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Aimee Towsend, second from right, and her co-presenters Margaret Clark, Chelsea Foster, and Nick Strahan pose for a picture in front of their presentation during the 2016 Student Expo at the Convocation Center on Thursday, April 14.

Aimee Townsend, MPA '16, reflects on student inclusion at the Voinovich School

Kate Leeman
June 29, 2016

After completing her undergraduate degree in social work at Ohio University, Aimee Townsend did not have a specific career track in mind, but she knew she wanted to do something to help families and children in Appalachia. She chose to study public administration because it fit with what she liked and learned from social work, but seemed to offer “a wider lens” for thinking about these same topics.

While at the Voinovich School, Townsend worked on several different projects, the largest of which was an evaluation of the Ohio Appalachian Collaborative Personalized Learning Network (OACPLN), a five-year, multi-million dollar project aimed at reducing the opportunity gap for 48,000 students at 27 rural middle and high schools. To achieve this, OACPLN works on several different fronts, including providing these schools with upgraded technology and internet access, enhancing local teachers’ ability to offer advanced placement classes and facilitating students’ access to online coursework and dual-enrollment programs. To measure their success, this program contracted with the Voinovich School to conduct an external evaluation, comparing what OACPLN proposed to do with the work that was actually done and, most importantly, the impact these efforts had on local schools, teachers and students.

As a student working on this project, Townsend had the opportunity to gain real-world experience with qualitative research methods. She visited participating schools, conducted focus groups with high school students, identified themes that emerged during these discussions and wrote up her results for inclusion in the final report submitted to OACPLN. “I really liked that I got to be hands on, even though I was a student,” Townsend said. She remembered that, after working at the Voinovich School for just a couple of months, Dr. Lesli Johnson, one of the School’s applied faculty members said to her, “We see you as part of this team and your work as equal to others’ work. It doesn’t matter that you’re a student.” Townsend commented, “That set the tone for my experience - they never stifled my excitement, they just harnessed it.”

Reflecting on what she learned while working with the Voinovich School’s Planning, Evaluation, Education and Research (PEER) team, Townsend says she most values the skills she’s gained in using data to tell a compelling story, through both words and images. “Two years ago, that felt very unattainable,” she said, “but now I feel like, put me in a situation and I could give it a good shot at least.” Townsend also said she has learned important time management strategies, recognizing that “no matter where I end up, whether it’s nonprofit or government or working in a university, I know there will be multiple urgent priorities to balance.” In addition, she made a point of recognizing the value of the contacts she has developed through this work. “The connections that the Voinovich School has given are things I could have never thought of or done myself," she said. When asked what advice she would give to future MPA students, Townsend said, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even about using the coffee machine. The PEER team wants us to learn. I feel that so much from the staff.”

One month after graduating from the MPA program, Aimee Townsend was hired as a project manager by Integrating Professionals for Appalachian Children (IPAC,) a nonprofit that seeks to improve the physical and mental health of children and families by facilitating inter-agency communication and collaboration.