On a weekday afternoon, we sit at Joe’s Coffee on the second floor of…
Winston: I never remember what this building is called.
Tania: I don’t think I ever learned the name to begin with. We’re near Dodge? I think?
W: I think?
T: Well, either way, here we are. Ready?
T: Give us a little bit of background on how you decided to pursue this MPA, starting with what your Bachelor's is in.
W: I did a BS, and I did it in accounting. Going into it, I knew I was going to go on to grad school. I would either go the CPA route and get that certification, or I’d go on to something fiscal, but I knew I’d have to keep studying either way. So that was always in the back of my mind as I went through the BS.
T: When did you decide that an MPA would be the right move after the BS?
W: When everything with George Floyd happened, I kept thinking, What can we do? How do we keep this from happening again? And in that thinking I came to policy. A lot of our issues- most of our issues- stem from The System and not having our needs considered in policy. With my accounting background, I thought I could align that with a degree in policy and something fiscal. The MPA, and especially my particular track of management and operations, looked like the best route for that. [The degree] allowed me to be more succinct, and to put all these topics I’m passionate about on one page. So, my capstone was based on the New York State M/WBE program (Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises), and that is a focus of mine because essentially 30% of the state’s budget is supposed to go to minority- and women-owned businesses and, at the time and presently, there are only about 3% of actual minority-owned businesses that receive those contracts. So, how do we expand the capacity of these businesses to receive these contracts? A lot of that involves policy and policy building. My concentration deals a lot with nonprofit organizations, organizational structure, and helps you get to the CEO level.
T: That’s interesting, the CEO level. So, when did you start thinking about law school? Let’s keep going on this trajectory, since I understand you’re interested in pursuing the JD.
W: Ah, yeah. I went back and forth with the idea of a PhD a lot. I’ve always had a passion for bringing wealth into the ecosystem, especially with black and brown communities. Especially with how I grew up and not having resources, it was important to me to bring resources to those people, which in turn helps the economy in and out of those communities. Working at Columbia and seeing a PhD unfold first-hand, I thought, how do I do this and does it make sense for me? I spoke to a lot of people in and out of Columbia about my trajectory. I spoke with Gerard (Torrats-Espinosa) a lot, and with former students too. The thing that came up over and over again was that it’s important to understand whether you want to work in your field, meaning out in the field, or if you’d like to do tons of research on your topic. Is your passion being a practitioner or doing research to fuel the practitioner?
T: Ah, I see. Almost like being on the ground versus generating context and data?
W: Yes, and the JD is a practitioner degree. It has a stronger relationship and correlation to the action of policy. I also think I’m a better speaker than I am a writer, and if that’s the case, would a PhD really work for me? I don’t see myself in the courtroom, but [rather] I see myself working on large initiatives for black and brown communities. Even if that means going into a corporate environment, like mergers and acquisitions for example, that’s a path that I know people have taken. Charles Philips, one of the founders of Oracle, had that path. Or Raymond McGuire (executive at Citigroup, philanthropist and political candidate), he did an MBA and JD. And when I look at what they’ve accomplished in their careers, I can see the kind of knowledge I would need to have to make things happen. The type of things they’re doing are like the things I’m trying to do. Asking, how do you manage a community and match it with resources and entities that will help move it forward? I just want to be fulfilled and make sure that I’m adding the most value to the space I’m in. I also have a ton of connections in those [governmental] spaces. I know the assembly people in my community, a lot of people in the chamber of commerce, tons of people in the mayor’s office. And if I’m constantly in these spaces, how do I make sure I’m doing my part and not just showing up?
T: It sounds like the MPA gave way to broader, larger thinking.
W: Yeah, I definitely see it in the way I think now, and in the way I approach problems. I’m always trying to think in workflow- what are the steps that we need to take? How do I build this chart?
T: Was that shift something that surprised you?
W: Yes? I think I always knew I was capable of that but experiencing it and seeing it happen is wild.
T: What would you say you found most surprising about the Public Administration and Policy field once you started your studies? Was there anything you learned that you just had no idea was a part of the field?
W: Yes! Once I [started] the program, I learned that there was this role or, really, this field of people that are strategic planners for whole agencies. So every ten years, or however frequently, an agency puts in place a new strategic plan. And strategic planners are outsiders that come in and develop that plan. One of the most interesting things I saw while studying was attacking the strategic plan. Everything I did in the program centered on the financial, and combining the strategy with that, helped lead me to develop a tech platform [...] that shows where small businesses are located in the state. I was thinking of a type of database, just a platform that [tries] to connect people to resources. Going back to how I’m thinking now, even in my job and at Columbia, I can make connections to strategic planning- through resource management and organizational performance, and even trying to look inward and asking what kind of manager I would be. For instance, when Teresa and I were working on a departmental manual and student manual, we were going through a process similar to creating bylaws. Because of my degree, I was able to use certain skills I’d learned to work on that.
T: Isn’t it great when you see the fruits of your labor in yourself, and see that you’re thinking differently and noticing that you’ve grown?
W: Yeah! And it wasn’t just in making the connection between the degree, my job, and who I am. I graduated undergrad with a 3.2, which wasn’t terrible but I wasn’t able to really hone my grades then. When I ended my masters with a 3.7, I was proud of myself for that because I can see my growth on paper which means a lot to me.
T: That’s awesome! On the subject of growth, what was something either that you learned about yourself, a professional or on the personal side, that was surprising to you as you pursued the degree?
W: Ah, that’s a good question. There is so much that I’ve learned, that’s why it’s hard for me to answer. During the degree I had to also manage being at work and having surgery. And then having a baby, of course. For me it was about managing lives and learning how to prioritize your health, mental health, your family, and your work. Those were the things that I found most challenging, balancing the pressure from the outside that was on me to get things done while also building boundaries. One thing I’ve noticed about myself more now is that before I was doing things with it being kind of ego-centric, more about me and “look at what I can do.” I needed to be the driving force of everything and drive everything forward. When I got to the end of the degree, I realized how much it is about everyone else around me, how we’re all connected. The connectivity is what makes you a better manager and a better person; how important it is to have that support and showing people that you’re grateful for them. I thought I [had been] doing that and didn’t realize how much I [hadn’t been] actually doing it until I did the degree. And then there’s having a child! Of course, that made me grow the most, which was beautiful because it was the best thing for my mental health. I started therapy when I found out I was having a child because I didn’t want to bring my own baggage to this new life and new start. So I developed emotional awareness, and my “why” became greater. That’s something the degree allowed me to do, it gave me structure and a path of how to be successful now that I knew why.
T: It’s always enlightening when you discover your motive for pushing forward, and I think there’s something to be said about connectivity and accountability in your trajectory. As in, not only in your interest and pursuit of the [MPA] degree, but also in your personal journey as you pursued it.
W: Definitely. Being in school, having financial resources and outside resources, having a lot of people invested in my education and in my professional growth, that was great. And I think it was reflected in my studies. Now I’m always thinking about how I can move things forward, how I can get to where I want my family and I to be. And, how do I facilitate that for other people and the communities that need it.
T: That’s the best take-away from grad school I think, to be able to connect the dots between what you want to do, who you are, and what it means to you. Congratulations on a momentous achievement!
W: Thank you!
We sat down with Winston Gordon III, Administrative and Undergraduate Coordinator for the Department of Sociology, to discuss his pursuit of a Master's of Public Administration: Public Policy and Administration, with a specialization in Management and Operations, which he received this January 2023.