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From Maxwell Perspective...

Doing Good in Maxwell’s Undergraduate Public Affairs Program

The Maxwell School’s major in policy studies, offered via the undergraduate Public Affairs Program, has built a reputation for graduating students with the goal of making the world a better place and the skills to actually do it.

By Renee Gearhart Levy

"Excellence is a habit. If you are excellent in everything you do, then you will always be successful.”

The speaker is an older guy, dressed in a blue blazer and tie. His audience, largely clad in oversized hoodies and sneakers, is made up of ninth-graders at Syracuse’s Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central, commonly known as Tech Central.

They’re eating it up. Earlier in the fall, they were selected for the pilot class at the newly re-opened high school and began the year with a freshman seminar on community service. Today is Community Service Day and they’re eager to put theory into action. Plus—kids being kids— they’re psyched to have a day off from class.

“It’s a measure of the success of the Maxwell mission: the number of students who participate [in TFA]. It’s something for Maxwell to be very proud of.”
-William Coplin
Professor and Chair of Public Affairs

They all want to catch the attention of Courtney Raeford, the Syracuse University student running the project, who’s passing out different colored cards that place the students on teams. Raeford is a product of the Syracuse City School District herself and, now at SU, a recently declared major in policy studies—a program that uses public policy analysis as a means to provide students with professional job skills while “doing good” as citizens. Raeford spent the summer leading a team of incoming Tech Central students in creating a student government system for the school; she continues to tutor there in an after-school program. She’s on a first-name basis with many of the kids in the room.

“Because I’m from Syracuse, I know a lot about where they’re coming from and the pressures that they face,” Raeford says. “I want to do what I can to make sure that they’re successful.”

She’s not alone. Despite the fact that it’s SU’s Homecoming Weekend and there are no classes scheduled up on campus today, more than 30 Syracuse students have roused themselves early to be at Tech Central. Most, like Raeford, are policy studies majors; others are members of the Maxwell Citizenship Learning Community (students living together on an SU dorm floor and sharing an interest in community service and citizenship). The University’s women’s lacrosse team is also here.

Raeford finishes dividing the teams—red, green, blue, and yellow—and, led by a group of SU students, each leaves for its first assignment. Raeford goes with the green team to a park across the street to start a clean-up project and plant daffodil bulbs.

It’s cold and drizzling, not ideal weather for outdoor projects. Nobody is wearing rain gear, gloves, or much of anything resembling a coat.

At the beginning, there’s a lot of standing around, huddling for warmth. It seems the “excellence is a habit” message never made it to the Syracuse Department of Parks and Recreation, which has dropped off mulch (for the last step in the project) but no topsoil or shovels.

There is some balking at the suggestion of kicking up weeds in the sidewalk cracks using their toes. No one wants to get their sneakers dirty.

A city truck finally arrives. It’s the daffodil bulbs. Still no shovels or dirt. Raeford pulls out her cell phone.

Across the street at the Salvation Army, tables of high school and college students industriously write notes that will be included in care packages to soldiers stationed in Iraq. It’s eerily quiet and clear they are taking this job very seriously. Back at Tech Central, another team is listening to a presentation about the Red Cross. The rep is explaining the services the Red Cross provides. Later on, students will make ornaments for Red Cross Christmas trees.

A truck shows up at the park and unloads a pile of topsoil. No tools were delivered, but no matter; students have already gone back to Tech Central to borrow whatever shovels and rakes the school has for its own use. They’ve resigned themselves to the cold, rain, and dirty task, and by the time it’s time to rotate assignments, they’re busy digging up grass and pulling weeds.

Bill Coplin image
Bill Coplin with policy studies majors Courtney Raeford (standing) and Darby Benedict, posing in the tutoring room of Syracuse’s Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central. Benedict planned Community Service Day events there; Raeford oversaw activities that day.

The morning speaker—the “excellence” guy—was Bill Coplin, a member of the Tech Central advisory board and founder and director of the undergraduate Public Affairs Program at Maxwell. His students have been involved with Tech Central since before its opening this fall. They are responsible for this Community Service Day. As much as anyone in the modern era of Maxwell, Coplin, whose students are exemplars of altruism and community responsibility, personifies the School’s founding mission to produce good citizens.

Although the Maxwell School is a graduate school, and its reputation as the top graduate school in public affairs is driven largely by its master’s of public administration program, Maxwell is also the place where SU undergraduates get their education in the social sciences. Every year thousands of students take courses in subjects like history, geography, and political science. And undergraduate public affairs.

