism might be counterproductive. So, if sending positive affirmations is the wrong approach, what is the right approach?

Brown eggs in a case with drawings on them to illustrate various emotions, including sadness, surprise, joy and melancholy.

Emotional agility. According to Dr. David, “The prevailing wisdom says that difficult thoughts and feelings have no place at the office: Executives, and particularly leaders, should be either stoic or cheerful; they must project confidence and damp down any negativity bubbling up inside them.” She asserts that experiencing emotions is not the root of the issue. Our troubles begin when we get “hooked” by recurring narratives and we tie them to our emotions. She describes emotional agility as the process of recognizing our emotions, facing them “courageously and compassionately”, and then moving forward in a way that supports our values. Emotional agility allows individuals to withstand stress and recover from setbacks, while focusing on goals and remaining openminded. In essence, emotional agility is the foundation to building resilience. But, like a flower, creating the right environment is the key to growth.

Rather than focusing on words of wisdom and motivational messages, perhaps we should be asking ourselves, how do we create a work environment that supports emotional agility by allowing employees to confront difficult emotions while remaining productive and meeting the mission?

I believe it starts with values-based leadership. Focusing on values like transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability, allows us to demonstrate that we are not immune to emotions like fear and sadness, and conveys that we are willing to have difficult conversations. Employees can feel certain that it is not only safe to voice concerns but encouraged. I’m not in any way suggesting leaders should act as mental health counselors, but certainly sharing and relating to employees helps to develop trust, which is vital in collaborative, high-performing teams. Even in our virtual circumstances, we can promote emotional agility through information sharing, employee engagement, and practicing kindness. Best of all, through values-based leadership, we can connect as individuals and build resilience together.

Please note: All opinions are my own and do not reflect the views of my employer


David, S. (2020, September). When we pressure ourselves or others to suppress negative emotions, we’re perpetuating harmful patterns of unproductive coping mechanisms [image attached]. [Post]. LinkedIn.


David, S., & Congleton, C. (2013). Emotional Agility. Retrieved October 4, 2020, from

About the Author


Stephanie Hull Photo10

Stephanie M. Hull has over 14 years of experience in the federal sector. Currently, Stephanie is a Management and Program Analyst for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Office of Investigations where she leads the Case Management section. In this role, she is responsible for maintaining the data integrity and case lifecycle of employee misconduct investigations, as well as the statistical and analytical functions of the program. Prior to joining USCIS, Stephanie worked for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for 12 years and held positions in areas of aviation screening, behavior detection, insider threat, and agency wide performance management. She is experienced in developing analytical tools that identify traveler risk groups to assist airports in developing risk mitigation strategies and support TSA leadership in making agency-wide strategic change. Her background also includes developing and teaching course curriculum for TSA’s Insider Threat and Vulnerability Mitigation workshops, supporting Federal Security Directors in determining risk-based resource deployments. Prior to her federal career, she worked in property management for 12 years. Stephanie’s passion for collective purpose and developing others drives her aspirations to lead a diverse team of public servants who work together toward mutual learning and shared vision. She also plans to pursue a doctoral degree in Organizational Development and Adult Learning in hopes of building professional development programs that expand employee learning and leadership capacities, prepare organizations for change, and reshape workplace culture. Currently, Stephanie holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice Administration and a Master of Public Administration degree from American University’s Key Executive Leadership program.


About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs


Mindset, Mindset, Mindset

Mindset, Mindset, Mindset by Paul Bamonte, Federal Manager, Department of Homeland Security &
Key Executive MPA Alum

March 2020 will go down in the history books, hopefully, as lessons gained from the COVID-19 global pandemic that shook the world and touched every single person worldwide. A crisis so tragic, as of this writing, taking the lives of nearly 5000,000 people.

I say hopefully gained because a repeat of such a tragedy, be it in the realm of possibility, could again change individuals and societies, possibly in more significant ways we can’t imagine.

Take a moment now to consider who we were as a society in February 2020.

For many of us, myself included, we have been able to work from home, a luxury for which I have gained untold gratitude. With the time gained from this new work environment, I have thought deeply about the still disproportionately affected. Especially those who have had and continue to go to work, regardless of the CDC’s guidelines and the ever-looming uncertainty that will surely continue to shape our lives.
A blended image of an essential gloved and masked riding a bike through a city and a child playing at home while their parents works.

I was going to focus this blog post on the Spring 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer update, where global trust in the government is up from 54% to 65% (essentially pre and post-current pandemic). But more sobering, the second update has to do with the flip side of government trust, the rise in societal fears for “those with less education, less money and fewer resources are bearing a disproportionate burden of the suffering, risk of illness and need to sacrifice in the pandemic, and more than half are very worried about long-term, COVID-related job loss.”

This second statistic probably affects every one of us with a family member, friend, colleague, a friend of a colleague, your neighbor, bus driver, dry cleaner, or your Amazon delivery driver.

Then in May, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis while in police custody, and the protests that followed, brought the juxtaposition of mass health and safety, people exercising their the First Amendment rights en masse, and the challenges of the political landscape.

Yes that’s right folks, all of these events in an election year. I am not saying similar events have never occurred on this scale, but with the added pandemic crisis, it tends to redefine many of our previous notions.

So now my fellow professionals, how do we interact with our teams as we reconstitute back into our physical work environment?

How do we digest the totality of what has occurred when presented with a new, uncertain environment, continue to build relationships, maintain and grow our self and social awareness, and yes, achieve the results?

Being mindful of what our employees and colleagues have experienced the past 3 months will ensure they feel invested and valued. Our mindset has enumerable impacts and is key in determining the level of success of our goals and remains one of the key capabilities we have as managers and leaders.

In this new and uncertain environment, tap into that personal courage to remain agile and open to new ways of thinking. Be there for those who need you. Engage with your teams in new ways while being an active listener. And as always, practice that continual learning every day.

About the Author

Paul Bamonte served 20 years in the United States Army in leadership positions that took him across the globe, pursuing initiatives ranging from strategic communications and public affairs, inter agency coordination, international partnership building and organizational change management and strategic planning. Paul currently serves as lead strategic planner within a mission support enterprise in the Department of Homeland Security since 2018. Prior to Paul’s retirement from the U.S. Army, he served as Public Affairs Liaison Officer with the Joint Task Force-National Capital Region to the 2017 Presidential Inaugural Committee as well in the same capacity for the 2013 Inaugural Committee. Previously, he was the Army Music Liaison Officer for Southwest Asia, Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, serving as the senior U.S. Military music advisor for U.S. Army Central Command where he initiated the first-even international partnership with the Kuwait National Guard with a subsequent visit to the United States. During this assignment, he also traveled to Afghanistan assisting in the training and partnership building with the 205th Corps Afghan National Army in Kandahar and documented his initiatives as a Public Affairs Officer to the command. In 2017, Paul earned an Executive Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Key Executive Program at The American University School of Public Affairs in Washington, DC. He also holds a Graduate Certificate in International Affairs from The Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is a graduate of the Army’s Intermediate Level Education and the Public Affairs Qualification Course from the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland.

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs


Loving Those You Lead: Developing Courageous Authenticity & Combating the Dangerous Silence of Apathy for Managers

Loving Those You Lead: Developing Courageous Authenticity & Combating the Dangerous Silence of Apathy for Managers, By Dr. Reginald Wells, Executive in Residence, Key Executive Leadership Programs

Dr. Malone’s May blog post entitled “Don’t Forget the People,” offered an admonishment to those who choose to lead. Our work forces are suffering from stress, fearfulness, and loneliness and Dr. Malone concluded: “that as leaders we will need to work harder to love those we lead, and let them know it.”  

am compelled, in this moment, to double down on Dr. Malone’s admonition by emphasizing the importance of our connectivity with those under our supervision and the role leaders play in validating shared humanity; and I use recent events as a backdrop for my riff.  

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”
  —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In my opinion, leaders capable of molding the consensus we need today must be emotionally intelligent and of impeccable character. They must demonstrate high levels of integrity and show cultural competence; and they must be capable of empathic concern. I have found that it is hard to foster connection and inspire people to perform purposeful work well when those who lead them lack these essential personal attributes. 

The recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks have sparked an emerging Zeitgeist reminiscent of my adolescent years. Unlike the images of the ‘60s, however, it is encouraging to see that the throngs of citizens flooding the streets in protest this time around reflect the rich diversity of AmericaIt is hard to ignore the shocking images of abuse and murder of Black people now available for all to see courtesy of social media. People of conscience who once questioned the veracity of complaints coming from Black America and other communities of color around the globe have witnessed, in real time, what happens when a society remains in denial of its legacy of institutional and individual racism. Thank God they were disgusted and sickened by the images. Their outrage may portend what many of us have been waiting for: a broader coalition of people who are no longer willing to be complicit in preserving systemic racism through their silence and apathy. 


Like COVID-19, recognition of the pandemic of systemic racism has touched a collective nerve. That shared experience should have made it easier for leaders to make a visceral connection with employees, allow them to recognize and appreciate the emotional fatigue many are feeling, and take an action to mitigate their stress, fear and feelings of loneliness. Even if a leader’s frame of reference makes it difficult to reach solidarity with protesters or employees who support their causeit is not unreasonable for employees to expect leadership to appreciate the importance of this moment by acknowledging their concerns. By offering messages of encouragement and reconciliation, and listening for the genuine anguish people are feeling, leaders create a safe space and create an opportunity for connecting with people in a meaningful way. 

Some leaders did the right thing and stepped up to the needs of their people with messages of encouragement and condemnation of systemic racism and injustice. Leadership at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, American University, and the Partnership for Public Service are cases in point.  

When leadership was slow to respond, it was reported in the media that some employees actually took it upon themselves to speak truth to power in an effort to trigger action, such as the group of Black employees at the Department of Justice, reminding us that leadership can be situational and come from unexpected sources.  

