SJR Column: GPSI Program, January 2018

A special commitment to education in public affairs has been central to the mission and vision of the University of Illinois at Springfield since 1970 when Robert Spencer, founding president of Sangamon State University (now UIS), first defined the “professional and vocational objectives” of Illinois’s new state capital university.

Though a member of the UIS community for just a short time, Sherrie Elzinga, Director of the Graduate Public Service Internship program, knows more about that public affairs commitment than most. Before assuming the GPSI Director role in August, 2017, Sherrie worked for more than 26 years at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency where, as Chief of Staff, she often observed and mentored students serving GPSI internships.

“It’s imperative that we prepare the next generation of competent public servants and this ‘learn-the-ropes experience’ does exactly that,” says Sherrie. “To have the opportunity now as Director to lead and grow the program is really my dream job!”

About 200 UIS graduate students are part of the GPSI program each year, working 20 hours per week in a state agency internship while at the same time engaging in fulltime graduate studies at UIS. The program is a partnership between the University and more than 20 state offices and agencies, with the agency providing financial support for a tuition waiver and a stipend and the GPSI program providing supervision and coordination. Since the program began over 40 years ago, more than 3,500 students have successfully completed the 2-3 year experience, earning a masters degree at the same time they are gaining valuable professional experience and contributing to the mission and success of the agency. The majority of those graduates have gone on to successful careers in public service at local, state and national levels – many in the same agencies where they interned.

Marleigh Andrews-Conrad is one of hundreds of such success stories. After growing up in Springfield and earning an undergraduate degree from St. Louis University, Marleigh was accepted in the Masters in Public Health and Masters in Human Services dual degree program at UIS and served as a GPSI intern at the Illinois Department of Public Health.

“My GPSI internship was incredibly multifaceted, focusing on a variety of factors that can affect the successful implementation of HIV prevention and care in Illinois,” she reports.

“Having the opportunity to consistently practice a variety of ‘real world’ scenarios with the support and encouragement of my GPSI mentor, Janet Nuss, was both motivating and valuable,” she adds.

Marleigh was honored by the GPSI program in Spring, 2017 as recipient of the Brian T. Milbrandt Memorial Intern Award for Excellence. Shortly after completing her internship and masters degree, Marleigh accepted a position at IDPH working for the Ryan White program, which ensures people living with HIV have access to services that promote health maintenance. “As a young professional,” says Marleigh, “I will always be grateful for my beginnings in public service as a GPSI intern. The experience allowed me to begin a career that aligns with my professional and personal goals and values.”

Scott McFarland (from the Quad Cities area) and Jarrod Hill (also from Springfield) have similar success stories. Scott served as a GPSI intern at Serve Illinois, a state agency whose mission is to support and enhance volunteerism and community service. Jarrod interned at the Bureau of Labor Relations in Illinois’ Department of Central Management Services. Both now have successful careers in those same organizations – Scott as Executive Director of Serve Illinois and Jarrod as a Labor Relations Representative for the BLR.

“The GPSI experience has contributed immensely to my professional success,” says Jarrod.

“The ability to apply what I was learning in the classroom in real time on the job proved invaluable,” he continues. “I am still drawing off the knowledge I gained through the GPSI program today.”

Scott adds: “The most valuable aspect of the GPSI program was the ability to integrate myself into a team. Among all my experiences that led to where I am now, the GPSI program was the most influential.”

Since completing his GPSI experience, Scott has remained involved with students following in his footsteps – supervising and mentoring 10 GPSI interns in the Serve Illinois organization.

As Director Elzinga knows from her years overseeing interns at the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the internship supervisor plays a key role in the success of the program. Neelu Lowder, a civil engineer who manages the Site Remediation and State Response Action programs at the IEPA, has supervised many GPSI interns since beginning her work at the agency in 1994. In 2017, Neelu received the GPSI Award for Exemplary Leadership in recognition of her outstanding contributions to the program as a supervisor and mentor.

“While the financial aspects of the program are a tangible asset, the real-world experience, professional contacts, and knowledge that GPSI interns gain is immeasurable,” says Neelu.

“The interns we’ve been fortunate enough to work with have been exemplary – bringing a valuable ‘tech savvy’ aspect to the job and making contributions that are varied and diverse.”

Nearly 50 years after defining that commitment to education in public affairs, I think President Spencer would be delighted to see how his vision has come to life in the UIS GPSI program.

(For more information, visit the GPSI program website.)

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois at Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch