MPP Practicum Brings the Real World Into the Classroom

MPP Practicum Brings the Real World Into the Classroom

By Cristy Lytal

Congressional Research Service project From left, Jeremy Fraysse, Ayesha Hashim, Robert McCarthy, Kathryn Urquhart and Jacquelyn Chou deliver a presentation on their practicum project to officials from the Congressional Research Service in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Edward Graham

From social media in Africa to “fracking” in California, the 2012 Policy Analysis Practicum challenged USC’s Master of Public Policy (MPP) students to grapple with the most pressing issues of the day.

During the practicum, small groups of MPP students worked together to put theory into practice, serving as consultants for high-profile clients and performing in-depth policy analyses of real-world issues.

“They really have to go through the entire process of understanding what a problem is and figuring out how they can come up with a researchable question,” said Christopher Weare, research associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy, who co-teaches the course.

Juliet Ann Musso, the Houston Flournoy Professor of State Government who co-teaches the course, added: “A lot of what’s valuable about the practicum is that it helps students take these classroom skills that they’ve learned and actually realize how they can apply them. The students come out of it really feeling like they’ve learned how to work with people and produce something.”

This year, clients included the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the RAND Corporation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs, the National PKU Alliance and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank Group.

United Way of Greater Los Angeles project From left, Maricor Garaniel, Aida Miram, Vanessa Ramirez, Brent Tercero and Rob Trombley worked with the United Way of Greater Los Angeles on their project.
Photo by Tom Queally

Students also worked with local public, private and nonprofit clients, such as the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative (LANI), the Boys and Girls Club of Hollywood, the Los Angeles Emergency Management Department/ Red Cross Los Angeles Region, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the Coalition for Responsible Community Development and the Los Angeles County Chief Executive Officer.

Jacquelyn Chou, whose group explored small-business pension coverage, said she enjoyed working with her client, the CRS.

“It was the first time I’ve ever taken a research project of this scope and scale from beginning to end,” she said. “They were a very engaged client, so it was a really wonderful learning process for us.”

The student group traveled to Washington, D.C., to present their findings at a meeting attended by the director of CRS and more than 20 other staff members.

Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative project From left, Jessica Papia, Andrew King, Claire Van Camp and Anna Fischer worked with their client, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative, on community-based revitalization measures.
Photo by Tom Queally

“They did their presentation [in April] to rave reviews from the people there,” said Christine Scott, the client at CRS. “It was really very well done, and the information will be useful for us. The more information and more research the better. It all helps us in informing Congress.”

The student groups credited USC Price with preparing them to achieve this level of success.

“Our study was unique in that it was both quantitative and qualitative, and that was really because of the perspective we have from USC,” said Pradnya Parulekar, whose group researched the extended Los Angeles Catholic school year for the RAND Corporation.

Their client, RAND’s Rita Karam, was so impressed with the USC students that she “would like to continue working on this with them.” Karam added, “They were very self-motivated, so I was happy with their work.”

Boy and Girls Club of Hollywood project From left: Caitlin Acker, Melba Culpepper (Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of Hollywood), Jean Nicolas, Katy Partan and John Roberson

Michelle Stewart, whose group examined fracking — hydraulic fracturing of rock layers to release petroleum or natural gas — for the EPA, praised the practicum as “a great way to bring together what we’d learned throughout the degree program.” She added that all of the group members were “interested in environmental issues. When I came into the program, I was focused on environmental policy, which ended up segueing into transportation. So it related to us, and working for the EPA was very appealing.”

EPA client David Albright said that the students’ findings enhanced his understanding of fracking.

“There’s a difference between having a general sense that something is the case and having someone thoroughly research it, talk to a couple dozen different agencies [including the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources; the California Department of Toxic Substances Control; and the state and regional water boards] and analyze that information,” Albright said. “It’s a different level of comfort that you have with your understanding of the matter.”

IFC found a very specific use for the USC students’ research on sustainability investments.

“They mentioned that there was a conference in Colombia on water, and they were going to be looking into finding a way to incorporate some of [our results],” said Theodore Minch, who worked on the project. “And to hear that they’re going to find it useful made the entire six, seven, eight months of work more than worth it immediately.”

Rebecca Draper, the client at LANI, plans to use the survey developed by the USC students to assess her organization’s neighborhood revitalization efforts.

“USC Price is a very high-level graduate school, so you would expect something good. But it was better than good,” Draper said. “The students really responded to our feedback, and their final presentation was as professional as anything you’d want to see. It was something that not only was interesting and illuminating to us, but also provided us with a truly useful tool that we can use to assess some of the impacts of our projects.”

The students in the LANI group found the experience equally rewarding.

“I didn’t have a ton of work experience in the urban planning, urban renewal side of things, so this was a nice segue into real-world issues and analysis,” Claire Van Camp said.

Other students also saw the practicum as a way of launching themselves into the professional world.

Leonard Hyman — whose group researched social media for the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs — believes that the practicum helped him take the next step in his career.

“I did get a Google public policy fellowship after for the summer, so that was probably the biggest takeaway for me personally,” he said. “I definitely think the practicum helped.”

Brent Tercero, who was recently elected to the Pico Rivera City Council, appreciated that his group’s project — which looked at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s dropout rate for the United Way of Greater Los Angeles — aligned with his long-term career goals in the educational policy arena.

“Professional contacts were absolutely made,” Tercero said. “I just started a new job with Leadership for Educational Equity, and a lot of these connections that I’ve made in this [practicum] process will probably be useful in that capacity.”

The 2012 USC Price student projects were:

  • Congressional Research Service
    “A Quantitative Analysis of Small Business Pension Coverage”
  • RAND Corporation
    “The Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Extended School Year Policy: An Implementation Case Study”
  • Los Angeles Neighborhood Initiative
    “Measurable Impacts of Community-Based Revitalization”
  • U.S. Department of State, Bureau of African Affairs
    “Evaluating the Uses of Social Media in Africa and its Potential Application to Public Diplomacy”
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
    “Regulatory Authority and Hydraulic Fracturing”
  • International Finance Corporation, a World Bank affiliate
    “The Returns on Sustainability Investments: Supplementing the FV Tool”
  • United Way of Greater Los Angeles
    “Reducing the Dropout Rate in LAUSD: A Community Capacity Approach”
  • Boys and Girls Club of Hollywood
    “An Evaluation Strategy for Measuring Youth Program Impacts”
  • Los Angeles Emergency Management Department/ Red Cross Los Angeles Region
    “Improving Data Management for Sheltering Site Assessment
  • Los Angeles Food Policy Council
    “Creating Healthy Corner Stores: An Analysis of Factors Necessary for Effective Corner Store Conversion Programs”
  • National PKU Alliance
    “Cost-Benefit Analysis and CBO Score Analysis of the Medical Foods Equity Act”
  • Los Angeles County Chief Executive Officer
    “Outcome Evaluation of CalWORKs Education and Vocational Training Opportunities”
  • Coalition for Responsible Community Development
    “Creating a Business Improvement District for Central Avenue”