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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.

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  1. […] 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 […]

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

  3. […] the charge for change in your community and become a politician like Muriel Bowser, an MPP grad who is the seventh mayor of the District of […]

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