Regrettably, some leadership failed to heed the call all together or failed to heed the call in a timely mannerThose leaders failed to acknowledge the “elephant in the room” and, for employees looking to their leadership for reassurance, the silence was deafening. It is causing some to question the ability of their leaders to feel their pain and show the emotional intelligence and courageous authenticity required to lead a diverse and inclusive workforce effectively.  

To Dr. Malone’s point, we have a lot of work to do. Not only do some leaders appear to be incapable of loving those they lead, but they appear to show wanton disregard for the feelings and sensibilities of their employees, or perhaps even worse, show intolerably insulting indifference where genuine concern should be shown. The people we lead deserve our love and we need to enhance our ability to show them how much we love and respect them. It all begins with personal reflection (a look in the mirror) and a call for honest feedback from those we lead, especially those courageous individuals who have shown a willingness and ability to be authentically honest with us. Be willing to listen, connect, and allow yourself to feel what they feel. That is one way we can show them the love. 

Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


About the Author

Reginald F. Wells was named Deputy Commissioner of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of Human Resources effective July 15, 2002 after serving short tenures as Deputy Associate Commissioner for Disability Program Policy and Senior Advisor in the Office of Disability and Income Security Programs. Dr. Wells also serves as the Chief Human Capital Officer for SSA. In his capacity as Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources, Dr. Wells oversees a staff complement of 400 employees with an operating budget of $100 million. Dr. Wells served as Deputy Commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities from October 1994 to April 2002. He shared with the Commissioner full responsibility for planning and directing 25 federal staff and programmatic activities, including the University Centers, Developmental Disabilities Councils, Protection and Advocacy Systems and Projects of National Significance with a program budget of over $122 million. From October 1997 to May 1998, Dr. Wells served as the Acting Commissioner of the Administration on Developmental Disabilities in the United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Prior to his appointment in the Administration on Developmental Disabilities, Dr. Wells had 10 years of extensive public sector experience with the District of Columbia’s (D.C.) Department of Human Services. In 1980, Dr. Wells received a Ph.D. in Psychology from Temple University in Philadelphia. He also earned his M.A. in psychology from Temple University and B.A. in psychology and sociology from American International College.

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs


Diverse group of people

Don’t Forget the People

by Dr. Patrick Malone, Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs

Just before America found itself in the midst of a pandemic, three important pieces of research were released that gave us an indication of the status of the American workforce. And the results were quite sobering.

A Gallup survey released in late 2019 addressed the challenge of anxiety in the American worker. The findings were astonishing:

  • 83% of US workers suffer from work-related stress;
  • US businesses lose up to $300 billion yearly as a result of workplace stress; Stress causes around one million workers to miss work every day;
  • only 43% of US employees think their employers care about their work-life balance;
  • and work-related stress causes 120,000 deaths and results in $190 billion in healthcare costs yearly. The average American stress levels are 20% higher than the world average.

And remember, this was pre-Covid.

Americans are also afraid.

People most fear corrupt government and medical bills.

Each year Chapman University performs their annual Survey of American Fears (CSAF). Here is where we stand. Three of the top 10 fears are directly related to illness, dying, and high medical bills. And American’s biggest fear? Corrupt government officials. So, to put that into perspective, in the biggest pandemic that any of us will likely ever see in our lives, Americans are afraid of everything related to health, dying, ability to cover medical bills, and government leadership.

And remember, this was pre-Covid.

Finally, people are lonely. Loneliness research is a fairly recent, if overdue, phenomenon. The Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index recently found that three out of every five adults, or 61%, report that they sometimes or always feel lonely. And of those, there is a greater feeling of loneliness among people who use social media more frequently, which is precisely what many of us are doing now. And for the Gen Zs, whom many of us consider to be super tech-savvy, well, they may be. But 73% of them report sometimes or always feeling alone, a 4% increase from 2018.

And remember, this was pre-Covid.

So what does this mean for us? It means that as leaders we will need to work harder to love those we lead, and let them know it.

This comes from our hearts. It’s a soul connection, not an intellectual one, not a technical one. Love transcends best practices, design thinking, strategic planning, and all things related. In the DC metropolitan area especially, there are a number of available outlets producing leadership reports, how to manuals, future of leadership, today’s leadership, tomorrow’s leadership, and on and on and on. We wait each year for the colorful, graphic laden portrayal so we can learn the latest on leadership. Yet woefully few, if any of these reports ever mention the word love.

Maybe the time is now.

About the Author

Dr. Patrick Malone

Professor Malone is an Executive-in-Residence in the Department of Public Administration and Policy where he teaches courses in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, action learning, leadership ethics, and public administration and policy. He also serves as the Director of American University’s Key Executive Leadership Programs. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics in state and federal agencies, professional associations, and universities. He has extensive experience working with federal sector leaders from DHHS, EPA, IRS, USDA, HUD, DHS, and DoD among others. Professor Malone also regularly presents in international forums to government leaders from the Republic of Vietnam, Panama, Poland, Belgium, and Mauritius. His research interests and scholarship include work in public service motivation, leadership, ethics, and organizational behavior. He is one of only thirty researchers in the country certified to score the Subject/Object qualitative research methodology developed at Harvard University.

Dr Malone spent twenty-two years in the Department of Defense where he served in a number of senior leadership and policy roles including as a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Academic Director; and Dean of Academics for Navy Medicine. His most recent publications include “Thinking Up,” “Selfies in the Workplace: Narcissists and the Public Manager,” “Making Assumptions? Try the Power of Inquiry,” “The Challenges That Set Public Service Apart” and “Enhancing Your Leadership by Tapping into Staff Attitudes.” His TED Talk, “Thinking about Time,” is available at and his co-edited book, The Handbook of Federal Leadership and Administration, was published in November 2016. He is also the host of the monthly podcast “Take It From Key.”

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs

A Return to Kindness

by Dr. Patrick Malone, Director, Key Executive Leadership Programs

Over the last many years as part of the Key program one of the things I’ve always admired most about our students, staff, coaches, and faculty is the level of kindness and compassion they exhibit toward one-another. When COVID-19 hit us all, I found this gentleness toward one-another to be even more important. And as we, as a nation, struggle through this pandemic, it appears the previously-existing divisive national landscape, one marked by name-calling, and insults, has taken a backseat to uncertainty, loneliness, and fear.

I wrote an article on this very subject as the 2019 holidays got underway. It read in part:

It’s not always easy for kindness and gratitude to make themselves known in today’s world. Combine our omnipresent, hyperactive environment with a 24-hour news cycle, divisive discourse across our nation, and no time for reflection, and it’s no wonder we snap at one another. Life is hard. Research has even suggested we may possess an intrinsic bias toward negativity. This has been helpful from an evolutionary standpoint. We make decisions that allow us to survive and succeed. But kindness, vulnerability, compassion, and empathy struggle to make the grade in a pressure-cooker world.


Prior to this crisis, when we heard a story or witnessed an act of kindness, we often reacted with disbelief. Then we told someone about it, usually beginning with the words, “You’ll never believe what I just saw!” Now it appears different. Our longing for connectedness is more prominent as we socially isolate. We’re seeking connection and the love that is uniquely human. This is because as human beings we may be hardwired for survival, but we’re also hardwired for belonging – especially now.

Zoom is not normal, nor chatrooms, webinars and the like. They serve a purpose to be sure – and they are an important tool for us to use in these challenging times. But they fall short of real human contact. Further, they have diminishing returns with regards to the positive feelings we have in the long run. These platforms – no matter how jazzy they may be, come with the price of sterility. It’s up to us to make them better, more personal, more human. This is where kindness can help bridge the gap. Through our language, tone, and eye contact, we can take a step toward the behaviors that make people feel loved and appreciated – even from miles away.

Author, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once stated, “The desire to reach the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise and most possible.” We have a human imperative for kindness, touching others’ hearts, and craving belonging.”

Holding each other’s hand and growing together was a dream of Don Zauderer’s when he envisioned Key. For those of you who are part of this program, in any way, thank you for holding fast in these most challenging times. Love will always win.

About the Author

Dr. Patrick Malone

Professor Malone is an Executive-in-Residence in the Department of Public Administration and Policy where he teaches courses in public sector leadership, executive problem solving, organizational analysis, action learning, leadership ethics, and public administration and policy. He also serves as the Director of American University’s Key Executive Leadership Programs. He is a frequent guest lecturer on leadership and organizational dynamics in state and federal agencies, professional associations, and universities. He has extensive experience working with federal sector leaders from DHHS, EPA, IRS, USDA, HUD, DHS, and DoD among others. Professor Malone also regularly presents in international forums to government leaders from the Republic of Vietnam, Panama, Poland, Belgium, and Mauritius. His research interests and scholarship include work in public service motivation, leadership, ethics, and organizational behavior. He is one of only thirty researchers in the country certified to score the Subject/Object qualitative research methodology developed at Harvard University.

Dr Malone spent twenty-two years in the Department of Defense where he served in a number of senior leadership and policy roles including as a professor at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Academic Director; and Dean of Academics for Navy Medicine. His most recent publications include “Thinking Up,” “Selfies in the Workplace: Narcissists and the Public Manager,” “Making Assumptions? Try the Power of Inquiry,” “The Challenges That Set Public Service Apart” and “Enhancing Your Leadership by Tapping into Staff Attitudes.” His TED Talk, “Thinking about Time,” is available at and his co-edited book, The Handbook of Federal Leadership and Administration, was published in November 2016. He is also the host of the monthly podcast “Take It From Key.”

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs



Rekindling the Flame: Inspiring others to join the public service in the face of cynicism

by Paul Carlson, Executive Director, Seattle Federal Executive Board

After directing a small federal agency, I am making the transition to teaching graduate students and I enjoy it immensely. However, I have been surprised to encounter profound cynicism among the students. They seem to have an overwhelmingly negative view, not just of government, but about our capacity for any significant social change in America as well.

The topic was homelessness. The class was virtually united in believing that homelessness neither could nor would be ended. Considering that we are entering the fifth decade of this prolonged crisis, this pessimism is hardly surprising. But the view of students went much deeper than that.