Public Affairs’ undergraduate major is called policy studies. It was started in 1976 by Coplin, a political scientist and former chair of the international relations program, as a means to “teach students to do well and do good” through a unique combination of policy analysis, skills development, and hands-on community service.

Policy studies infuses students with the “doing well” component through an emphasis on the development of specific skills Coplin deems important to employers—skills such as teamwork, technical writing, public presentation (he’s big on Dale Car­negie), systematic evaluation, and proficiency in Excel. These are the skills outlined in his book, 10 Things Employers Want You to Learn in College.

The “doing good” comes through community service. Public Affairs 101 students are required to do five hours of community service. Students can commit to 35 hours of community service as an extra one-credit course. If they do well, they can apply to be a “manager,” supervising one of the program’s community projects, such as after-school programs at local schools and community centers; they earn course credit in the process. Half the major is hands-on field work, through internships or research projects for local community agencies.

To some degree, policy studies is an undergraduate version of the M.P.A. program. Coplin says it’s the closest thing to a professional degree program in the College of Arts and Sciences and (not one for understatement) he says it’s the only program of its kind in the world.

“Most policy studies programs are theoretical, a combination of political science and economics,” he says. “There is no one else doing what we do.”

Policy studies is the only major in the College of Arts and Sciences (through which all undergraduate social-science majors are offered) with an entrance requirement. Students must have earned a B or better in Public Affairs 101 and completed 35 hours of community service in Syracuse before Coplin will let them in. There are only a few required core classes—most taught by Coplin—and a handful of topical electives taught by professionals in the field, such as grant writing, housing, and criminal justice. Students choose a topical specialization and take 12 credits in that discipline, making policy studies the second-largest interdisciplinary major at Syracuse University.

But the biggest difference in his program, according to Coplin, is that his students are learning “skills,” not “stuff.” Whereas most academic programs imbue students with a core of knowledge, Coplin has focused policy studies on arming students with a collection of professional skills.

“My argument is that what they do in the traditional disciplines is teach the ‘stuff’ of professional scholarship, which has virtually no market for most kids,” says Coplin. “If my students are studying housing, they know how the local codes are enforced and what the city has to do to get the vacant houses taken down. They’re not learning theories of supply and demand as it affects the housing market.

“I don’t care what stuff they learn, I only care what skills they learn. And I care that they want to make the world better,” he says.
Though that philosophy is not universally embraced—for a college professor, Coplin seems somewhat dismissive of theoretical content—he has positive results and support in the right places.

“Year after year, policy studies students have proven their ability to utilize their analytical and critical thinking skills practically in our local community, actively seeking viable solutions to real-world problems that make our world a better place,” says SU Chancellor and President Nancy Cantor.

One proof of the program’s worth is the type of student it attracts: earnest, smart, and full of optimism and altruism. When you ask them what attracted them to the major, you get amazingly similar answers:

“The basic gist is to come into a community and leave it better than you found it. I’m really committed to that,” says freshman and prospective policy studies major Zach Lax.

“You’re not learning theories and concepts but are out there doing things and able to see directly the difference you make,” says senior Darby Benedict, the student who conceived and planned the Tech Central Community Service Day.

And they’re successful. More than half of policy studies majors graduate cum laude or higher. More than a third of SU students selected for Teach for America have been policy studies majors. Nine out of ten SU Truman Scholarship recipients have been policy studies majors. Policy studies graduates are admitted to prestigious law and graduate programs and have an excellent record of getting good jobs right out of college.

An e-mail to Bill Coplin, received October 22, from a policy studies alumnus working at the U.S. Department of Education: 

“Policy studies gives you actual tools to go out in the community and make a difference.”

Professor Coplin: I am searching for three high-level managers ($85+K) and am having a hard time finding anyone who has the relevant experience and critical-thinking skills. I wish everyone in life had to take PAF 315. . . . Maybe it would give them a clue. Your students are probably more qualified than the Ph.D.s applying. I have people who went to Cornell, Columbia, and Harvard who cannot give me a thoughtful answer how they would relate their previous experiences to the job requirements and add value to my organization. I have interviewed better intern candidates from your program. It’s scary!

The entrée to the policy studies major is Public Affairs (PAF) 101, a popular course taught by Coplin that fulfills the Arts and Sciences core requirement in social sciences.

