Building Skills: SPA Program Offers Tools to Solve Real-World Problems
Scrolling through social media in 2017, Dean Vicky Wilkins came across an idea that would alter how SPA would prepare students for life after AU.
A Twitter conversation sparked an idea for a program that would eventually teach hundreds of AU graduate students and alumni practical skills. The concept became the SPA Analytics and Management Institute (SAMI), which has launched scores of innovative courses compressed into a weekend of class time. This April, SAMI will celebrate its fifth anniversary with an open house for students and alumni and a public reception.
A $1 million gift from Betsy, SPA/BA ’65, and Peter Mangone—part of the university’s Change Can’t Wait campaign—helped to turn Wilkins’s concept into reality.
“For many years, here at AU and across higher education, we have been having conversations about how we can teach our students the ‘soft skills’ that often don’t make it into the academic curriculum and how to encourage and support their passion for life-long learning,” Wilkins said.
More than 1600 students and AU alumni have benefited from 38 different in-person and online SAMI courses—including cyber policy, critical race theory, programming, public sector consulting, and human resources—created by AU faculty over the past 15 terms. And the “soft skills” SAMI students can learn include oral and written communication, negotiation strategies, emotional intelligence, creating effective presentations, media relations, and many others.
Rick Mikulis, SPA/MA ’22, found learning and applying these skills the most valuable components of a SAMI certificate.
“I thought it was a great way to have more practical and direct skills and apply the skills that we were learning in the [Master of Public Administration and Policy] program," said Mikulis, who works for Massachusetts as an assistant budget director.
As part of the SAMI certificate program in Analytics and Management, Mikulis took classes on critical race theory, media skills, and data visualization.
“I’m also a hiring manager,” he said, “and I’m able to use the lessons I’ve learned in the critical race theory class regularly. Media skills training also has been a big asset—I meet with advocates a lot and I understand how to build messages and deliver them in the most effective way. And I constantly use everything I learned in the data visualization course. That’s probably one of the most helpful courses I’ve taken in undergrad and grad school.”
In 2020, SPA expanded programming to offer undergraduate students “tightly focused skills development” under the Changemakers Series, SAMI’s highly successful “sister” program.
“We felt that students on the undergraduate level are very interested in how to get directly involved in the policy area that they are most passionate about,” said Professor Saul Newman, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education at SPA. “Our students wanted to learn how to develop the skills they need to have impact on policy areas now. The Changemakers was the answer.”
More than 300 enrolled in the Changemakers classroom lectures this year, either as one-credit courses or without charge for students who may want to attend the sessions but not complete the coursework for credit.
Sprouted from SAMI at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, SPA designed the lectures as “how-to” courses, which train students to be changemakers.
Students can hear from prominent advocates and activists and explore topics that include “how to get involved,” “how social movements train activists,” and “how interest groups and lobbyists organize on issues.”
As the fifth anniversary of SAMI approaches, Wilkins is excited to see both SAMI and Changemakers expand quickly and to see graduate and undergraduate students applying their skills while bringing positive change to communities across the country and beyond.
“It’s the pinnacle of success—the kind of tangible, meaningful change you are creating after attending these courses,” says Wilkins. “I hope both SAMI and the Changemakers series continue to grow and continue to spread our message that learning lasts a lifetime.”