Sherrie Elzinga | Special to the State Journal-Register June graduation celebrations always include the opportunity to congratulate recent college graduates on their undergraduate degrees and pose the inevitable questions about future employment. “How are the interviews going? How are the job prospects in your field? When do you start your new job?” I have found
| Special to the State Journal-Register
June graduation celebrations always include the opportunity to congratulate recent college graduates on their undergraduate degrees and pose the inevitable questions about future employment.
“How are the interviews going? How are the job prospects in your field? When do you start your new job?”
I have found that these questions are often answered with some anxiety, a vague response or with the lament that employers are looking for more experience than a bachelor’s degree provides. Having already invested a small fortune to obtain an undergraduate degree, most students are less than eager to return to school and take on even more debt to obtain another degree that may or may not advance their career.
So, how is a recent graduate supposed to get that elusive professional experience if they can’t get hired?
The solution to this dilemma is the Graduate Public Service Internship Program (GPSI) at the University of Illinois Springfield, which offers students 22 hours of tuition waiver and a monthly salary in exchange for part-time work during the school year and full-time work in the summer. For almost 50 years, this unique public partnership has been instrumental in educating nearly 4,000 students while simultaneously providing them with professional experience in federal, state and local government and nonprofit agencies.
I have directed the GPSI program since 2017, following three decades in public service where I had the opportunity to work with my predecessors at UIS to foster internships and provide experiential learning opportunities in state government. The GPSI program is not only a great value for students but ensures a pipeline of talented, well-trained professionals for public service careers.
Located within the Center for State Policy and Leadership at UIS, the GPSI Program helps promote evidence-based policy and practice in the public sector by providing leadership and professional programs for students enrolled at UIS in 20 distinctive programs. Students are embedded throughout government agencies ranging from the Illinois Department of Public Health to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The host agencies provide financial support for tuition and stipends and match students with supervisors who are dedicated to teaching the art of public service.
Jenny Skufca, a GPSI supervisor at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, has hosted several successful student placements and said she’s thankful for the program and the opportunity to be introduced to “tomorrow’s leaders.”
“These young people … make us better at what we do,” she said. “They make us question whether we’re doing things just because that’s the way we always have, and they help us remember that what we’ve chosen as careers are really very exciting lifelong endeavors!”
More than 200 students are hired each year to participate in the GPSI Program. Students must have a 2.5 cumulative undergraduate GPA to be admitted, and those with prior graduate coursework must have a 3.0 GPA to be considered. It is a very competitive interview process with supervisors selecting candidates from a pool of eligible students four times a year. There are three rounds of interviews for positions in Springfield (May, September, December) and one round of interviews (June) for positions in the Chicago area.
The GPSI Chicago program was initiated in 2019 at the request of several government agencies with opportunities for placements in Chicago. Because UIS has been a leader in online education since well before the COVID-19 pandemic and offers a dozen online programs to graduate students, it made sense to expand opportunities to our many Chicago online students. Though the pandemic contributed to a small inaugural class in Chicago in 2020, I have no doubt that the program will flourish in the future.
This May, more than 40 students graduated from the GPSI program, many finding full-time employment in the public sector. Yakashia Barber, a recent graduate in public administration and former Grant Manager Intern at the Illinois Department of Transportation, has been hired by the City of Springfield as a Community Programs Specialist where she coordinates and administers a variety of community initiatives and programs to improve the quality of life for residents. She credits her experience at IDOT for helping her develop skills in project and grant management while providing quality assurance for the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program.
Dominika Kaminska, an international student from Poland via Spain, said her training at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in the Office of Oil and Gas Resource Management helped her develop multiple skills related to law enforcement and a deeper understanding of how state government works prosecuting civil violations while managing the State’s natural resources.
“The GPSI Program was key for me to build professional relations and offer me the experience to start a career in state government,” she said. “I strongly believe that thanks to the experience gained through the GPSI Program, I was offered a full-time position with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation as a licensing investigator that I am eager and excited to start in just a couple weeks.”
Benefits of the GPSI Program abound for students as well as those who supervise their placements. Darryl Thomas, a manager from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity in the Division of Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Technology (EIT Office), supervises Rebekah Piatt, a GPSI participant who received the 2021 Brian T. Milbrandt Award for Excellence in Public Service. Darryl needed assistance with the requirements of a federal grant program and the implementation of a system to keep the program on the appropriate timeline. Rebekah’s strong accounting background, proficiency in MS Excel and willingness to learn database management allows her to examine situations utilizing her skills to find solutions that help the entire EIT team.
Knowing that our strength lies in building strong partnerships with our state government agencies and area nonprofit organization, UIS has also recently developed a fellowship program for students pursuing their doctorate in public administration based on the GPSI model of “learn while you earn.” Qualified doctoral students who are interested in further developing analytical and management skills may apply for openings at agencies needing expertise in public policy issues. Again, selected fellows work part time during the school year and full time in the summer providing high-level expertise and research skills to their host agency while receiving a monthly stipend and full-time tuition waiver.
This past May, Daniel Maibenco, a doctoral student in public administration, began his fellowship under the supervision of Dr. Nelson Agbodo at the Illinois Department of Public Health, where he is assisting the Office of Policy Planning and Statistics in designing a framework for evaluating the implementation of the State Health Improvement Plan. Maibenco will also conduct advanced research on policy/legislative questions like gun violence, suicide and the long-term impact of COVID-19.
Recent graduates and those looking for work experience combined with a graduate degree need look no further than the University of Illinois Springfield, where we are committed to encouraging and training the next generation of public service professionals. This is truly an education that you can put to work!
Interested applicants may reach me at: email@example.com or begin their graduate school application at https://www.uis.edu/apply.
Sherrie Elzinga is director of the Office of Graduate Intern Programs at the University of Illinois Springfield.