My Back Pages–Grad School, by Stephen Harding

I actually enjoyed my days as a graduate student. In some ways, it had a lot to do with being a Graduate Research Assistant (GRA). This is when and where I began to finally come of age, as a student, as an adult. Three years out with a B.A., and I’m out selling personal care products. This isn’t working. My just getting by attitude as an under grad left me with limited employment options. Truly, I could blame it on my very transient blue-collar roots, low-income, poor parenting, lack of mentoring, first in the family to go to college etc., etc. Yes, all true but no, I owned this. After all I took on the responsibility of adulthood by leaving home at seventeen. Earning a living, paying rent and eating were now on me. I could do it, prove my independence. The rent was paid, new wheels parked in the carport, beer was in the fridge. I was self-sufficient. Yet being able to pay the bills in one’s 20’s is one thing, having a meaningful career is something else.

This epiphany hit me in 100 degree heat while motoring across the State of Arizona; what in the hell I’m I doing? Selling case packs of toothpaste? This has got to change. After all, I was a political science major in college. I really enjoyed learning all about the important stuff that goes into politics and governing. Too bad I didn’t read the assignments, study, or write my term papers until the night before. I never had the time I told myself. I’m making bucks working a couple of jobs and playing in a rock band. No, I needed to rectify all of this. Trancripts don’t lie. I had to go back. It meant giving up my full-time position as a regional sales rep to return to the rank of full-time poverty stricken student. I could apply to UC Irvine for a second B.A. redeem my GPA, or take a chance and submit an application for an MPA at Long Beach State. (Yes , I am old school-It will always be Long Beach State).  I was accepted at both. This time I had to be more career-focused. It was onward to grad school.

Although I was not a member of a Frat, I had to grow out of this!!

I was fortunate to be a paid Graduate Research Assistant and a full-time graduate student, even though I was carrying the burden of a working class pre-service outlier. I was not a clueless student aide bored with sitting at the front counter and answering phones. I did have a strong work ethic. My unrelated background was unlike the super majority of students in the program.  But I still had a more than casual interest in governance. Although most of my undergrad courses were in political theory, the constitution and comparative government I did take classes in both local and state government. For those old enough to remember the iconic UCLA professor John C. Bollens, he was my professor for both. (Poli-Sci Bruins will remember). He co-taught the California State Government course with retired Governor Edmund “Pat” Brown. I’m guessing that my reference to these experiences is what got me through my interview for the GRA position.

Although occupying the lowest rung on the departmental ladder, I got more than a glimpse of the form, structure, budget constraints, admission policies, and of course the politics associated with running an academic program. Between conducting research for the Director, serving as the assistant editor for the programs quarterly journal, and assisting with all that goes into putting on two annual conferences, I had a view of this world that the greater cadre of graduate students did not.  

This was 1975 at Long Beach State. Ours was the new unorthodox upstart public administration program in southern California. In addition to the core full-time faculty, the program boasted upwards of twenty practitioner adjuncts.  All held senior, executive, or elective level positions in the larger more complex governmental agencies in the region. Through the decade between the mid 1970’s and 80’s, it was one of the largest and more respected PA programs in the country. The Center, as it was called, received more than its fair share of recognition from the national and L.A. chapter of the American Society for Public Administration (ASPA). The then Dean at USC had made comment something to the effect–“If a student wants to go into city management, Long Beach was the place to go.” Years later the Dean at La Verne made a similar comment. During the late ’70s and most of the ’80s, Long Beach had the best local government focused MPA program in the region.

At the time, there were only five core classes.  The major difference between then and now, we sat for two and half days taking three-hour comprehensive exams in each subject area. It was PA’s version of the BAR; still the days of the Blue Book. For each individual exam, two full-time faculty members served as readers. As they say, the pressure was on. The collective fifteen hours of “Comps” were exhausting and not even the end. Some 33 units later, for me it was 41, students still had to write a capstone research paper. Mine was somewhere around 60 pages not counting notes and references. For us pre-service types, those without relevant work experience, we also had to participate in the obligatory internship. This was the time and age, especially for a program rich with CEO’s and city managers as adjuncts, to find a meaningful spot in county or city government. Where else was a student going to have access to so many individuals that had the keys to the employee entrance?  Even the internship coordinator, a volunteer retired city manager and an International City/County Management Association (ICMA) President Emeritus, made sure of our placement. He had all the contacts. People actually called him back. If I recall, of the eight of us without direct governmental experience, all of us eventually became city managers. I even had a six-month paid full-time internship.  I just didn’t know where to spend that $600 monthly paycheck. Needless to say this was a major pay cut from my time traipsing across the Arizona desert in the company owned 1972 Chevy Impala selling Rapid Shave. As it turned out, that internship turned into a full-time permanent administrative position. (Even that paid less than my position as a traveling salesman)

Yet I stayed the course. As they say, the rest is history. I would go on to darken the doorways of city halls for the next 38 years. My only regret was not pursuing a Doctorate of Public Administration (DPA) at USC when I had the chance and the time. The twists and turns of life, economic downturns, family responsibilities, and the expanding time demands of each promotion seemed to always make this decision problematic.  There was always a rationalization. There will always be time. I just really enjoyed the classroom yet I really didn’t want to be an academic. That would have meant pursing a Ph.D. It was too late for all of that. Besides, I had become accustomed to eating. There were just too many bricks in the wall!!

A good friend, with a resume far more impressive than mine, would later define me as a policy wonk.  Ironically, he meant it as a compliment. Yet to prove his point, I never got that GRA experience out of my system. It was a naiveté that I never really let go of. Not counting my first time teaching an extension course, I started as an adjunct instructor some 25 years after those days in grad school. It would compliment, and for fifteen years overlap, that 38-year career in and around government. Ironically it actually produced a sense of permanence as my real job caused me to go up, down, and back up multiple corporate ladders. By 2014 I decided to vocationally call it a day. My DNA imprinted nomadic tendencies were mostly over. After all, both of our now adult children were self-supporting and accomplished college graduates.

As was my good fortune so many years ago, it has been my pleasure to serve the next generation of public servants. For me, I had averaged just a tad over three courses per year. Some fifty classes and nearly 1,000 students later, it was just time to do a little reflection, appreciating those times with the Dean, the University’s President, and those professors that left a lasting impression.

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