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“What you put in, you get out.” Online MPA student embraces Villanova community, experiential learning

Sal Di Stefano decided that if he was going to join the Villanova MPA program, he was going to immerse himself in the experience. That mindset, and the support and training from Villanova, helped him earn a second-place finish in the 2021 global NASPAA-Batten Public Policy Simulation Competition.

Sal and Maria Di Stefano with sons Gerardo (12) and Sal Jr. (10)

VILLANOVA, Pa. – Salvatore “Sal” Di Stefano knew the Villanova University Master of Public Administration (MPA) online program was going to be challenging. As Economic Development Director for the City of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and father of two active boys, his days were often a blur of activity. And that was before COVID-19 hit.

In addition to his regular duties with Gloucester, he serves as the COVID-19 business and community liaison for his city and works to coordinate pandemic-related policy decisions and business recovery programs.

“Just like everyone else, we went virtual practically overnight, then we got right back on track helping our residents and businesses,” Di Stefano said. “I was constantly online with officials across the state, working on implementing COVID policies, crafting communications and offering assistance.”

Feeling overwhelmed and stressed (just like everyone else), Di Stefano even considered leaving the MPA program before talking with Wesley Proctor, EdD, Assistant Teaching Professor, and Catherine Wilson, PhD, Chair of the Department of Public Administration and MPA Program Director, who convinced him to stick with it. Instead of an added stressor, the Villanova MPA community became both an emotional support system and a practical vehicle to think through real-time projects from his job.

“Dr. Wilson said that we would work through this together,” Di Stefano said. “At that time, the Villanova professors were a real godsend. They got it. They understood our uncertainty and our challenges and do a great job of helping online students.”

Di Stefano also had another support system in place – his family. Di Stefano and his wife, Maria Di Stefano, who is the Northeast Regional Director at Commonwealth of Massachusetts, began the Villanova MPA program together. “My built-in study partner,” Di Stefano said. They also both wanted to set an example for their sons, ages 12 and 10, who often listen in for parts of their classes. “Telling them is one thing, seeing your parents working hard takes it to the next level,” he said.

In fact, the challenge was a big reason the Di Stefanos chose Villanova. In discussing possible online MPA options, a colleague noted that Villanova had a strong reputation and a rigorous MPA program. Di Stefano did some research and was intrigued by Villanova’s unique curriculum, especially its focus on City Management, and live, online evening classes. They knew their busy schedules would make an on-campus program an impossibility, but they did not want an experience that was mostly asynchronous.

“The Villanova program allows us to interact with our professors and our classmates,” Di Stefano said. “I’ve had classes with people who worked in the NFL, the Navy, the FBI, the corporate world, nonprofits—I’ve learned as much from my classmates as my professors.”

"The decisions we make as public administrators impact people. Villanova teaches us to think about how our decisions impact those who are most vulnerable.”

Di Stefano is also impressed at the ease with which the Villanova faculty integrate real-world issues and current events into the curriculum, linking theory to best practices.

“We are encouraged to use what we are dealing with at work as class projects—like a live case study,” he said. “We’ve also tackled COVID-19 scenarios, equity and diversity concepts. We are learning about things that are happening now.”

An added bonus of Villanova’s live online platform is that Di Stefano’s class experience gave him a jumpstart when the world was forced online last spring. He noted his familiarity with video conference technology and online presentations was essential as his job shifted to working remotely.

Going into the program, Di Stefano wanted to immerse himself in the experience, to go above and beyond the classroom. “What you put in, you get out,” was his philosophy.

Di Stefano had the opportunity to put that philosophy to the test this year, as he was nominated to participate in the 2021 NASPAA-Batten Student Simulation Competition.

Each year, the Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs, and Administration (NASPAA) and the University of Virginia Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy sponsor a public policy competition through simulated gameplay. In this year's online competition, students took on leadership roles within a time-sensitive, fast-paced environment in which they worked together to minimize the impact of a deadly infectious disease. Teams were evaluated on simulation scores, teamwork, organization, policy decision making and policy presentations. Nearly 400 students from 120 universities in 30 countries at four global sites participated this year.

“Sal was nominated by MPA faculty to participate in the NASPAA-Batten simulation due to his keen intellect as well as his relevant professional experience in the field of public service," said Dr. Wilson. "We are thrilled, but not surprised, that his team came in second place in the competition. In addition to his strong academic performance in the Villanova MPA program, Sal’s position as Economic Development Director for the City of Gloucester prepared him to work alongside his teammates in securing this second place title in an effective and time-sensitive manner.” 

Di Stefano’s team finished second in his region, an accomplishment for which he credits his team and his preparation at Villanova.

“The Villanova program teaches you all-around skills … finance, strategic planning, public speaking, group projects, thinking outside the box …” Di Stefano said, “all supported by Catholic Social Teaching and Augustinian values. I couldn’t ask for better preparation for the NASPAA-Batten Competition, or for my career in public administration. The decisions we make as public administrators impact people. Villanova teaches us to think about how our decisions impact those who are most vulnerable.”

About Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Since its founding in 1842, Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences has cultivated knowledge, understanding and intellectual courage for a purposeful life in a challenged and changing world. With 39 majors across the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences, it is the oldest and largest of Villanova’s colleges, serving more than 4,500 undergraduate and graduate students each year. The College is committed to a teacher-scholar model, offering outstanding undergraduate and graduate research opportunities and a rigorous core curriculum that prepares students to become critical thinkers, strong communicators and ethical leaders with a truly global perspective.