Homelessness, institutional racism, the perception of growing disparity between rich and poor, unbridled capitalism, neo-colonialism, the pervasive belief that only those born to privilege can succeed, bigotry, racism, and sexism are believed to be not simply present in American society but to define its very character. To many of my students, the overall view of decaying, dysfunctional American government is a foregone conclusion on the basis of overwhelming evidence in the news each day.

How to inspire students to consider public service, when they despair of the efficacy of most agents of political and social change, especially the institutions of government?

Figure in light bulb shaped like an air balloon floating toward a red flag atop a mountain

In our discussion I appealed to recent history and the dramatic changes wrought in the wake of the wars and upheavals of the 20th century. I do not think I made much impression. Historical reference points, as a means of measuring progress, seems dismissed as so many limited “constructs” of particular groups, usually from the dominant power group. I respond that truth can and does transcend the limited constructs of a point in history, or groups within history. We must avoid the fundamental error of believing the constructs of our particular time and ethos somehow stand out of history. There is no meta-construct; no post history prism through which we interpret current and past events.

Yet, oddly enough, this pessimism exists side by side with a kind of hyper-idealism; a stark contrast of the ideal versus real world. As it were, we can find only distorted shadows of the ideal world on the walls of our social order. This dualism seems Manichean: the light of high human aspirations is hidden only in pockets of resistance, while the mainstream social order grows ever darker.

Feeling no estrangement from high ideals, I ask myself exactly how I might share my faith in the values of a liberal society. Government’s function is not merely management of the social order, but to provide meaningful, humane and just service to our citizens.

I believe we want to open a horizon of government service, not merely because there are good jobs to be had (and there are!), but because we want those positions filled with civil servants who aspire to truly serve, who view their work is part of a wide net of services that supports and promotes growth, creativity and change in American civic, social and economic institutions.

I have been encouraged in recent years by my experiences with working with a federal inter-agency program that develops the talents of emerging leaders. This is a two year program comprised of two small cohorts of mid-career federal staff who overlap (1st year, 2nd year) in participation. Each year they choose a group service project, such as hosting a state wide conference on prisoner re-entry, building a tiny house shelter in support of the work of a local non- profit, or other similar projects. This peer led program is overseen by a team of five Advisors, senior federal agency staff. Our program structure is not unique.

However, the content of learning, while important, is subordinate to group process, the interpersonal encounters, friction and camaraderie inherent in their working together as a team of peers. Advisors mix it up in group discussion, candid with general opinions, though careful not to interpose their views in the peer decision-making process. Somehow this whole process becomes remarkably uplifting to spirit and morale, at least for most. Advisors serve less as teachers than co-learners.

To inspire the formation of new leaders in all levels of American government, current leaders obviously have to impart their own notions of service, their own beliefs, sense of duty and civic commitment. Our posture perhaps is that we are in leadership formation together with those we advise and teach. We owe as much authenticity of our character, beliefs and ideas as we can muster.

I do not want to have too ready a response to the students I teach in an academic setting. Their views are strongly held and worth listening to. I can, then, only share myself with them, my ideas and experience, and perhaps encourage them to place themselves within an experiential context of growth towards leadership. Will such an experience shake their cynicism, restore some faith in American society and civic ideals? A professionally intimate, personally engaged approach I believe may be the best way to impress a new generation of leaders, and help them develop a lens through which to find their own sense of meaning and purpose, and thereby to aspire to civic leadership.

About the Author

CarlsonPaul Carlson’s career in housing homeless persons and working on national homelessness policy spans three decades. From the earliest days of the homelessness crisis in the 1980’s he worked to house homeless person with severe mental illness and substance abuse issues. He held key positions with the City of Seattle and later with the federal government developing strategies to end homelessness.

For nine years he represented the federal United States Interagency Council on Homelessness in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The focus of his work was on organizing community strategies to end homelessness and to create an adequate supply of housing and services for disabled persons and impoverished families.

Before entering federal service he was a special advisor on homelessness for the City of Seattle, directing the operations of the Sound Families Initiative, a housing production program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Paul worked for many years as the Director of Housing Services for Harborview Mental Health in Seattle, where he developed the housing program for chronically homeless persons with severe and persistent mental illness.

He currently serves as Executive Director of a federal agency called the Seattle Federal Executive Board. His duties involve working with federal agency executives to organize special inter-agency programs and initiatives.

He received a BA from Dickinson College and a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. He has also attended St. Andrews University, Scotland, and Princeton Theological Seminary.


About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs

Businesspeople planning on a glass wall

How Action Learning Launched Change Across Federal Government

How Action Learning Launched Change Across Federal Government

By Anthony Rios, Director, Division of Federal Employees, Department of Labor, Key Alumni & Faculty 

When I was approached last month to contribute to American University’s Key Alumni Blog, I immediately said yes. The invitation asked me to blog from the perspective of an MPA graduate of the Key program rather than from my official capacity as a public servant. I was told I had free reign to write about anything pertaining to leadership as long as it was important to me and contemporaneous to the publication of the blog.

I knew immediately the topic of my blog.

But first, a little bit about AU’s Key Program.

One distinguishing aspect of AU’s Key Executive MPA program is the real-time application of what you’re learning in the classroom while solving actual problems in your workplace. In lieu of a master’s thesis, students are tasked with identifying a longstanding problem in his or her federal agency (the entity generally sponsoring the tuition) and engaging in an 18-month process of identifying possible solutions to the problem. To ensure that Action Learning is being applied to an actual issue at work, students are required to obtain leadership’s concurrence through the execution of a contract. The contract, once signed by the sponsoring agency officials and the student, is examined by AU faculty for academic rigor and to test its practical application of Action Learning.

My 2009 Action Learning contract centered on the development of a universally accessible web portal that could be used by the entire Federal workforce to claim workers’ compensation benefits. The system’s primary objective was to allow federal staff to select, initiate, complete, and route forms to multiple parties online, but there was a second purpose. The system, to be called the Employees’ Compensation Operations Management Portal (ECOMP), was also intended to eliminate unnecessary, redundant and disparate claims filing systems around the federal sector that had been independently built by many executive agencies and for which annual operations and maintenance costs were paid by U.S. taxpayers.

At the time I designed my Action Learning contract, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had already approved my agency’s budget request to develop ECOMP, but its development had not yet begun and its functionality requirements had not been drafted. I was in charge of overseeing all of this in my official capacity, but I saw the Action Learning project as a chance to ensure that the system exceeded all of its intended objectives.

My challenge was to develop a system that would prompt most federal agencies to voluntarily decommission their existing systems in favor of ECOMP. There are roughly 120 federal agencies if you combine cabinet level and independent agencies with the U.S. Postal Service. Altogether they comprise a workforce of approximately 2.6 million employees. Given the politics involved in mandating a unified platform for the entire federal government, I was certain that OMB would never mandate the use of ECOMP for 2.6 million users.

By applying AU’s Action Learning process, my team and I were able to align and capture most federal agency needs, while managing stakeholder conflict constructively. The system was built and deployed in 2011, and as of 2019 nearly all agencies had voluntarily decommissioned their own systems and migrated to ECOMP.

Three weeks ago, OMB advised all agencies that by the end of 2020, everyone must migrate to ECOMP. The leadership principles that AU taught me were instrumental in developing a system that agencies willingly chose to use, but the system’s credibility and design were so powerful that it acquired OMB’s support and led to what I once thought was impossible – a directive that made ECOMP the singular system for the entire federal government.

About the Author

Mr. Rios was appointed Director for the Division of Federal Employees’ Compensation (DFEC) in November 2016, and prior to that was the Director of the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation division.

Mr. Rios has over 25 years of experience in the field of workers’ compensation, first joining the industry in Hawaii while working for a law firm that specialized in plaintiff representation. He later became a private insurance claims adjuster and eventually joined the U. S. Department of Labor in 1994 as a claims examiner for DFEC. He held multiple positions during his first 19 years in DFEC, to include Assistant Chief for Hearings and Review and Deputy Director. As Deputy, Mr. Rios conceptualized, designed, developed and deployed the first universally accessible, web-based e-filing system for federal workers’ compensation forms and documents. Under his direction, the program deployed a national interactive voice response telephone system and also consolidated case creation activities from 12 offices to one centralized processing center.

After being appointed Longshore Director in 2013, he led that organization through a transformational effort that included a major overhaul of its IT infrastructure, migrating from a paper-based filing system where benefit applications and correspondence were maintained in paper jackets around the country, to a paperless content management system where documents are now managed through the use of digital imaging storage. Mr. Rios also restructured mail and case-creation operations that were normally conducted in 10 offices and centralized them into two sites, Jacksonville and New York City. Finally, he oversaw the promulgation of new regulations in 2015 that allowed for electronic transactions not previously possible due to prescriptive statutory language.

Currently, as Director of Federal Employees’ Compensation, Mr. Rios oversees the administration of workers’ compensation coverage to 2.6 million Federal and Postal workers and the issuance of over $3 billion in compensation annually. Mr. Rios provides the program’s framework, guidance, and technical assistance to all agencies in the Federal government, the 14 DFEC offices and a workforce of over 900 claims staff. Mr. Rios also directs the development of all systems necessary to process billions of dollars in medical and wage replacement payments, and leads the operation and maintenance of several multi-million dollar IT systems designed to support claims management, electronic claims filing, and payment of program outlays.

Most recently, Mr. Rios led the implementation of DFEC’s opioid control policy and fraud detection, and drafted reforms to the Federal Employees’ Compensation Act that were included in President Trump’s FY 2020 budget. Those reforms are designed to modernize program administration, simplify benefit rates, and introduce controls to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse.

Mr. Rios received his MPA from American University in 2010 and his BBA from Strayer University in 2007. He was also nominated in 2012 by the Deputy Secretary of Labor to represent the Department at the Army War College, and was selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in its 18-month Senior Executive Service Candidate Development Program. Mr. Rios was appointed to Senior Executive Service by the Obama Administration in 2013.

