Karen Peterson, MPA: Leading Through the Legislature

Posted: January 09, 2024 | Author: Madelyn Bushman | Read Time: 5 minutes

Karen Peterson presents a bill on the House floor.

The Utah Office of Education poured through the respectable stack of polished resumes from several excellent job candidates. Interview panel member, Karen Peterson, was astonished when candidates without a graduate degree were summarily eliminated before their professional experience and qualifications were even looked at. 

With bachelor’s degrees in political science and history, Peterson noted two things: 

  1. The irony of being in a position to hire someone with more education than she herself possessed. 
  2. How important it was for her to obtain a master’s degree so she could qualify for the work she wanted to do in the future. 

Upon her youngest child entering kindergarten, Peterson started looking into Master’s of Public Administration programs in Utah. In her search, she quickly discovered that Southern Utah University’s MPA program was a stand out for three important reasons: 

  1. SUU offered the only online NASPAA-accredited program, providing the flexibility her life required.
  2. SUU’s online program does not require any on-campus visits- a good thing since she lives several hours away. 
  3. SUU’s tuition was a lot less than the other universities in the state.

Did it pay off? Absolutely! 

In 2016, Peterson earned her MPA with an emphasis in State and local Government. Now she serves her community as Utah House District 13 Representative and works as the Community Development Manager for Sunrise Engineering.

And the bonus? She pays it forward as an adjunct instructor for SUU’s MPA program. 

Experience at SUU Online

Throughout her virtual schooling experience, Peterson found immense support from her professors. They displayed an exceptional understanding of her schedule and were accommodating. Professors opened assignments ahead of time, enabling her to work in advance, particularly in preparation for an upcoming legislative session. Their proactive approach gave her the impression that her professors were invested in enhancing their students’ professional growth. 

Peterson held immense gratitude for her professors’ support and advocacy, especially Pat Seely, former MPA Program Director at SUU. Despite initially not receiving a scholarship for the MPA program Peterson applied for, after a lunch with Pat Seely, she received an email that said: “I took your case back in front of the MPA board and they approved the scholarship for you next semester, we want to make sure you stay in our program.” 

Peterson was filled with gratitude.Karen Peterson, MPA

“For her to advocate for me and go back and pull the board together and say ‘this is someone we should be helping’, that meant a lot,” said Peterson. Not only was I advocating for myself, but my professors were also advocating for me to make sure I could be successful.”

This is a big reason why Peterson recommends students reach out directly to their academic departments and faculty about scholarships and other opportunities to increase the value and relevance of their education.

Life was already hectic, and the professional project requirement for the MPA started Peterson on a fascinating professional journey. She reached out to an acquaintance serving as the Education Advisor to Utah’s governor.  They were so pleased with her work that they hired Peterson to work full-time.  As you can imagine, those kinds of connections and resume-builders have opened up a wide variety of opportunities for her to influence and lead her local community.

Luckily, even with this new addition to her busy life, the online nature of her MPA meant there were no specific time constraints for tasks. This flexibility allowed her to put her kids to bed and then spend her nights working on coursework.

Not many people know that online students are welcome to join SUU’s study abroad programs too.  Peterson took advantage of this option, spending a fulfilling two weeks in Europe exploring seven countries. Students in the program obtained six credit hours that applied to their degree. 

Peterson explains, “The study abroad program was really well-planned, reasonably priced, and included meaningful individual projects for each student.” 

During her time in Finland, she engaged with educators, focusing her project on school systems in that region. This experience provided her with valuable insights and information that greatly contributed to her academic and career aspirations. 

The impact of obtaining her MPA degree 

Now after receiving her master’s, Peterson has been able to reflect and see how obtaining an MPA degree has impacted her life. 

She discovered a way to bridge her master’s degree with practical real-life situations in her professional journey. Keen to make her education directly beneficial to her career, she advocated with her professors to use real-world experiences to meet the requirements for select assignments.

One notable instance was when her professor agreed to replace a theoretical paper on HR policies with the opportunity to revamp outdated HR personnel policies for her city. Not only is Peterson appreciative of the flexibility of the faculty, but also has a strong conviction that real-world experiences provide incredibly relevant education. 

As for other areas of her life, Peterson loved seeing how having her MPA degree impacted her children. She wanted to set an example for her young children that education is important - so important that even mom was getting more education.  “It was great for my kids to see me studying and sacrificing to complete my master’s degree, see me graduate, and accomplish this big goal,” she said. 

“It felt like a lot when I took it on, but I also knew that in 2 years, I would either have my master’s degree or I wouldn’t. So it was just time to do it,” Peterson said. “You know life is always busy. There is no time in our lives when life isn’t busy. So it’s a matter of  just prioritizing, deciding how we want to spend our time, and moving forward.” 

Her advice for others considering going back to school for their Master’s in Public Administration is to advocate for yourself and communicate well with your professors. 

Learn more about SUU’s Online MPA degree.

Tags: Public Administration Online SUU Graduate School Online

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