Through a series of five modules, students in 101 select and research a variety of societal problems—anything from homelessness to school violence—come up with proposed public policies in response, and develop strategies to implement those policies. The research is conducted largely by students interviewing experts working in the field. A student studying homelessness in Syracuse, for instance, might interview the head of the local Rescue Mission. Plus Coplin layers on the five-hour community-service requirement.

By all accounts, the class is demanding. Coplin is notoriously picky about the way the module reports are presented. Not all students are comfortable interviewing adults to research their assigned issues. And many are not all that interested in volunteering in the Syracuse community.

But on the flip side are those students who flock to Coplin like bees to honey. Who soak up his “excellence is a habit” message and who are ready to be disciples spreading the good. These are the students who become policy studies majors.

The hallmark of policy studies is project-based learning using an apprenticeship model. There are two project-based courses required in the major: PAF 315 and PAF 410.

In PAF 315: Methods of Public Policy Analysis—the course mentioned in the e-mail—each student is “hired” by a community agency and does a research project for them as if they were a paid consultant.

Last spring, for example, Kimberly Harris worked with the nearby Village of Skaneateles and Skaneateles Police Department to analyze their problem with trash haulers that travel through the picturesque village hauling garbage from New York City to upstate landfills.

“It causes a lot of odor and pollution and is potentially hazardous because the trucks cross near Skaneateles Lake, which provides drinking water to half a million people,” says the junior policy studies major. Her report, which provided a detailed 24-hour picture of the traffic pattern, found that at least 50 trucks traveled through the village each day. Her report is being used by the village to effect a change in the trucks’ travel pattern.

“Policy studies teaches you how to solve problems while giving you real-world experience,” says Harris, a top student who attends SU on a prestigious Coronat Scholarship providing four years of tuition. “I’m probably the biggest nerd you’ll find, but after reading so many books and learning so much theory, you don’t necessarily know what you can do with the information you’re learning. Policy studies gives you actual tools to go out in the community and make a difference.”

In PAF 410: Community Benchmarks, students are trained in the use of benchmarking to improve local government performance while collecting and analyzing data. (The Community Benchmarks Program started in 1996, funded through a $579,000 grant Coplin secured from the Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Foundation to help government and nonprofit organizations set measurable goals to improve their performance and accountability.) Each semester, students tackle a large group project for a local government or nonprofit agency. Last spring, students developed a methodology to measure learning at Tech Central High School against students at other Syracuse city high schools, the basis of a longitudinal study to be conducted over the next 10 years.

That experience with quantification, Coplin says, is what separates his policy studies students from those in similar programs. Others learn the values and virtues, but his also concentrate on impact. “My do-gooders,” he concludes, “know how to measure results.”

Alternatively, students enrolled in PAF 410 can do a 90-hour internship with a community agency. Harris is interning this semester at the Center for Community Alternatives, a private, not-for-profit agency whose primary mission is to develop effective alternatives to incarcera­tion and foster a more responsive juvenile and criminal justice system. Harris is working with the Client Specific Planning Program to research and develop policy memos on criminal justice inequities that occur in Onondaga County. “I’m interested in criminal justice, so this is a perfect fit,” she says.

In essence, Harris is Coplin’s apprentice. “Instead of my doing the study for an agency, I have the student do the survey with a lot of guidance and support,” he says.

That Coplin’s apprentices are making the world a better place is nowhere more evident than in the greater Syracuse community, where his do-gooders spent 27,444 volunteer hours and provided research services valued at more than $100,000 last year.

At the Wilson Park Community Center, located about a block south of SU’s Brewster-Boland Residence Hall in the Pioneer Homes housing project, policy studies students run two after-school programs. A policy studies student helped write the grant proposal that secured funding from UPS for the eight computers in the basement.

On a typical, recent afternoon, four student volunteers are helping kids with various tasks, while the student manager, junior Joey Krzysiak, is hunting down a missing Jimmy Neutron game.

“Stuff disappears sometimes. It’s less stealing than kids just don’t want to give up the game,” he says.

Across the room, a volunteer explains the significance of the 13 stripes on the American flag a young girl has displayed on her computer. “Have you studied this in history class? It’s 13 stripes for the 13 original colonies,” she says.

Another student is busy with Roller Coaster Tycoon, but is unfamiliar with some of the decision-making required to maneuver through the game. “Even though it’s just a game, the kid has to make decisions that have outcomes,” says Krzysiak, who is also a teaching assistant for PAF 101 this semester. “They determine prices and can see, if they raise the price a little, maybe they could be making more money. So they’re having fun, but they’re actually learning too.”