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs

Federal Leaders Need More Opportunity for Inner Development

Federal Leaders Need More Opportunity for Inner Development

By Bob Tobias, Former Key Programs Director

Federal leaders want to increase the performance of those they lead but many don’t know how. Teaching them to fill out proper annual evaluation and performance improvement forms is not enough. It takes much more.

When Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, was asked whether Level 5 leaders are born or can be developed, he said there is no chance to reach Level 5 unless the aspiring leader engages in “inner development.” What is inner development?

Business people in a video call meeting

We know it when we experience it in the behavior of others. When I ask federal leaders to identify the behaviors that induced them to give their unconditioned energy to a boss, they always identify the same behaviors: they spent time helping me develop; had my back; empowered me and allowed me to fail; listened; accepted my advice and respected me. In short, they engaged intellectually, and, more important, emotionally with me.

The “inner development” of a leader described by Bill George in Truth North is a shift from “I” to “We;” a change in focus from the leader’s success as an individual to a genuine concern for the mutual development and achievement of the group.

The data is clear. A “We” workforce, one where the leader is engaged with the led and the led with each other, is far more productive. Gallup has discovered work units in the top quartile of employee engagement outperformed those in the bottom by 21 percent in productivity. In addition, they saw a decrease of 37 percent in absenteeism, and a 48 percent decrease in safety accidents.

It is the responsibility of a leader to create a “We” workplace.

Gallup found that 70 percent of variance in team level engagement is based on the leader. This is mirrored by the finding of the Partnership for Public Service that the “key driver” of employee engagement is effective leadership.

Why is it so difficult for federal leaders to emulate that which they so admire, when the data shows it is so necessary for success?

Inner development demands dedicated time and focused attention in a fast-paced work environment. For example, it requires the time and courage to engage in self-reflection to define my true purpose and the decision to live it, and challenges whether my habitual reactions to situations continue to be effective. I must learn whether my perception of the quality of my relationship with those I lead lines up with their perception of me, identify the specific actions I might take to create a workplace where it is safe to say “I don’t know,” coupled with the willingness to ask for help, and cultivate the humility to identify and remove my personal barriers to do what I now know should be done.

A leader’s inner development also requires an agency investment. Most leaders need a group learning experience built on trust and mutual respect, where they are supported by colleagues as they unlearn old behaviors, identify new desired behaviors and take one step forward and two steps back. They need to experience their failures as learning experiences and learn to regularly celebrate success. They need the confidence of practiced experience in order to apply what they learn in their workplace.

Federal sector leaders want the opportunity for inner development to increase productivity.

They recognize that accumulating power and directing others is not sufficient to inspire knowledge workers to engage with each other to solve problems for which there is no known answer.

Those they lead are entitled to the best possible quality of leadership, and the public demands better results. It is time to invest in the inner development of federal sector leaders.

About the Author

BobRobert Tobias teaches courses in public sector leadership in the Key Executive Leadership Programs. He also teaches facilitation and team development, conflict management and alternative dispute resolution, and managing labor management relations. Finally,, he is the Director of the Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation which brings together members of Congress, political appointees, career federal executives, union leaders, consultants, and academics for the purpose of resolving difficult public policy implementation issues. President Clinton nominated and the Senate confirmed him for a five-year term as a member of the Internal Revenue Service Oversight Board. Tobias received the Paul P. Van Riper Award from the American Society for Public Administration “In recognition of his outstanding contributions to both the theory and practice of public administration” and the Warner Stockberger award from the International Public Management Association for Human Resources for “outstanding contributions in the field of public sector personnel management at the federal level.” He has also been elected as a Fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. Tobias was selected by Thomas Ridge, secretary, Department of Homeland Security, and Kay Coles James, director, Office of Personnel Management to the Human Resource Management System Senior Review Advisory Committee. In addition, Comptroller General David Walker appointed Tobias to the congressionally created Commercial Activities Panel. Tobias is a frequent contributor to Federal Times, Government Employees Relations Report, and Government Executive magazine on current federal sector public policy implementation issues.

About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs

Three military cyber security professionals look at a monitor.

Current & Recent Research into Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy

By School of Public Affairs

American University’s Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy teaches content knowledge about terrorist groups and threats, as well as skills for evaluating these threats, all within a framework of policy creation and implementation.

Joseph Young, PhD, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology and his graduate students are researching issues that may impact the fight on terrorism and policy related to U.S. homeland security. Some of these projects include exploring the efficacy of peace initiatives in other countries, interviewing U.S. citizens who go overseas to fight against ISIS on their own, and analyzing ISIS data for predictors of whether someone would prefer joining the cause as a fighter or as a suicide bomber.

Efficacy of Strengthening Local Governments in Colombia

Professor Young is part of a team working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAid) to evaluate whether a project to strengthen local governments in Colombia is reducing a perception of corruption. The findings may influence future interventions around the world.

“We’re doing three waves of nationwide surveys about how people feel about the peace process and how much they do or don’t support armed actors,” explains Professor Young.

The five-year, $50 million program is trying to make local governments more transparent, opening up budget processes so people can understand them, and making the mayor’s office more accessible to average citizens. The goal is not only to reduce violence, but to help citizens feel that their governments are transparent, responsive, and representing their interests.

The baseline survey identified that people view their government as incredibly corrupt. The midline survey is currently underway.

“We’re hoping to see the perception of corruption going way down along with a drop in support for armed actors,” says Professor Young. “If the results are promising, these tools could be applied in other places in the world to reduce support of violent actors like terrorist groups.”

Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy Research: U.S. Citizens Joining the Fight Against ISIS

Another project that Professor Young is working on with a PhD candidate revolves around U.S. citizens who are going overseas independently to fight against ISIS. Fighting for ISIS or another designated terrorist organization is clearly illegal for American citizens. But what about those Americans who join forces with foreign organizations and fight against ISIS?

“There are a number of Americans going abroad to fight with Kurdish rebels against ISIS and that falls into a gray area,” says Professor Young. “There’s not a legal structure in place that says this behavior is wrong or illegal.”

The research team is currently interviewing some of these fighters to learn more about what they are doing and why. The researchers began with a core group via social media building a database of about 100 Americans and, so far, have interviewed about a dozen of them.

Their findings so far include:

  • Fighting independently is self-funded. Some fighters have actually held Go-Fund-Me campaigns, but generally they are limited financially and when the money runs out they tend to return home.
  • There is a women-only unit organized by a Canadian woman.
  • Many of these fighters are former military who were injured, dishonorably discharged, or simply at the end of their service. For them, the motivation is often that they had gone to the Middle East on active duty to secure safety in the region and ISIS has disrupted that, so they are now going back to try to finish what they had started.

“The bottom line is shouldn’t we have a policy on whether people should go fight against ISIS or not,” asks Professor Young. “Our research is always informed by how is this going to influence policy and what should policies look like.”

Analysis of ISIS Job Applications: Predictive Traits of Suicide Bombers

Professor Young is working with another PhD student to analyze data obtained by the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) based at West Point. The researchers are evaluating more than 4,000 ISIS job applications looking at the factors that might lead someone to choose to be a fighter or a suicide bomber.

“What we’ve noticed is that country of origin explains much of the choice between applicants who want to become fighters versus suicide bombers,” says Professor Young. “People coming from the West, countries like Australia, America, Britain, etc., as well as those from civil war-torn countries are less interested in becoming suicide fighters.”

So far, the research supports the hypothesis that people who have some military experience tend to be more interested in becoming more experienced fighters rather than sacrificing themselves.

“The Americans and the Westerners don’t have a culture very supportive of the choice to become a suicide bomber,” says Professor Young. “The only folks making the choice to become suicide bombers at a higher rate are those coming from countries like Saudi Arabia or Tunisia where they might have more of a stronger cultural pull for doing an action like that.”

Understanding factors relating to the development of terrorist and anti-terrorist attitudes is critical to U.S. security. Professor Young’s research offers a glimpse into the rich and complex projects seeking to understand how we can protect national security, both in the U.S. and abroad.

Teacher with young students in a classroom

Public Policy Research: Impact of Race and K-12 Education

By The School of Public Affairs

Research has shown that when minority students have teachers of the same race, they tend to perform better on several metrics, such as test scores and graduation rates. Nathan Favero, Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Public Administration and Policy is exploring potential causes of this correlation and the implication for future teacher recruitment.

“While there are many ideas about the mechanisms causing this relationship, there’s not a whole lot of certainty,” says Professor Favero. “Our research is looking at the impact of Latino teachers in schools, since although they are less underrepresented than black teachers, there are still many Latino kids being taught by white teachers.”

Several common mechanisms suggest why students may perform better when taught by teachers of the same race. The role model effect posits that students are inspired to perform better because they are more able to identify with their teachers. One model suggests differences in how minority teachers teach, from utilizing more culturally accessible examples in math problems to incorporating more relevant cultural references that make students feel included. Another possibility is that minority teachers are less susceptible to racial bias and therefore less likely to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of low performance.

Looking beyond the classroom

Much of the research to date has been at the classroom level, focusing on individual teachers and their students. Because of his work in organizational research, Professor Favero is exploring the relationship at the institutional level. One of the key questions is whether simply having minority teachers within the school building makes a difference.

“While we don’t really have strong evidence yet, it seems that there’s some indication that just having more Latino teachers in the building is predictive of students doing better,” says Professor Favero, “even if there aren’t more Latino teachers in their specific grade.”

His research is exploring possible reasons for this correlation. One answer is that diversity among the teaching staff may influence school policy or may lead to collaboration that positively impacts the student experience. Another, from a top-down approach, is that administrators who more actively recruit – or are more inclined to hire – Latino teachers are also more likely to create a school culture conducive to success among Latino students.

Considering policy implications

It’s clear that increasing diversity among teachers, especially in areas with high minority populations, is essential to improving outcomes for minority students. This may begin in the classroom with teachers encouraging students to enter the profession. Policy makers may want to explore implementing policies encouraging undergraduate education programs to actively enroll minority students.

