What do Ecology and Environmental Studies, a forklift, and an MPA have in common?
As an undergrad at KU, Kelly earned a BS in Ecology and a BA in Environmental Studies but never worked in the field. Instead, after graduation, she spent over 10 years doing factory work. She was working as a forklift driver/equipment operator when she started considering a master’s program at KU.
“Given that I had been doing factory work, I wanted a degree that would give me the knowledge and skills, along with practical abilities, to do meaningful work,” she said.
First her husband mentioned an MPA. Then a few political science friends did. The more Kelly heard about it, the more she liked it.
“The MPA program was in line with my values and the kind of work that I thought I might like to do, so I started reading up on public administration,” she said.
Kelly met with John Nalbandian, then chair of the Department of Public Administration (it became a School in 2011). Two weeks later, the factory where Kelly was working announced it was moving operations to Mexico and China.
It was just the push she needed to enroll in the MPA program. Call it fate or a coincidence, but “entering this program,” Kelly said, “totally changed my life.”
Kelly now works in Denver, in the city’s Budget and Management Office, where she’s been for the last 11 years.
Joe Harkins was Kelly's advisor during her fellowship with the State as well as one of her instructors. His admonition to “not discount budget as a career option” encouraged Kelly to reconsider her professional goals.
“I thought taking a job in a central budget office was something one did right out of school just to learn about the organization and then move on,” Kelly said. “I applied to work in Denver’s Budget and Management Office after [earning my MPA in 2005] and learned that Joe was right. I love working on budgets and still enjoy coming to work every single day.”
She adds, “I’m proud of the team that we have put together in the Budget and Management Office. Our analysts do such great work and their passion for public service and commitment to the work we do—and the quality of their work, never cease to amaze me.”
It’s been several years since Kelly sang “Mama don’t let your babies grow up to be public administrators” in George Fredrickson’s class, finished the MPA program, and moved to Denver. (“I enjoy the mountains and living in Colorado, but I miss the Kansas prairies—the drive across Kansas is absolutely beautiful!”) However, Dr. Nalbandian’s passion for public service still rings in her ears.
“I think about him a lot when I hear people make disparaging remarks about bureaucrats or ‘how much more excellent’ the private sector is than the public sector,” she said. “There are extraordinary people who work in government, who do amazing work—and it is work that not only needs doing but also serves the greater good.”