Mason Graduates Make Local Government Go

Posted: February 11, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Tracey Selmer Gordon at MPA cohort reception
“If I run into a problem and want to find out how another jurisdiction handled a similar situation, I have plenty of people I can turn to,” says Tracy Selmer Gordon, a senior aide to the Coles District Supervisor in Prince William County, shown above attending an MPA cohort reception.

By Jim Greif

Since 2001, Mason has been offering an exclusive Master in Public Administration (MPA) program that is having a big impact on the way Northern Virginia is governed.

Twenty-five midcareer government employees from 10 Northern Virginia towns and counties are selected each year to apply and participate as a cohort in the Northern Virginia Public Service Fellows Program. The two-and-a-half-year program focuses on politics, public policy and management, integrated with analytic thinking, problem solving and communication skills.

Frank Shafroth
Frank Shafroth is an adjunct professor who teaches in the program.

The same academic admission standards apply to the fellow program as the regular MPA program, but the difference is that each group of fellows consists of a carefully screened collection of applicants who are nominated by their government employers.

The academic requirements are also the same for the fellows as for all other MPA students: 36 credits, with 24 credits of required courses and 12 credits of electives. There’s one difference in terms of requirements, however. “Electives” for the cohort are replaced with classes that are best suited for potential future senior managers and leaders of the Northern Virginia local governments.

The structure of the fellows program eases the scheduling challenges for busy professionals. Students take two courses in both the fall and spring semesters and one course in the summer.

Common Concerns

Because the students go through the program as a cohort, public administrators across several areas of local government take classes with other midcareer local government managers. The managers come from most Northern Virginia jurisdictions, including the City of Alexandria, Arlington County, the City of Fairfax, Fairfax County, Fauquier County, the Town of Herndon, the Town of Leesburg, Loudoun County, Prince William County and the City of Manassas. This familiarity between the public employees can lead to smoother interactions between government departments and even local jurisdictions.

MPA cohort
Members of several MPA fellows cohorts recently gathered for a reunion and networking.

“If I run into a problem and want to find out how another jurisdiction handled a similar situation, I have plenty of people I can turn to,” says Tracy Selmer Gordon, a senior aide to the Coles District Supervisor in Prince William County.

The connection between local governments and the MPA program has brought professors valuable real-world problems that affect Northern Virginia. The classes provide a common platform for talking about actual situations based on items in the news such as the recent Washington, D.C., government tax refund scandal, where tax office employees allegedly embezzled more than $20 million from the city’s residents.

Participants also find that they can use the classroom to tackle on-the-job issues. For example, Joseph Robertson, battalion chief of Prince William County Fire and Rescue, dedicated a research paper to EMS system performance. He used the knowledge gained from his research to analyze and improve emergency treatment.

Robertson’s efforts earned him a promotion, and he credits the Northern Virginia Public Service Fellows Program for helping to make that happen. “I believe my experiences with the program and the degree were a positive factor in my recent promotion to battalion chief,” Robertson says.

“The network of relationships I have built across the regional governments is the most rewarding aspect of the cohort,” Gordon comments. “The education I received has given me the tools to address public administration challenges, but the relationships I have forged will help me to implement those solutions.”

Training the Next Generation of Leaders

James Conant
James Conant started the program in 2001 after finding that few Mason MPA students worked for local government.

The origins of the Northern Virginia Fellows program date back to 1996, when James K. Conant arrived at Mason as the new director of the MPA program in the Department of Public and International Affairs. Through his research, he found that less than 15 percent of the students in the MPA program at Mason worked for local government, a surprising statistic given the number of local government employees in the area.

Conant brought this information to local government executives to discuss ways to increase the number of government employees in the program and train the next generation of leaders in Northern Virginia.

Specifically, he wanted to build connections to Mason’s MPA alumni who were working in local government, make the program visible to local government managers and employees and work with local governments to develop the knowledge and skills of managers who had the potential to be the next generation of senior managers.

Lisa Baker
Lisa Baker of the Alexandria Office on Women says the cohort program is “the best thing to happen to me besides my kids.”
Creative Services photos

Conant assembled an MPA advisory committee of county executives from Northern Virginia, and in 2001, the Northern Virginia Public Service Fellows was established. The first group of students graduated in 2003. Last fall, the sixth cohort of fellows started MPA classes at Mason.

The members of the first four cohorts recently met at Brion’s Grille in Fairfax for a “reunion” to network and discuss career developments since their participation in the program. Surveying the group, Lisa Baker of the Alexandria Office on Women had this pronouncement: “It’s the best thing to happen to me besides my kids.”

For more information about the Northern Virginia Public Service Fellows Program, contact Ann Ludwick at 703-993-3707 or

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