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Top Three Questions About the Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy

With the Answers Prospective Graduate Students Want to Know

By The School of Public Affairs

Offered through American University’s School of Public Affairs, the Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy prepares students for a career or advancement in the federal government, intelligence, or law enforcement. The top three questions we hear from prospective graduate students are:

  1. Do I need a master’s degree for a career in intelligence and security?
  2. Should I do an internship?
  3. Is American University a good choice for my graduate education?

The simplest answer, according to Joseph Young, Associate Professor and Department Chair in American University’s Department of Justice, Law & Criminology, is yes.

Read on for more in-depth answers.

Why Do I Need a Master’s Degree for a Career in Intelligence and Security?

American University’s Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy is useful for an intelligence career at a federal, state, or local level. Students learn important content knowledge about terrorist groups and gain essential skills for evaluating potential threats to U.S. security, both domestically and abroad. Coursework takes a policy perspective, considering what policies should be in place, as well as what impact they may have.

During their master’s education, students build a network of connections that can inform their interests, assist with research, and help navigate their career path. Internships are an opportunity to gain real work experience and may also lead to security clearance, both of which greatly improve standing as a candidate for prospective employers.

“We not only teach about threats to the U.S. homeland and skills to evaluate those threats, we connect students to a network of people within the federal government and intelligence agencies,” says Professor Young. “We also help students through processes like getting security clearance and deciding which agencies are most interesting to them.”

Does an Internship Matter?

Absolutely, according to Professor Young. “You should always do an internship,” he says, “especially if it’s going to get you security clearance or on a pathway toward the career you want.”

Internships expand your professional network within the intelligence communities and can help you narrow your focus. Not only does the real-world experience make you a stronger candidate, many internships lead to job opportunities.

Security clearances, essential to many positions, can be costly and time consuming. If an internship requires security clearance, that may be a perk of the position. And having a security clearance in place will make you a more attractive candidate for employment. Plus, agencies that have invested in their interns may be more interested in hiring them permanently.

Why should I get my master’s degree from American University?

If you’re interested in a career in intelligence, law enforcement, or the federal government, a Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy from American University’s School of Public Affairs provides the education and connections you need. Not only is DC the center of U.S. intelligence and federal government, American University is adjacent to the Department of Homeland Security, enabling convenient access to internship opportunities.

The curriculum features a foundation in criminology, law, and public policy, combined with essential background information and strategies for developing policy-based solutions. Courses are taught by international experts in terrorism and national security research, many with firsthand experience working within the organizations where students pursue internships and future employment.

American University’s professors and students have a strong existing network with connections to all of the major agencies, providing access to key figures for internships, research, and job opportunities. People outside the intelligence community may not be aware that there are actually 17 different federal intelligence agencies each with their own function and area of expertise. AU professors provide insightful advice regarding what career path or agencies best fit student interests.

“There’s no substitute for being in DC,” says Professor Young. “It’s good to be in a network of people that have connections in these places.”

If you are ready to advance your career in and combat terrorism, consider a Master of Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy from American University. Learn in Washington, DC, join a network of connections in intelligence agencies and federal government, and gain the skills and background to position yourself for advancement.

Click here to learn more.

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Are Americans as Anti-Immigrant as They Seem?

By School of Public Affairs

Given recent headlines and racial conflicts, it’s easy to conclude that attitudes about immigration in the U.S. are rooted in racism and prejudice. The Muslim travel ban, Charlottesville protests, and the rescission of DACA all appear to confirm a racist anti-immigrant bias.

While there may be public sentiment for reducing immigration, research by SPA Assistant Professor Matthew Wright and his colleagues indicates Americans may actually be less anti-immigrant than it would appear.

Reconsidering Traditional Thinking

Much of the academic scholarship tends to support the notion that individuals’ attitudes toward immigration policies are related to how they feel about specific groups.

“There’s a great deal of scholarship tying what we’re seeing to a broadly nativist reaction, meaning white native-born people attributing things they don’t like to immigration,” said Dr. Wright. “We’re trying to add a little balance to that perspective.”

Dr. Wright and his team delved into the role of group prejudice vs. alignment with what are often viewed as traditional American values. Their findings suggest that this anti-immigration stance is fueled more by values and misperceptions about groups than what’s traditionally considered racism.

“Our research indicates that people are not motivated by racial bias to the degree that the literature generally assumes,” said Wright. “We think that it’s more likely that people are driven by their values in the sense of broad principles such as following the law, learning basic English, or assimilating to some minimal degree.”

Countering Misperceptions

Wright and his team elicited opinions about immigration with a hypothetical situation involving individuals of different ethnicities. When asked if a person should be allowed to immigrate, participants were less likely to say yes when the individual was Latino than if he were German or Chinese. Further, the biases went away if the interviewer provided additional information, such as that the individual speaks English, is a hard worker, and came to the country legally.

“People can often appear like they’re thinking or acting ethnocentrically, but in reality, if it’s just based on misinformation or an incorrect stereotype that can be countered by information, then that’s very different from people lashing out against immigrants,” explains Wright. “Our interpretation is that there is not a real strong animus at the heart of these attitudes.”

Looking to the Dreamers

The rescission of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is a prime example of how values influence public opinion. It seems contradictory, but many people who strongly support ending DACA are also opposed to deporting the children in question. In this situation, the illegal immigrants were brought here by their parents through no choice of their own.

“People are very sensitive to how the question is asked,” said Wright. “You will get a more positive response if you ask about Dreamers than if you ask about illegal immigrants.”

Removing the Abstract

If Professor Wright’s premise is correct, attitudes about immigration rest more on whether the immigrants exhibit values aligned with public opinion. Value judgements, misperceptions, and commonly held stereotypes are much more easily addressed than deep-seated hatred and racism.

“The question for us is whether America, white people, are just fundamentally ethnocentric and prejudiced, and we’re saying no,” said Dr. Wright. “Some people are. A relatively small percentage of people are, and they’re not going away. In many ways, they are louder than ever, but that’s not most people. The American public is not as anti-immigrant as we are often tempted to believe.”

Are you interested in developing policy-based solutions to immigration and homeland security? American University’s School of Public Affairs Master’s programs help you build a career with a purpose. Visit to learn more about AU’s Master of Public Policy or Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy.


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Avoiding the Gaps: Creating Healthcare Policy That Works

By The School of Public Affairs

The driving force behind most healthcare policy advocates is to maximize access and minimize cost. When evaluating and recommending policy, however, it’s essential to consider all of the implications and potential consequences. Even the most well-intentioned public policy can negatively affect some of those it is designed to help.

The Intent of the Medicaid Expansion

One goal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was to extend healthcare coverage to the portion of the population least likely to be able to afford health insurance. The ACA included a federal expansion of Medicaid funding to provide coverage to those living below 138 percent of the federal poverty level. For those with incomes above this line up to 400% of the poverty level, coverage was made affordable through premium tax credits. [1]

The Impact of Opting Out

The ACA did not account for states opting out of the Medicaid expansion. By assuming universal participation, the law’s wording unintentionally created a coverage gap for an already at-risk population. Individuals who would have been covered by the Medicaid expansion are not eligible for the premium subsidies, leaving them without coverage.

“Everyone gets subsidies if they qualify, but there’s a gap where people who are still low income don’t qualify for coverage because their states aren’t participating,” says Dr. Jocelyn Johnston, a professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs. “The extent to which people have to pay for healthcare out of pocket varies from state to state, so you end up with this inequality based upon where you live.”

In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the ACA, but ruled that states could choose not to expand Medicaid, giving the governors the right to decide. States opting out forgo only the additional federal funds earmarked for expansion, rather than Medicaid funding they already receive.[2]

As of the Fall of 2017, 19 states have still chosen not to expand Medicaid coverage, leaving millions of adults not only not covered by Medicaid but also ineligible for the premium subsidies. [3]

“The individuals are caught in the middle,” says Dr. Jocelyn Johnston, a professor in American University’s School of Public Affairs. “It’s the state’s right to opt out, but it’s a burden on those affected.”

Looking Ahead

Despite the challenges the ACA has faced and the disparity it unintentionally created, there has been an evolution in healthcare policy.

“In terms of public opinion, we are reaching some agreement that we should have some overarching federal program to reach everyone,” says Dr. Johnston. “We have to keep experimenting and it’s one of the strengths of our system: we try different things and that’s opportunity to learn and do things better.”

The coverage gap created by the ACA demonstrates the importance of carefully weighing assumptions and wording to ensure that the intent of policy matches with the effect once implemented. With politically charged topics like healthcare, there may not be a second chance to get it right.









Woman looks at the departure board at the airport

Countering Terrorism: Implications of the Laptop Ban

By School of Public Affairs

In a post-9/11 world, travelers typically comply with changing security measures without question or hesitation. The reasoning behind these security choices lies deep within policy practices implemented by Homeland Security. The recently ended U.S. laptop ban is an example of how the public experiences policy in action without necessarily having all of the answers.

The laptop ban on international flights with final destination in the U.S.

Beginning in March of 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security required enhanced security at several foreign airports for flights into the United States. The new regulations prohibited electronic devices larger than cell phones in the aircraft cabin, restricting laptops, tablets, game units, and other large electronic devices to checked baggage. Because this measure impacted ability to travel with laptops, it has been referred to as a “laptop ban.”

When first enacted, the ban affected flights from nine specific airlines to the U.S. from ten airports in the Middle East and North Africa. Tricia Bacon, PhD, Assistant Professor at American University’s School of Public Affairs, researches U.S. counterterrorism policy as well as terrorist and insurgent groups’ alliance behavior. She clarifies that while this ban may appear random, it actually represents a calculated move based on current intelligence about terrorists and potential plots.

“A lot of this comes from threats from the Islamic State,” Bacon says. “There was clearly concern specifically about airlines traveling from the Middle East and North Africa to the United States.”

