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Math to MPA: Keith Farrell ’18 Wins ICMA Fellowship

After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in math and political science and working for almost three years teaching high school math, Keith Farrell knew his next move: working in government. Transitioning from political organizing to field organizing, Keith eventually found his way here to the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs’ Master of Public Administration program (MPA). Since graduating in fall of 2018, he has been awarded the International City/County Management Association‘s (ICMA) highly competitive Local Government Management Fellowship.

Keith first worked under Senator Ed Markey’s campaign, starting as a volunteer organizer, and eventually became a paid field organizer. He worked in campaigning for about two and a half years until he joined Don Berwick’s 2014 gubernatorial race. Keith found a valuable mentor in Berwick, who helped guide him towards applying for an MPA program.

“What was really appealing to me about Northeastern was that I had the flexibility of being able to continue to work a 9-5 job and then take classes at night,” Keith said. “I think it’s kind of unique in that regard, the flexibility it offers professionals to continue their education while continuing to work.”

The School of Public Policy’s MPA equipped Keith with a variety of skills through his coursework. William Kay, associate professor of political science, provided insight into organizations, their life cycles, and what it takes to keep them afloat. Michael Dukakis, distinguished professor of political science, held numerous real-life examples of how to tackle complex public sector challenges, teaching nuance, and critical and collaborative problem-solving skills.

“The course I think had the most impact on the direction I went post graduation was Daniel O’Brien’s course on Urban Studies and Theory. He really made me most interested in local and municipal government, more so than any other layer of government, more so than the state or federal level,” Keith said. “I think that’s what convinced me to seek out this Fellowship that I’m doing now in local management.”

Balancing a full-time job with a part-time MPA program meant Keith needed to seek alternative experiential opportunities to build his resume and experience. ICMA’s Local Government Management Fellowship helped Keith combat a problem he seemed to be facing: many jobs he applied for claimed he didn’t have enough professional experience.

“It’s [the Fellowship] specifically designed for people that have the education, but don’t necessarily have the experience,” Keith said.  “And for that reason, I was super grateful for the existence of this program. While I’ve sort of danced around government–I’ve been a teacher, I’ve done political organizing, I’ve worked in a nonprofit space–I’ve never held a job in government.”

The ICMA is one of the leading associations for city, county and town governance, and offers a variety of resources (including training and development) to support thriving communities. As part of the Fellowship, Keith will be working for the City Manager’s Office of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for two years. During the first year, Keith will serve as the main liaison between activist groups, neighborhood associations and homeowner associations who are trying to work or lobby with the government. He’ll also run the city’s Citizen’s Academy, a class hosted once a week in the evening for community members to learn all about how the city government works and how it serves the public. During his second year, he will help work on the City Manager’s annual budget.

The School of Public Policy’s MPA gave Keith the conceptual background he needed to jump into practical application in the public sector through the Fellowship.

“They basically expect you to be able to come in hitting the ground running, and they’ll throw a lot questions to you about how you’ll handle stuff and how you’ll manage and work with constituents–and coursework at Northeastern prepared me for that. It just gave me a sense of confidence, too, that I had the right jargon, understood the concepts and could engage with these people who have been doing this work for a long time,” Keith said.

And the School of Public Policy’s MPA provided a little something more than just knowledge, something which also helped prepare Keith for his new role at Fort Lauderdale.

“I think one of the things that really surprised me about the Northeastern MPA program was what a strong network I was able to build from it,” Keith said. “It’s another resource that I think makes me feel well prepared for this next job: that I have people to be sounding boards for any challenges that come across. The networking element the program provides is priceless, really.”

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