Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, December 20, 2021

Public affairs, urban planning degrees complementary

2021 urban planning MPA dual degree full width

Alex DeSena, Manpreet Kaur Sandhu, Neil Janes, and Ruanda McFerren

A three-year program, the master of urban planning and public affairs double degree consists of 72 credits. Some students enter the program concurrently, while others add one degree after beginning the other.

Alex DeSena, a first-year master of public affairs (MPA) and urban planning (MS-URPL) student, began the double degree program in September. Before starting graduate school, DeSena worked as a street outreach specialist at Briarpatch Youth Services in Madison

“In my case-management work, I walked hand in hand with clients navigating barriers within systems that created trauma impacting youth, young adults, and families,” DeSena says. “My experience in direct service made me want to pair urban planning and public affairs degrees to inform change to these systems at the policy level.” 

The MPA and URPL program gives her the education and skills she needs for making an impact on her community, she says, adding that the MPA degree is an important addition to the URPL curriculum by providing tools to change policy.

Manpreet Kaur Sandhu began as an MPA student and added the URPL degree during her second year at the La Follette School. After finishing her undergraduate studies at the University of California–San Diego, Kaur Sandhu worked as a community organizer.

“The organization I worked for had sponsored legislation at the state level that would have changed the lives of folks of color and people who don't speak English,” she says. “It had support in both houses, but the governor did not pass the legislation. I was at a loss for why the legislation did not pass and I knew that if I wanted to continue this work that I would need more tools in my toolbox, which led me to the La Follette School.”

Kaur Sandhu said taking Urban Planning 844: Housing and Public Policy was a turning point in her decision to add the URPL degree. She took the course as an elective in her second semester in the La Follette School, when students are encouraged to take two electives in addition to their core courses. These electives often allow students to specialize and apply their public affairs experience to other disciplines.

Kaur Sandhu says the MPA and URPL curricula complement each other and the quantitative analysis and policy writing skills she has developed in the La Follette School have enriched her experience in her urban planning courses.

Neil Janes is a second-year student who began his master’s degree in urban planning and then added the master of international public affairs (MIPA) degree.

“The urban planning degree frames levels of scale within public policy—localizing public policy and decision making,” he says. “This background has allowed me to consider policy implementation in my La Follette School courses through a planning perspective.”

Janes hopes to work in sustainable development, specifically considering climate change and climate migration. The MIPA degree allows him to apply his urban planning background with an international perspective on policy. For climate policy, this international focus is essential.

Ruanda McFerren, an alumna of the Master of Public Affairs and Urban Planning double degree, began her master’s studies in URPL before deciding to apply to the La Follette School during her first semester. She was an Advanced Opportunity Fellow and held a graduate assistantship through UW–Madison’s Center for the Humanities.

“The skills I gained in my La Follette School courses, specifically Introduction to Public Management (PA 878) and Policy Making Process (PA 874), allowed me to look at issues in urban planning from multiple angles,” says McFerren.

McFerren now works for the city of Kansas City, Missouri, as a housing program manager. She describes her role as a blend of both fields, using the strategic planning lens she learned through the La Follette School and a community development lens she developed in the URPL program.

McFerren advises prospective and current students in the MPA-URPL double degree program to, “explore what you care about, take all the opportunities you can to develop new skills, and cultivate relationships with classmates and professors alike.”

More information is on the La Follette School website. Prospective students are encouraged to apply by January 1.

– Written by Amelia Wagner