The ban was a hassle for travelers. In addition to concerns about the risk of damage to checked laptops, this ban created a significant productivity loss for business travelers intending to work during a flight that easily could take more than ten hours. These negative repercussions were likely anticipated by policy makers within Homeland Security. According to Bacon, “The duration of the ban suggests that there was a counter calculation; that policymakers also had to consider the effect the ban had on the airline industry and for businesses in the U.S.”

The ban was lifted on flights to the U.S. in July 2017, despite being originally announced to run through October. “The ban would not have been lifted if Homeland Security didn’t think there were security measures in place to counteract the risk,” Bacon clarifies.

Why was the laptop ban implemented?

Intelligence and counter-terrorism experts assess threats, evaluate the impact of policy decisions, and implement policies to counteract terrorism. While it is not clear what information Homeland Security had before implementing the laptop ban, intelligence and security experts know that terrorist organizations have been perfecting their ability to place sophisticated bombs in laptops.

In February 2016, a passenger on a Somali jet detonated a device approximately 15 minutes after takeoff, blowing a hole in the side of the aircraft. Because the flight had not reached cruising altitude, the explosion fell short of destroying the plane. Instead, only one fatality resulted as the suspect was ejected from the plane in the blast. Investigators are confident that a bomb was hidden in a laptop.

Initial reports following the explosion suggested that the bomb had been undetected by x-ray machines, but surveillance footage points to insider involvement. Security tapes appear to show a laptop being handed off to the passenger in question after he had cleared security. Regardless of how the bomb was brought onto the plane, this incident highlighted the need for heightened security measures, especially at airports where the Islamic state has access.

Adjusting to terrorist threats

The laptop ban was just the latest move in the complex interactions between governments and terrorist organizations. In December 2001, Richard Reid, also known as the Shoe Bomber, attempted to detonate a device in his footwear during an American Airlines flight. Security measures were then introduced requiring travelers to remove their shoes for x-ray screening.

British police uncovered a terrorist plot in 2006 to create bombs in flight by combining liquids they had brought on board. Security agencies acted quickly, banning all liquids in passenger carry-on baggage, with the exception of baby formula or prescriptions. The ban was relaxed within two months, although restrictions remain in place more than a decade later.

Policies like these have been largely accepted as part of airline travel in the United States. Bacon explains that such blanket security measures aren’t simply reactions, but also carefully crafted responses. “When there is a non-specific threat, raising security is often intended to deter or delay the terrorists in their plot,” she says.

Was the laptop ban successful?

Measuring the success of the ban is more complicated than estimating how many plots were foiled. Bacon explains that the goal of security measures like the laptop ban isn’t always to prevent identical attacks, but rather to send a message. “Sometimes governments take this kind of action to alert terrorists that they know something, thereby causing the terrorists to delay plots or change their tactics, which costs them time and resources, and can raise terrorist groups’ concern about infiltration. It helps keep them off balance.” she describes. Counterterrorism is thus an ongoing process, requiring intelligence and policy experts to anticipate risks and respond appropriately.

Are you interested in developing policy-based solutions to combat terrorism and protect homeland security? The Master of Science in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy, offered through American University’s School of Public Affairs, prepares students for a career in intelligence or homeland security. Visit to learn more.



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How to Build a Compelling Application File for Graduate School

By School of Public Affairs

Building a compelling graduate school application begins long before you actually apply. As you consider graduate school, it is critical that you understand the importance of managing the application process. Learn as much as you can about components required, school-specific preferences, priority deadlines, and decision-making, including who will review your file and in what time frame. Here are 10 steps to building a compelling graduate school application file.

1.      Do your homework.

Learn as much as you can about the program before you apply, from the faculty and administration to student body to available support services.

  • Faculty and Administration
    Start with the faculty directory. Identify key faculty members in your field of interest and review their Curriculum Vitae (CVs) to learn more about their scholarship, teaching, and service. Look for experts and practitioners who are doing work in your prospective field so you can be sure your interests will be supported. Administrators (i.e., admissions officers) also can prove valuable in learning more about an institution’s graduate degree offerings including curricula and the application/admissions process(es).
  • Current Students
    Take advantage of opportunities to meet current students and learn about their experience within the program. While each cohort will be different, you will still get an impression of how well you will fit within the program. Ask why they chose this program, what they like most, and what suggestions they have to ensure your success.
  • Student Service Support
    Student services, such as Academic Advisors and Career Services, can play an important role in academic success, internship opportunities, and future employment. Find out what services are offered, level of support provided, and hours of availability.

2.      Learn about essential application file components.

Most application files for graduate school have comparable requirements. These commonly include:

  • Unofficial transcripts from all previously attended postsecondary institutions
  • Personal statement
  • Resume/CV
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Official test scores (i.e., GRE, GMAT)

Be sure to check with the institution directly for any additional requirements. For example, international applicants may be asked for additional test scores related to English proficiency.

3.      Pay attention to the deadlines.

While programs may accept applications on a rolling basis, priority deadlines are often promoted for applicants seeking merit aid consideration. Be aware that submissions received after the deadline may be subject to space and resource availability.

Deadlines for The School of Public Affairs (SPA) at American University include both Fall and Spring admission terms:

  • Priority-February 15: Master’s first round consideration for Fall merit awards
  • Priority-May 1: Fall deadline for international master’s applicant submissions
  • Priority-September 15: Spring deadline for international master’s applicant submissions
  • Priority-November 1: Master’s first round consideration for Spring merit awards

4.      Know your audience.

Find out who makes admission decisions. Admissions professionals may have different priorities than a committee of faculty members. At The School of Public Affairs (SPA) at American University, faculty-led admissions committees give each applicant’s file a thorough, holistic review. Successful applicants will demonstrate what they can add to the academic community, as well as their professional promise.

5.      Choose your references wisely.

Professors and employers are usually good resources for letters of recommendations. Recommendation letters are important, so take the time to visit with each of your references to discuss your graduate school and career aspirations. You may also consider sharing a draft of your personal statement to seek input and/or to better inform their letter. Finally, most recommenders appreciate your direction on what skill sets and attributes you hope they will speak to in their recommendation. Investing in selecting, informing, and coaching your references may considerably strengthen your application file and set it apart from others.

6.      Write a strong personal statement.

Your personal statement should reflect how you will fit within the program. Address what you want to study and why, how your experience has prepared you, and what you plan to do after completing your graduate degree. Be sure the statement is tailored to the specific school/department, it is succinct (1-1.5 pages, double-spaced), and, most importantly, is, indeed, a personal essay.

7.      Be sincere.

Write your application specifically for the school you want to attend. If the field you write about doesn’t truly interest you, that will come across in your application. Your references also should speak to how you will fit with the program.

8.      Give yourself prep time.

Most programs require admissions tests, and international applicants may also need to provide scores from English proficiency tests. Your scores may be important for both admissions decisions and merit aid consideration. Be sure to check with your schools/departments of interest to confirm what test(s) you need to take, the priority given to the test score(s) within an application file, and recommended test score thresholds.

9.      Position yourself for merit aid.

Start with all of the steps listed above, then make sure your application file is complete before the priority merit-aid deadlines. Proactively seek information from your graduate programs of interest about their merit aid allocation strategy so you can understand what they prioritize in determining merit, the types and levels of merit aid offered, and the timing for these important decisions to be rendered.

Graduate students are also eligible to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for consideration for Federal Loan options.

10. Get the answers you need.

Admissions professionals are available to help. The Office of Graduate Admissions (OGA) at The School of Public Affairs welcomes your questions.

  • Phone: 202.885.6230
  • Email:




The White House

“This is Not Normal”: The Impact of Presidential Social Media Use

By School of Public Affairs

On July 1, 2017, President Trump tweeted “My use of social media is not Presidential – it’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” While this is undeniable, Chris Edelson, JD, Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Government says it also raises a host of questions about the dignity of the office and the impact of social media on policy.

“What’s different now is the president is posting things on social media that are embarrassing, dangerous, and potentially incriminating,” said Chris Edelson, JD, assistant professor in American University’s Department of Government. “It’s informal and has lowered the standards for what’s acceptable.”

Sending a loud message

With the continued increase in social media use, it isn’t surprising that presidential communications are leveraging new channels. What is becoming less and less surprising is how President Trump is using Twitter.

Rather than carefully worded, scripted posts, the president frequently shoots out off-the-cuff messages that reflect his personal opinions. Not only are these posts often filled with typos, misspellings, and misinformation, they appear to represent policy.

“I think Donald Trump’s argument would be that it allows him to speak directly to people, that every tweet he sends out gets attention,” said Edelson. While that’s true, Edelson questions, “is it necessarily a good thing?”

Eroding the prestige of the Oval Office

That Mr. Trump chooses not to censor his personal opinions when speaking as the president raises concerns for many.

He repeatedly sends messages that veer from what has been expected from a president – for example, retweeting white supremacists1 or sharing a gif that shows him hitting a golf ball that appears to knock down Hillary Clinton.2

He has retweeted crime statistics that were patently false, lending credibility to misinformation and unreliable sources. He called on NFL franchise owners to fire players for exercising their free speech, and threw in an insulting expletive for good measure.

Even before he took office, his bullying tweets led to death threats on a Carrier plant union representative and his family3.

Beyond the vitriol, his posts may have legal implications.

“I’d be worried if I were a lawyer representing Donald Trump,” said Professor Edelson. “He’s using it so freely to comment on the Russia investigation. His tweets about James Comey could be seen as intimidating a witness.”

Setting an alarming precedent

Not only are President Trump’s tweets often inflammatory and threatening, his use of Twitter to conduct foreign policy also raises concerns.

“There are national security issues here caused by the specific way in which he is using Twitter and the fact that people look to it now to see policy statements,” said Professor Edelson. “Because he is using his account to conduct foreign policy, somebody hacking it and taking control of the account could be very dangerous.”

The president’s comments about foreign leaders, adversarial nations, and terrorist attacks in other countries have stirred anti-American sentiment, even leading to speculation by North Korea whether his tweets equaled a declaration of war on that country.4

Moving forward

Professor Edelson contends that what is happening is not normal, but he concedes that this will be the new normal if people don’t do anything.

