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Connecting Citizens with Government in the Classroom

When federal employees return to school, they don’t just improve their skills, they improve the institutions that train them.

As the dean of a college that is fortunate to enroll nearly half of its online adult students from the ranks of public service professionals, I’d like to highlight the gift federal employees bring to any college fortunate enough to have them as students. This is Public Service Recognition Week, and the theme, honoring our public servants; connecting citizens with their government, feels particularly salient, given the ways in which these students benefit institutions of higher learning.

Three years ago, we welcomed a large number of federal employees into Champlain College Online programs through truED, our signature workforce development program that allows employees of partner organizations to enroll at a significant discount. We were the second member of the Office of Personnel Management’s Federal Academic Alliance, and I can say definitively, three years later, we are a better institution because of that relationship. There are several reasons for this:

  1. A primary reason is that the government workforce is deeply diverse and, therefore, representative of our country overall. As public service members expanded their presence in our courses, the diversity of our student body increased in ways that have resulted in a much more inclusive teaching and learning environment than we could have otherwise provided. Public servants, like most adult students, share experiences that reflect larger issues and themes facing the country. When you pair theory with the very real experiences of folks who represent a diversity of backgrounds and stories, you have an inclusive and reflective learning environment that deepens that dialogue in ways you cannot otherwise cultivate.
  2. The professional backgrounds that our public service employee students and faculty bring to the table have created a dynamic and productive network for all of our students. They work all over the country, in a variety of fields. Their experiences inform their foundation of knowledge, and thus expands the professional connections available to our student body. For career changers, this has meant opportunities to talk about and interview for new professional roles serving the public sector. In terms of the gift this brings to the classroom, these students and faculty truly connect citizens to their government in tangible ways, delivering life stories and experiences that broaden the way our private sector students think about their daily lives.
  3. We've always placed a premium on using practitioner faculty, knowing that there is real value to adult students in working with and learning from those who live the reality of the theory and practices of their field. With the truED and the Federal Academic Alliance, we have been able to grow and nurture a strong, federally-connected faculty segment who contribute an understanding of the federal government to discussion and course content, further bringing the curriculum to life. It also allows us to live our philosophy of hiring faculty who are representative of the student body they are serving.
  4. The quality of classroom conversations has improved significantly as a result of the presence of public service employees in our courses. The majority of the learning happens through a methodology that requires deep, meaningful reflection about the concepts within the course. This means a vibrant, robust dialogue is central to the learning process. Our public service students live all over the country and bring varied backgrounds and experiences that enliven and enrich the conversation for everyone.
  5. Public servants are career-focused professionals. They come to us clear about the role they want their education to play in attaining their goals. If their degree is to prepare them for a promotion, they are articulate and explicit about that and they move toward that goal in a deliberate way. Or, if their degree is to gain new skills in mission-critical occupations like cybersecurity, they show up with a deep sense of purpose and possibility not only for their own career trajectories but also for our nation. And because the government is committed to the professional development of their employees, these folks come to us knowing specifically what they need to do to achieve their objectives. This clarity of process has enabled us to more effectively help them to be successful across their academic journey: through identifying the admissions procedures that will be most useful to them, ensuring the advice we offer them is ends-driven and readily available, and that we are regularly reviewing their professional development to ensure we can award them credit to move them more quickly to completion.

The take-away for me, as the academic leader of a unit serving nearly 4,000 students, 46 percent of whom are public service employees, is that a surefire way to improve higher education lies in enrolling public servants as students and including them as members of the faculty. I join the country in celebrating and honoring this group of people and we look forward to watching a great many of them cross the stage as they graduate from our institution on May 12.

Dr. Mika Nash is academic dean and associate professor in the Division of Continuing Professional Studies at Champlain College. She helps organizations identify skills gaps and improve their workforce and processes.