Often, students are content just using the word processing software and spend their time writing stories, Krzysiak says. “They may not have a computer at home. Or they don’t have a printer. We encourage the kids to be creative.”

Upstairs in the cafeteria, another group of five policy studies majors is working one-on-one with students, helping them with their homework. While most of the kids are clearly soaking up all the attention they can get, one young boy sits slumped in his chair, his math homework untouched. “Your homework isn’t going to do itself,” Burnette Pearson tells him. Over the next half hour, she attempts to draw him out, asking questions about his home, his family, whether both parents live at home.

“I’ve learned you can never make assumptions about any of these kids,” says junior Paige Mausner, co-manager of the tutoring program this semester. “There are kids with wonderful families who still have issues and kids with terrible family situations who are great and very successful in school.”

In addition to Wilson Park, policy studies students run similar tutoring programs at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School and at Tech Central.

“The involvement of SU policy studies students has been invaluable,” says Barbara Grimes, director of the Wilson Park Community Center. “We have only three paid staff members and 50 to 60 kids who come here every day, so we literally couldn’t do what we do without them.

“And they may not realize it, but to our kids, those SU students are celebrities. I hear it every day as they see them coming down the hill, ‘The students are here. The students are here.’”

Even one effective policy studies student can make a big imprint. As a junior, Drew Bland ’07 interned with the Office of Government and Community Relations at SU; his assignment was to analyze the City of Syracuse Housing Court. “The University was trying to solve problems arising in University-area housing, with residents complaining about housing violations not being fixed,” he says.

Using the methods and report format he’d learned in PAF 101 and PAF 315, Bland wrote a memo identifying deficiencies and making recommendations to fix the problems, a report he presented to members of the Syracuse City Council.

The next semester, he took the benchmarking course, where the class embarked on a handicapped accessibility study for Syracuse’s city bus system. Bland was the data analysis team leader, using geographic-information-system mapping software and global positioning systems to locate all the bus shelters and to map which were accessible.

Around the same time, Coplin was approached by U.S. Congressman Jim Walsh’s office to measure whether the $45 million invested in improving specific Syracuse neigh­borhoods through the Syracuse Neigh­borhood Initiative (SNI) had been successful. Coplin hired Bland, who spent the summer between his junior and senior year organizing thousands of records of houses, properties, and business establishments to see if the impact of the money could be traced. Using GIS, Bland mapped out all the parcels in a particular neighborhood to illustrate changes in crime, tax delinquency, and property sale prices. “You could really see where SNI did the work and where it was successful,” says Bland.

Congressman Walsh’s office was thrilled and has distributed the report nationally as a model. Bland is now a graduate student in the Maxwell M.P.A. program, one of only a handful of students admitted straight out of undergraduate school.
He’s interviewing with management consulting firms for a job when his graduate program ends in June and has received an interview everywhere he’s applied. “The first thing everyone asks about is that project,” he says. “Because I have no work experience, I was skeptical about my ability to compete with my classmates. But the experience I got in the policy studies program has really held up.”

Coplin says Bland is a perfect example of the program’s capacity to open doors and provide opportunities for students. “Traditional majors have a specific path every student follows,” he says. “With policy studies, students can go as far as their interests and abilities allow.”

Back at the Tech Central Community Service Day, the skies have cleared and the sun is beginning to peek through the clouds. Daffodils have been planted, mulch spread, and the high school students and their college helpers have joined together for lunch and a little pick-up basketball before receiving special teeshirts commemorating the day.

“All in all, I think things went well,” says Courtney Raeford. “I think the kids really gained an understanding of community service and different ways you can contribute to your community.”

“It was a joy working with Professor Coplin and his students,” adds Tech Central social studies teacher Bob Piraino Jr. ’82 B.A. (P.Sc.). “Helping and giving back to the community is a large part of our program and gets the kids to think outside of themselves. The students from SU have made a great impact with our students and staff.”

Apparently so. The following week, a group of Tech Central students held the first meeting of their new Red Cross Club, conceived during Community Service Day. They discussed plans for fundraising, hosting blood drives, and doing babysitter certification. Many were sporting their community service teeshirts.
“Through all these different activities, I’ve really gotten to know a lot of these students,” says Raeford. “I’ll be excited to see where they are four years from now, what happens to them, and what part the policy studies major plays in their success.”

— R.G.L.
This article appeared in the Fall 2007 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2007 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.