“Doing nothing means we’re okay with it,” said Edelson. “The concern is that this lowers the standards for what is acceptable.”

While Mr. Trump has declared his tweets presidential, some politicians, like Republican Congressman Justin Amash, have spoken up. Back on January 14 when President-elect Trump went on a twitter rant against Congressman John Lewis, Amash tweeted “Dude, just stop.”5

“A couple of years ago, no one would have talked to the president that way,” says Professor Edelson. “I think he was right, but the informality of his response isn’t good either.”

The responsibility may fall to Congress, the press, and the public to raise their voices – online and off – to decide the future impact of presidential social media use. The most effective answers are likely to come from the voting booth.


White House in Fall

3 TV Shows with Misconceptions About Bureaucracy

By School of Public Affairs

There are few genres America loves more than a good political drama. From the Manchurian Candidate to Frost/Nixon, society revels in the backroom dealings and power struggles inherent in political office. For years, TV shows pedaling these intriguing stories have kept viewers on edge and made the political profession appear thrilling. But how do the shows stack up to the realities of D.C.? We’ve taken a look at a few shows to see where they fall short.

House of Cards

Frank Underwood’s charming Machiavellianism is so irresistible it almost masks his absurdity. Perhaps in Rome his vicious ambition would have fit in, but in 21st century America, committing two murders in two years would be enough to move him from the Oval Office into a square cell. While House of Cards injects its plots with real political struggles like appeasing labor union concerns over a new education bill, they are more often than not resolved in some form of brazen criminality that simply does not occur in real politics. Even the labor dispute is resolved when Frank Underwood goads the head of the union into punching him in the face. Although politicians have their fair share of heated debate, the days of political fisticuffs are over.


Let’s ignore the impossible beauty of everyone on this show and head straight for the name: Scandal. Washington is fraught with political scandals: Hillary’s email server, The 2013 IRS debacle, the resignation of the Secretary of Veteran’s Affairs, these are only in the last few years. However, Scandal operates in a heightened universe where if Monica Lewinsky, Watergate, and the Bleeding Kansas election occurred in the same year, no one would blink an eye. The writers of Scandal take an issue of real concern and add in a heavy dose of conspiracy, romance and once again…murder. Many Americans believe political operators will do anything to get their guy or gal into office, even if it means breaking the law; Scandal plays on those beliefs. Like when Fitz is on the verge of losing the presidency but is saved by a surge of sympathy popularity stemming from his son’s death. Sympathy is sometimes used to bolster a candidate, but in this case, it was the result of a character named Rowan deciding that poisoning the president’s son was the only way to win the election. Washington may be rife with scandal at times, but it looks far different than this Hollywood adaptation.

The West Wing

Often viewed as the most accurate political program, The West Wing gave viewers a walking tour of the inner workings of the White House. True, compared to the other shows we touched on, this one is certainly more restrained. No crazy murder plots, not an egregious amount of affairs, but some faults remain. There’s not enough staff turnover, from 2000 to 2009 there were six press secretaries whereas C.J. held the position for seven years, and there are a ton more staffers in real life than the core group we see on the show. However, the biggest difference between The West Wing and reality is the idea that one good speech is all it takes to change opinion. President Josiah Bartlett solved the Israeli-Palestinian crisis with some military aid and a nice chat with Israel’s prime minister; if only things were so easy. Divisive issues like homophobia or gun control, are resolved in minutes. It works on TV because the audience likes the character and willingly laps up the Aaron Sorkin quips. In reality, politicians can be stubborn, ending up with gridlock and few legislative changes.

So maybe things happen slower in real life and tough problems aren’t solved through brief exchanges, but at least our politicians aren’t all unrepentant criminals.


Master Politics in the Classroom. Check out American University’s School of Public Affairs today!

Cropped shot of two businesspeople shaking hands during a meeting in the boardroom

Five Types of SPA Grads You Meet in DC

Written by SPA Staff

The diverse SPA graduates of our six Master’s programs enter the D.C. job market with in-depth policy and administrative knowledge along with their degree from a top 20 school. With that in mind, it’s no surprise our alumni achieve success at a wide range of jobs in the city. Here are just a few of the types of grads you’ll spot during your time in the District:

Private Sector Powerhouse

These SPA grads climb the corporate ladder in the private industry through hard work and determination. Why? Their addiction to fast-paced strategy and large-scale problem solving is a perfect fit for a corporate world that rewards quick thinkers who can let loose after a long day.

The Politician’s Apprentice

Some grads look to emulate the success of Muriel Bowser, an MPP grad who is the seventh mayor of the District of Columbia. You’ll find them gathering around Capitol Hill, tirelessly working for politicians they secretly wish to replace.

The Lifelong Learner

While some students can’t wait to break free from the burdens of school, others haven’t quite scratched their educational itch. These soon-to-be professors first earned their Master’s degree from SPA, one of the highest ranked programs in the country. They will be highly competitive applicants of Ph.D. programs across the country. If it seems like their ego is getting too big, just remind them that they will soon be grading papers by the hundreds.

Data-Mining Wonk

The technical experience offered at SPA is put to work daily by these data analysis mavens. They don’t stop at extracting evidentially backed conclusions, they help shape the numbers into functional policy recommendations. You’ll find these guys hanging out on online gaming forums and dominating D.C.’s raging X-box Live community.

The Noble Do-gooder

The SPA’s focus on leadership reaches all levels of the public and private sectors, and some graduates choose to use their know-how to make the world a better place. These guys loaded up on the applicable non-profit courses offered, and with their conscience as their guide work for and create organizations that help those in need. Don’t let the tie-dye and hemp fool you, even though these guys work for nonprofits, they still mean business.


Want to join the ranks or pave your own path? Check out American University’s School of Public Affairs today!

Hassan Aden

10 Jobs You Can Do with an MPA

By SPA Staff

1. Policy Analyst

Determine what effects policy decisions will have on the population they govern.

2. Research Associate

Use your research skills at a university or research institute.

3. CEO, COO, or CFO

Apply your management and development skills for high-level management positions. AU MPA grad Gwen Sykes is currently the CFO of the United States Secret Service.

4. City Manager

Help a city’s bureaucracy run smoothly and advise other government officials.

5. Budget Analyst

Ensure that budgetary plans are legal, accurate and will fulfill their designated purpose.

6. Program Coordinator

Oversee the daily operations of a program within a nonprofit or corporation.

7. Human Resources Management

Help create a positive workplace by enforcing fair standards and assisting fellow employees.

8. Nonprofit Fundraiser

Drum up financial support for a nonprofit with your networking abilities and charm.

9. Urban Planner

Improve a community by figuring out how best to utilize public land.

10. Law Enforcement

Be a leader in the criminal justice system. Just ask AU MPA grad Hassan Aden (pictured above) whose MPA propelled him to Chief of Police in Greenville, N.C.


Interested in one of these careers? Check out American University’s Master of Public Administration today!

Ivone Guillen, SPA/MPA ’17

Profile of AU MPA Student Ivone Guillen

By Ivone Guillen

As a soon-to-be second-year student in the School of Public Affairs’ MPA program, I’d like to share my story in the hopes of answering any questions you may have about the program. Everyone has a unique journey, and I hope that through mine you gain some knowledge that will help inform you in your graduate degree decision process.

First, a little background about me. I have been working with nonprofits for over seven years and my experiences have greatly contributed to my interest in organization management. I currently work at Sojourners, striving to mobilize people of faith around the issue of immigration and encouraging them to urge their members of Congress to enact inclusive, humane and just immigration policy solutions. At Sojourners, I’ve had the opportunity to develop my skills in campaigns, advocacy, communications and coalition building.

I chose to pursue an MPA degree because I wanted to gain new insight that would complement my experience and further strengthen my ability to create strong and effective management systems that are designed to fuel an organization’s efforts. I chose AU because of its renowned MPA program, faculty and extensive network. The MPA department has been welcoming, approachable and genuinely dedicated to its students’ success.

Attaining a master’s is especially important to me because I am a first-generation immigrant and am paving the way for my family to follow in my footsteps of pursuing higher education. As a DREAMer, the issue of immigration has always been part of my lived reality. Resolving it has always been a goal of mine. That’s why I chose policy analysis as my concentration. Through the concentration, I’ve learned that culture plays an instrumental role in shaping organizational dynamics and management styles. Thus, culture must be extensively analyzed before engaging in change. I also learned that all I’d read about the outstanding faculty was true and then some. They are very accessible and always willing to help clarify questions regarding coursework. Outside of the classroom, they’ve extended their support by helping to facilitate personal connections within their network—not a common occurrence at many universities.

But the faculty isn’t the only thing that contributes to AU’s highly esteemed MPA. Another major feature is the wide-ranging set of opportunities they offer for students to enhance their careers. AU’s career center has exposed me to a diverse set of organizations, which in turn have allowed me to expand my understanding of the kinds of opportunities that exist, complimenting my background in the process.

With the robust course and career offerings, as well as the committed staff in mind, I truly believe the program is preparing me for success in the future. It offers practical and pragmatic solutions to some of the most challenging management questions organizations face today and, in turn, gives me skills that I’m applying to my current work—always with the end goal of being an effective manager.

I am truly grateful to AU’s faculty and SPA for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to pursue an MPA degree. Thanks to the flexibility of the program and its committed staff, I have been able to successfully finish my first year of graduate school. I look forward to completing the remainder of the program.


Want to learn more? Check out American University’s Masters of Public Administration today!

elementary school teacher helping student in classroom

AU Study Finds Racial Bias in School

Do teacher expectations vary depending on the race of their students? A new study conducted by economists at American University’s School of Public Affairs in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins University Department of Economics found the answer, and it might surprise you.

In order to understand the importance of the study, recently published in The Economics of Education Review, you have to appreciate the real-world implications of teacher expectations. It’s not simply a thought in the mind of an educator, but an indicator of how well the child in question will perform. As study co-author Seth Gershenson said, “This is a big concern since teacher expectations likely shape student success, not just in school, but in life as well.” The team at AU took on this project because of the effects teacher bias has on a young student’s life trajectory.

