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Online Flexibility, Villanova Rigor: How Earning Her MPA Empowered this City Planner to Make a Difference


By Bisk
Michelle Alfaro MPA Graduate Spotlight

Michelle Alfaro ’16 MPA was the first person in her family to graduate from college – and the first to earn a master’s degree.

In 2005, she began working for the local government in planning and community development. She fell in love with city planning and decided she wanted to make a difference as a civil servant.

Nearly 10 years later, Alfaro graduated with her undergraduate degree in legal studies, and then immediately enrolled in Villanova University’s online Master of Public Administration (MPA) program. She earned her master’s degree in 2016, and as if two degrees weren’t enough, she recently began a Ph.D. program in Human Capital Management.

“I aspire to teach, write and counsel organizations on ways to improve how they value and manage their human capital,” Alfaro said. “I’m passionate about people and feel every person can bring value to an organization if engaged and appreciated properly.”

An Academic Foundation

Alfaro is a wife and mother of three children, and balances a full-time job on top of it. As a non-traditional student, she knew she needed a NASPAA accredited graduate program that would provide the necessary foundation for success, with the flexibility required to accommodate her personal needs.

Villanova’s MPA program exceeded her expectations. Aside from its online convenience, Villanova’s prestigious history was an important factor in her decision to choose the MPA program.

“The University is well respected and has strong pedagogic approaches that provide students with the academic foundation to effectively lead and manage across local, state and federal government sectors, as well as non-government and non-profit organizations,” Alfaro said.

Breaking Down Online Learning Myths

“The same professors who teach on campus teach online courses, and you feel like you are there,” she said. “They develop relationships with you, encourage you, and most of all inspire you. The passion they have for the field and your success is palpable and unforgettable.”

She built strong relationships with her professors and knew that if she ever needed to reach out for advice, they would be just an email away.

“It was because of their dedication to making my learning experience a success that I was able to reflect on myself, my dreams and aspirations, and I found my true calling,” she said.

What’s more, Alfaro did not expect the level of personal attention she received through her online program.

“I find that there is a stigma at times about online learning,” she said. “Villanova breaks those stigmas and really shows that you can receive a quality education with the convenience of a virtual classroom connection.”

Using Her MPA Degree to Make an Impact

While graduating with an MPA was Alfaro’s greatest achievement, learning how to think outside the box was an intangible takeaway from the program. During her studies, Alfaro was constantly challenged to reflect on her learning as she went through each course. She credits the program for helping her grow both personally and professionally.

“The most valuable takeaway is an amalgamation of hard work to obtain the degree and the evolution of myself that will allow me to utilize these tools in ways that will have a great impact on any organization, its staff and the community we serve,” she said.

Obtaining her MPA degree from Villanova helped Alfaro meet the qualifications needed for her current position as a City Planner. She recently became a Zoning Board Administrator, which is an additional responsibility associated with the Zoning Board of Appeals.

As Administrator, Alfaro handles all of the zoning waivers, which are requests for variances, or exceptions, to the zoning code. In her role, she is responsible for reviewing each application, determining the appropriate waivers, creating an agenda, meeting with staff, conducting site visits, publications, neighbor notifications, staff reports, and meeting with the Assistant Director and Director, and then representing the department to the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“Without my education, I would not have been considered for these positions, but this degree, combined with a positive attitude and strong work ethic makes an incredible difference in how valuable you are perceived,” Alfaro said.

Sources of Inspiration

Alfaro said other professionals and potential students have reached out to her about her career and about the value of her Villanova MPA degree.

“I think the most important thing I can tell them is that with hard work and dedication you can accomplish anything,” she said.

Alfaro hopes to encourage prospective students by sharing her story about how she completed the program while juggling life, work, children and school. She hopes that through hearing her story, others can see the great amount of flexibility Villanova’s MPA program offers, but that there also is a substantial amount of work and dedication involved.

It was two of her Villanova professors, Lauren Miltenberger, PhD and Christine Palus, PhD, who inspired Alfaro to take on her next adventure – a doctorate in Human Capital Management.

“They set the bar for the kind of woman I want to be in my career – strong, intelligent, caring and passionate,” Alfaro said. “They taught me that people matter and that one person can make a significant difference.”

No one inspires Alfaro more, though, than her husband and three children. Their encouragement keeps her moving forward past those difficult days when she has to sacrifice time with her family.

“They are my biggest support system, my greatest motivation and I am determined to make them proud,” she said.

Category: Student Spotlight