In less than a week, I will graduate from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) at Indiana University (IU).  Over the last two years, I attended classes full-time at the Indianapolis campus (IUPUI).  I have earned my Master of Public Affairs, with a Concentration in Nonprofit Management.

So, you can admit that I was initially wary when I read Akhila‘s latest blog post, Our Generation: Overeducated and Underexperienced.  Afterall, I have invested much time and energy into higher education.

But as I continued to read Akhila‘s article, I realized that I do agree with her perspective.  We should be more thoughtful about our career development.  Like Akhila, I observe my peers’ approach to their professional lives, and I am nervous for them!  Akhila explains:

“I’m also surprised at how many students I know – many of them juniors or seniors – have never actually held a full-time internship.”

Work experience is crucial for professional development.  If you have never had a job, prospective employers view you as just a student.  They know you can read and write academic papers, but they wonder if you can contribute to an organization’s success?  Can you write a one-page memo?  Do you know how to effectively navigate workplace culture and meet behavioral expectations?  Are you able to wrestle complex ideas and propose a simple solution?

I have been working since high school, starting in restaurants.  In college, I pursued internship opportunities and focused on my nonprofit career path.  Prior to completing my undergraduate degree, I was able to transition to paid employment, with a real job title and real responsibilities.  This success was not due to a degree, but due to my proven track record during employment.

I am who I am, professionally, because of my five years of solid fundraising experience.  But, that’s not the end of the story…

We need both: experience and education.

The nonprofit sector is becoming more professionalized.  There is an increasing focus on “best-practices.”  We are borrowing tried-and-true management strategies from for-profit corporations.  Foundations are improving standards of accountability.

This professionalization will ultimately improve our sector and, thus, create a better impact on our communities.  So, we need nonprofit professionals who are willing and able to push the sector forward.  We need leaders who understand the critical issues we are facing and can engage in nuanced conversations about these issues.

Sure, graduate programs may not be the best way to cultivate leadership in the nonprofit sector, but it is an option.  Others may benefit from workshops and conferences.  There are many ways to engage in professional development.  For more suggestions, check out my prior post, Seizing Opportunities for Growth.

For me, graduate education was a great choice.  I was able to attend a well-respected program; IUPUI’s nonprofit management program is ranked 3rd nationally by U.S. News & World Report.  I was able to learn new skills, refine my understanding of critical issues facing the sector, expand my professional network, and build my portfolio.

For example, in my fund development class taught by Tyrone Freeman, I conducted a fundraising audit for a local nonprofit.  The organization’s leadership was so pleased with my work that I was recruited for board membership.  Serving on the board for Trusted Mentors has been an incredible opportunity to give back to my community and to build more leadership skills.

In my marketing class taught by Adrian Sargeant, I developed a marketing plan for my church.  I am now implementing several of these ideas as the Director of Outreach at New Haven Missionay Baptist Church.

If you want to know more about my coursework at the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, check out my Graduate Education page.

Please leave a comment with your thoughts!  How should we balance experience and education?  What have you done for your professional development?

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Interested in learning more about nonprofit leadership and social change?  I recommend checking out Rosetta Thurman.  Thanks to Rosetta’s post, Weekend Reading, I found out about this interesting discussion on Akhila‘s blog post, Our Generation: Overeducated and Underexperienced.