Their efforts reveal that non-black teachers have significantly lower educational expectations for black students than black teachers do when evaluating the same students. This is a substantial discovery. It means that race alone is enough to generate middling expectations, and that black students are at a disadvantage when paired with non-black teachers. Taking a look at how the study was conducted provides more insight.

Gershenson, an assistant professor at AU’s School of Public affairs, and Nicholas Papageorge, a Johns Hopkins professor, utilized a nationally representative survey of U.S. 10th graders that asked two teachers per student how much education they expected the student to ultimately complete. Each pair of teachers evaluated the same student at the same time, one teacher was black and the other non-black.

It was ultimately found that, “a non-black teacher is about 30 percent less likely to expect that the [black] student will complete a four-year college degree than the black teacher,” said Papageorge, who is quick to caution against playing the blame game. “Bias is part of human nature,” he said, “but [the study] provides a place to start a dialogue between educators, policymakers, parents, researchers, and other stakeholders.”

And therein lies the crux of this study. Instead of pointing fingers, it brings to light a fundamental truth that pervades our schooling system, and provides concrete evidence to start a necessary conversation. Thanks to the dedicated scholars at American University’s School of Public Affairs and Johns Hopkins, we can now take steps to alleviate this overlooked issue and start building a better future for our nation’s students.

Want to influence the national discourse? Check out American University’s School of Public Affairs today!

Ward exterior and classrooms 010

American University Paves the Way: How Public Affairs Graduates Know Success

One of the true measures of a great academic institution is how its graduates change the world.

The School of Public Affairs has an 80-year history of graduating professionals into serving society at the highest levels – from The White House and the Secret Service, to members of U.S. Congress, federal agencies, and national nonprofit organizations.

The inaugural class of 80 students first met in 1934. Since then, thousands of students have met, learned, grown and prospered. Here we profile a handful of those SPA alumni who are making an impact.

Gwen Sykes, SPA/MA ’01

Gwen Sykes, SPA/MA ’01Gwendolyn Sykes has led financial operations for organizations that work on a variety of important issues, from the Ivy League to outer space. And she’s broken a few barriers along the way.

Currently the Chief Financial Officer of the United States Secret Service, Sykes guides resources and financial management, and has done so since 2012. Sykes previously served as CFO at NASA, overseeing a $16 billion budget and 500 finance professionals scattered across the country as the first African American female to hold that position. Prior to that, Sykes served as the first CFO at Yale University in their 300+ year history, as well as CFO at Morehouse College.

Sykes holds a BA in accounting from Catholic University and an MPA from American University’s School of Public Affairs, and credits her graduate studies with helping her build skills to drive her career.

“The School of Public Affairs provides a fantastic opportunity to build your personal leadership tool kit in order to foster a more responsive and dynamic organizational culture that will thrive in these challenging times,” Sykes said.

Muriel Bowser, SPA/MPP ’00

Muriel Bowser, SPA/MPP ’00Muriel Bowser’s career is a testament to her dedication to the people of Washington, D.C., most recently after being elected in 2014 as the seventh—and only the second female—mayor of the District of Columbia.

After graduating from the School of Public Affairs in 2000 with a Master of Public Policy, Bowser began a career in local politics, serving in a seat on DC’s Advisory Neighborhood Council. Elected Ward 4 Council member in a special election in 2007, she was re-elected in 2008 and again in 2012.

Bowser’s career is defined by her attention on enhancing the lives of residents District-wide. As chair of several key committees in the D.C. government, Bowser champions many social issues, from affordable housing to ethics reform in government.

Her efforts in Washington D.C. resulted in a number of awards and recognition, including the Democratic State Committee’s Legislator of the Year Award (2012), the Phyllis Campbell Newsome Public Policy Leadership Award (2012), the NoMa Business Improvement District Public Sector Award (2012) and the Alice Paul Award (2014) from the School of Public Affairs’ Women & Politics Institute.

Bowser, a native Washingtonian, credits her time at SPA with instilling a very practical skill that has helped propel her career. “I learned a great deal about using quantitative analysis to get better results in government,” she said.

Andy MacCracken, SPA/BA ’11 & MPA ’14

Andy MacCracken, SPA/BA ’11 & MPA ’14School of Public Affairs alumnus Andy MacCracken is no stranger to The White House. When President Barack Obama decided recently on executive actions to support federal student loan borrowers, he reached out to MacCracken.

“Right now, I’m surrounded by new graduates who want to improve the world – as teachers, public servants, and, like me, as non-profit leaders,” MacCracken wrote in a personal letter on The White House blog. “The action this President is taking is helping to make sure finances aren’t holding us back from achieving our potential.”

MacCracken graduated with a BA in 2011 and an MPA in 2014, both from the School of Public Affairs. He has long been a leader in the student-empowerment movement, from campus to the Capitol. Known to The White House as a voice for student empowerment, MacCracken was invited in June 2015 to provide an introduction for the president’s remarks on easing student loan payments.

In his time at American University, MacCracken developed the National Campus Leadership Council (NCLC), seeking to empower student leaders to influence public discourse. Currently, NCLC includes more than 450 student body presidents representing over 6.5 million college students.

MacCracken honed his skills as a leader, and developed the toolkit necessary to lead NCLC during his studies at SPA. “I developed a lot of NCLC from my desk in CCPS (Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies),” said MacCracken. “It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that a lot of the principles and strategies I learned from SPA Leadership, CMI (Campaign Management Institute), and PAAI (Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute) are deeply embedded into NCLC’s work.”

MacCracken credits his time at SPA with instilling a can-do attitude that has propelled his career.

“My classes in SPA were great, but it was the people that helped me grow outside of the classroom. We are a community of world-class minds and roll-up-your-sleeves-to-get-something-done leaders—something our national officials should emulate.”

Austin Estes, SPA/MPP ’15

Austin Estes, SPA/MPP ’15Austin Estes has a mind for data. His work with the Flamboyan Foundation creates and shapes family engagement programs through data analysis, research and project evaluation—all designed to help schools reach their family engagement goals.

Estes, a 2015 graduate from SPA, is a Florida native with a track record of supporting and organizing social change. Before joining The Flamboyan Foundation, Estes worked on both Rock the Vote and Invisible Children campaign with a focus on encouraging and inspiring students to become more civically engaged.

A Melbourne, Florida native, Estes attended Florida Atlantic University earning a bachelor’s in Psychology. He completed his Masters in Public Policy from SPA with a focus on national education policy.

Estes continues his work with the Flamboyan Foundation—his data analysis helping family engagement efforts in DC schools and his research helping educators work more closely with parents to support their child’s education.

Hassan Aden, SPA/MPA ’09

Hassan Aden, SPA/MPA ’09Greenville, North Carolina’s Chief of Police, Hassan Aden, says he uses his experience from his time at the School of Public Affairs “every day.”

With nearly three decades of experience in law enforcement, Aden earned his Key Executive Leadership Masters of Public Administration from American University in 2009.

His career is marked with achievement and advancement through the ranks. As a member of the Alexandria police force, Aden ultimately became deputy chief of police—patrol division, where he oversaw more than 200 sworn and civilian employees for the city’s 148,000 residents, and managed a budget of $22 million.

He also served as Police Captain over the largest police district in Alexandria, constricting crime rates to a nearly 50-year low, and Special Assistant to the Chief of Police, providing leadership on special police policy matters and strategic planning.

Most recently, Aden implemented an innovative plan that invited the community into the strategic planning and mission development process in the Greenville Police Department “to increase police legitimacy and as one of the first steps to fully engage police departments in community policing,” he said.

That focus on community is a significant thread that runs through Aden’s career. About his position as Chief of Police in Greenville, Aden said it “comes with a tremendous responsibility to deliver meaningful and high-quality police services to our community.”

And to handle the increased responsibility with more administrative and leadership duties, Aden credits his time at SPA with helping him for the politics of his leading role law enforcement.

“From day one, I was hooked and began to enjoy the immediate benefits of what I was learning. I was in a group of incredibly talented classmates and brilliant professors that prepared me for the grueling world of politics, policy and government administration that is now my daily life,” Aden said. “I look back at my career and I can identify many transformation points, none greater than when I joined the AU family.”

Congressman Jim McGovern, SPA/MPA ’84

Congressman Jim McGovern, SPA/MPA ’84Most of Congressman Jim McGovern’s (D-MA) fondness for his time at American University’s School of Public Affairs is tied to the people he met and relationships he forged.

“I’m proud of my time at SPA, and I’m grateful for the opportunity it gave me to meet some incredibly interesting people,” He said

McGovern was also introduced to the world of politics while studying at SPA. The combination of building his network and expanding his interest in politics history and government created a unique fit for McGovern. “I thought D.C. would be a good place to go to school,” he remarks. “For me, it was a great fit,” he said.

In his time at SPA, McGovern served as the head of the Kennedy Political Union (KPU) and participated in the College Democrats group – roles that put him in touch with notable folks such as Senator Howard Baker, Jr., Ramsey Clark, and Mo Udall.

“To be able to have the ability to not only read about these people, but to have them there on your campus was a great highlight of my experience at AU,” McGovern said.

McGovern became a presence on Capitol Hill, interning with Senator George McGovern of South Dakota (no relation). McGovern continued full time on the hill throughout graduate school as a senior aide for Representative Joe Moakley.

Ultimately, McGovern was elected and first sworn in as U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’s 3rd Congressional District in 1997 and is currently serving his ninth term in Congress. He serves as the second ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee and co-chair of both the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and the House Hunger Caucus.

Recalling his time at SPA, McGovern said, “I believed then — as I believe now — that public service is an honorable calling. And I’m confident SPA will continue to prepare its students for meaningful careers for at least another 80 years.”


To learn about these SPA alumni — and many more —who are taking their experience at American University and changing the world, visit: 4ScoreSPA.