Schar School MPA Students Engage with Arlington County Leaders—Who Are Graduates of the Same Program

A man with white hair in an orange shirt stands amid pews filled with sitting people with one standing.
Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz takes questions from Schar School MPA students. Photos by Mirae Kim/Schar School of Policy and Government
Five people sit at a desk in plush leather chairs.
Master of Public Administration graduates explain how they perform their leadership roles in Arlington County government. From left, Nakish Jordan (‘20), Jessica Baxter (‘21), Shauna Gary (‘24), Becky Schmitt (‘21), with moderator Professor James Burroughs (‘94).

The Local Government Night, a cornerstone event of George Mason University's Master of Public Administration program for over two decades, resumed this year after a pandemic-induced hiatus. The program returned earlier this month when first-year MPA students visited Virginia’s Arlington County government headquarters where they met with department leaders, many of whom are graduates of the MPA program.

The purpose of the meeting aims to immerse MPA students in the workings of local government, offering them a chance to learn firsthand about its operations, understand the challenges faced by its employees, and gather insights that could aid their career in public service.

The students were accompanied by faculty members including Schar School of Policy and Government professors James Burroughs, a 1994 graduate of the program, Mirae Kim, Qian Hu, and Stefan Toepler, as well as adjunct professor Dana Dolan. MPA graduates now working for the county, Chief of Administration and Public Affairs Jessica Baxter (’21) and Senior Financial Analyst Becky Schmitt (’21), organized the evening event.

A central part of the evening was a meeting with the county manager, Mark Schwartz, who engaged in meaningful dialogue with the students, addressing their inquiries about leadership development in public service. Another highlight was a session on combating the opioid crisis, where Arlington County Police Department Lieutenant Steven Proud, a 2023 MPA graduate, and Suzanne Somerville from the department of human services, shared their experiences.

“It was fascinating to witness how governmental entities, particularly at the local level, mobilized resources and initiatives to tackle the opioid epidemic head-on,” said student John M. Crumley.

“The field of public administration, and by extension public service, is incredibly vast and multifaceted,” he said after the event. “What struck me most was observing how the panelists navigated their respective career trajectories, often encountering unexpected opportunities and challenges along the way. It was truly refreshing to witness their adaptability and resilience as they leveraged their experiences to propel themselves forward into new phases of their professional journeys.”

“My biggest takeaway from the event is that you had to be competent, quick to adapt, and be able to show empathy to the people you work with,” said Tanzia Amreen Haq, an international student with nongovernment organization experience. “And, although I already knew this, I also learned the importance of having a good leader in order to make a high-pressure environment also a place where individuals who want to serve the public can thrive.”

The event concluded with a alumnae panel of MPA graduates employed in the Arlington County government sharing how the Schar School MPA program equipped them for their leadership roles. The panel included Jessica Baxter, Becky Schmitt, Department of Parks and Recreation Athletic and Facility Services Division Chief Nakish Jordan (’20), and Department of Human Services Benefits Program Specialist Shawna Gary (’24).

“Listening to them reflect on their journeys and the profound lessons they've learned along the way served as a powerful validation of my decision to study public administration at the Schar School,” Crumley said.

About 30 people and facing the camera in front of a sign reading Arlington County.
First-year MPA students and their professors at the Arlington County government headquarters.