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Channeling a Passion for Service: From the Military to Public Leadership with a Villanova MPA

By Bisk
Channeling a Passion for Service: From the Military to Public Leadership with a Villanova MPA

Public service is not just a job for Keith Nguyen. It is a personal commitment and passion, demonstrated by his long military career, extensive volunteer work and decision to earn a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree from Villanova University.

"I’ve always been drawn to public service because I really enjoy serving others, whether in the military or as a volunteer in my local community,” Nguyen said. "Sometimes it’s not easy to quantify or observe the positive impact public servants have due to the nature of the work, but at the end of the day it’s a great feeling to play a small role in creating a positive difference for others."

Nguyen traces his dedication to service all the way back to his immigration to the United States, which happened when he was 11 years old.

"My family arrived here with literally no understanding of English and two suitcases between the four of us," he said. "We were given the opportunity to come through Ellis Island and start a new life because my father had served in South Vietnam. It’s really that historical connection, combined with the desire to be a part of something greater than myself, that inspired my decision to join the military. And it’s been a great journey so far, ranging from Germany to Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam."

Serving in the military also helped him make great strides in his education.

"The G.I. Bill® is just one of many great benefits the military provides to servicemembers," Nguyen said. "They do a good job of instilling a sense of continuous growth and development in you through professional military education, rotational duty assignments and locations and on-the-job training in very dynamic environments."

An MPA Program that Meets Demanding Standards

Villanova's MPA program offers a rigorous curriculum covering topics such as financial management of government agencies and nonprofits, leadership ethics and the role of strategic planning. Additionally, students can select a nonprofit management specialization or city management specialization, depending on the direction they want to take their careers.

"I chose Villanova's MPA program for both its academic rigor and respected reputation," Nguyen said. "The flexible online format also allowed me to successfully complete the program while balancing my other obligations. And the connections I've made with the professors, staff and my peers were invaluable. Their continued support throughout was greatly appreciated. I really felt like I was part of the Villanova family."

As an Army Watch Officer at the Pentagon, Nguyen is accustomed to leading a team and managing important information. It is not a job to be taken lightly.

"One of our primary duties is to monitor current events that are happening around the world and keep senior Army leaders apprised on those that may have an adverse effect on Army equities and interests," he said. "It is an extremely dynamic environment in that we coordinate with a lot of players in the national security enterprise."

Nguyen is able to draw on the leadership abilities he developed throughout his military career and leverage what he learned in his MPA program to not only improve his performance at the Pentagon but also prepare for the next steps in his career.

"The MPA is a great credential to have for leaders in the public sector, and it can open doors to many great opportunities," he said. "More importantly, it is a great way to let employers know you possess the quantitative and qualitative tools to think critically about any problem set. Two very important, and perhaps interdependent, lessons I've taken from the program: Ethical and accountable leadership is more critical than ever in a dynamic world of empowered individuals and building and nurturing relationships remain crucial for success in such diffused networks."

The Value of Mentorship and Engagement with Villanova MPA Faculty

When asked about his success as a Villanova student, Nguyen pointed to Catherine Wilson, PhD as a great resource and mentor.

"Dr. Wilson was my professor for a nonprofit management class, and we have remained in continuous contact since," he said. I like to joke that I received my lowest grade of the entire program in her class. But the truth is I learned a great deal about the nonprofit sector through her real-world experiences."

"Not only is she a leading expert in her field, but she fostered such a great and supportive learning environment for all her students – particularly for her online students, who may not feel as connected to the community," Nguyen continued. "She also encouraged us to make the most out of the program by participating beyond the classroom, and it inspired me to get involved. You do not expect the program director and department chair to be so invested in each of her students, but she is."

Moving forward, Nguyen has some impressive plans. He's currently taking courses for a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence and plans to transition into the Army Reserves while continuing to do public service work for the federal government. He'll also stay connected with Villanova as a member of the MPA Advisory Board.

"I currently have the great privilege and honor of serving a three-year term on the MPA Advisory Board – specifically on the Professional Development Committee," he said. "The Board consists of alumni, faculty, student representatives and other stakeholders. Its primary purpose is to provide advice regarding the program's mission, course offerings, mentoring and professional development initiatives."

"The intent is to improve the quality and educational experience for everyone involved in the MPA program. This board is completely voluntary, and it is a simple but powerful testament to the dedication and support that this program has for its students."

GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government web site at

Category: Student Spotlight