When you hear the title "public servant," what image pops into your head?
Maybe a police officer? A city council member? A judge?
No matter the position, you are likely thinking about someone who is - or has been - a UNO student. A number of public servants across the state of Nebraska, and the region, are currently enrolled in UNO's nationally-ranked Master's of Public Administration (MPA) program.
As Nebraskans - and the world - deal with the impacts of COVID-19, UNO is helping educate and prepare some of our most critical front-line workers to respond quickly and effectively.
Greg Eckstrom, a firefighter and EMT with the Omaha Fire Department, and first-year student in the MPA program, says that being able to learn more about city management has helped him better understand his role.
"In my role as a firefighter, I often find myself limited to a strictly micro - or street-level - view of my job. What the MPA program allowed me was a look at the macro view...understanding not just my role in mitigating emergencies, but my department's role within a larger and more complex system within our city."
While Eckstrom's first passion and degree were actually in journalism, like many MPA students, he chose to pursue his master's degree as a way to prepare for the future.
"When you're a firefighter, you often develop a mindset where you're thinking of 'what if' and the worst-case scenarios," he says. "So this is my "Plan B" should I ever encounter my own personal worst-case scenario of being injured and unable to return to work as a firefighter."
The same happened for Carmel Petersson, who has been earning her UNO degree remotely while working in Duluth, Minnesota, where she recently took a position as an assistant city clerk after 15 years as college academic advisor. Starting her MPA this past fall, she says seeing how resilient her colleagues and MPA peers have been in this time of crisis has been an inspiration.
"It made me realize that in our positions we really do touch so many facets of people's lives. Whether it's their safety, their incomes, and even here - we have a beautiful outdoor area in Duluth, and people are needing to use those areas for their mental and physical health, and that's all part of a city's function."
COVID has impacted both students' day-to-day work in various ways. As an EMT, Eckstrom was already familiar with the importance of PPE and planning for the unexpected; however, COVID's high infection rate has changed how to handle at-risk patients they may need to attend to. For Petersson, who helps manage the city's election process and city council meetings, it has meant finding ways to ensure citizen engagement while maintaining social distancing.
Both say being in a classroom setting, albeit virtually, during the COVID crisis has allowed them to leverage the expertise of UNO's nationally-recognized faculty and their fellow students, many of whom are dealing with the same issues.
"It's been super helpful for me, personally, to be a part of this program right now," Petersson says. "If I weren't, and I was doing this job right now, I would obviously still be doing it but I wouldn't have as good of a resource or learning about the best ways to handle it like I have been this semester."
It's a sentiment that Ekstrom says should inspire all members of the Maverick community, because alumni across the world are making a difference in their communities during this time of crisis.
"It feels like while learning about these topics through my studies, I'm also living them in real-time through my work, which has been a fascinating lens through which to view this pandemic. Our mission - to help others - is unchanged. From that perspective, this pandemic has simply strengthened our resolve and dedication towards that mission."
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