Clay Larson developed his interest in community service far from home. As a graduate student in anthropology, he conducted community studies on cultural and economic change in a tiny K’ichee’ Maya mountain village, 10,000 feet above sea level in the western highlands of Guatemala.
“That was a life-changing experience,” Larson said. “That village was a microcosm of many of the strengths and failings of modern society, viewed from the bottom up. Material progress, a growing wealth disparity, ecological decline, ethnic tension, substance abuse, and newly formed youth gangs were all hallmarks of this rapidly modernizing indigenous village.”
Larson is excited to use the knowledge and convictions he developed in Guatemala to improve local governments at home.
“Public service in local government provides a crucial opportunity that academic anthropology did not — a seat at the decision-making table. In anthropology, my job was to observe, analyze and report. In local government, I get to design solutions for the issues my community confronts,” he said.
Larson also noted that many of the skills he learned as an anthropology student will serve him well in public service: “As an anthropological researcher, I was able to conduct surveys and interviews, do statistical analysis, publish academic papers, and present my research at professional conferences. The analytical, writing, and presentation skills that went in to those projects are just as important in government as they are in academia.”
Since enrolling at USC, Larson has worked part-time in two local governments. He was a management aid for Torrance Transit System and an administrative intern in the city manager’s office in Rancho Palos Verdes.
While juggling grant applications and research at work with term papers and projects at school has not always been easy, Larson feels that it has been worthwhile.
“My work experience has brought the theory from the classroom to life. I have had several experiences where I came home from work, opened the textbook, and the words seemed to jump of the page. I thought, ‘hey, I know about that — that happened to me at work today.’”
Larson has also become involved with several student and professional organizations. He is an active member of the Municipal Management Association of Southern California, the American Society for Public Administration, and the Millennium Momentum Foundation. He also serves as co-chair for the professional develop committee of USC’s Graduate Policy Administration Community and co-president of the City/County Management Fellowship. He is interested in practical methods to improve public comment processes, direct democracy, and employee engagement.
This fall, Larson will be an administrative intern with the County of Los Angeles.