Army Officer Looks to Transition to Government Role With Help From USC Price

At almost a decade of military service, Nicholas Brands is working to make a career change with the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program online.

After serving almost a decade in the military, Nicholas Brands was ready for a fresh start. And so in 2020, he decided to enroll in the Master of Public Administration (MPA) program online at USC Price School of Public Policy.

Brands, who completed the Army ROTC program at University of New Hampshire, has served as an active-duty Army officer for more than seven years. His time in the military led to multiple leadership roles — as a platoon leader, a company executive officer, an operations officer and a liaison officer with the Republic of Korea Army — as well as the opportunity to travel the world. He’s lived all across the globe, including Washington State, Virginia, South Korea, Honduras and now Hawaii, where he works as a protocol officer.

“My current role as a protocol officer predominantly involves facilitating and supporting engagements with foreign dignitaries, political figures and military leaders from around the world in the Pacific Theater,” he told USC Online. “In addition to these duties, I was also primarily responsible for forecasting, developing, and managing an annual budget of $250,000 for a four-star level command.”

While Brands appreciates the opportunities he has been afforded and the experience he has gained throughout his military commitment, he was drawn to re-enter the civilian workforce. The first step? Pursuing a master’s program that would complement the knowledge and skill sets he developed in the Army.

When it came to deciding what he wanted to specialize his degree in, however, Brands admitted he was torn between public administration and business administration. Ultimately, he felt business was “a saturated career field for a lot of transitioning Army officers.”

“I wanted to do something that aligned more with what I was interested in, which naturally was more the government side of things, managing government organizations. I felt like that was a more applicable skill set to what my background was in the Army, and it was just a more easily translatable degree,” he said.

The MPA program at USC Price focuses on those very subjects, including public policy, local government and nonprofit management, and public financial management and budgeting. Students develop a greater understanding in all the major disciplines as well as gain the necessary skills to become leaders in the ever-changing field of public administration.

“I knew that the USC MPA was one of the top-ranked programs in the country, and the online capability made it a lot easier for me to complete while I was on active duty. I have a very unpredictable job, so I needed something that went along with that,” Brands said. “I did the program across three different time zones over the span of about three years, and it was just a very hands-on program for me.”

While Brands knew he needed to pursue an online program due to the nomadic nature of his Army work, he was initially hesitant to apply. He was concerned that the remote classroom would hinder his ability to make connections with his fellow cohort members, or that it would not offer the same level of education as an on-campus program.

Those fears, however, ended up being unfounded. The MPA program online was “more engaging” than he could have expected, and his peers and professors were “incredible and very involved,” according to Brands.

“It was just such a positive experience, and it changed the way I viewed online programs. It ended up being exactly what I wanted in a master’s degree,” he said.

Although Brands was enthusiastic about the knowledge he’s acquired from the MPA online, he also stressed that being part of the larger Trojan Family was an extraordinarily rewarding experience. He was able to form connections that he hopes he’ll have for life, saying USC students are “of a higher caliber.”

“There’s a massive sense of community at USC, even as an online student[.] There’s a special bond that I think a lot of the online students have, and it was fun for me — especially during the capstone [project]. I had a great team, and we were texting basically every day,” he said.

Brands was also appreciative of the support USC offered to military service member and veteran students. As he juggled his work responsibilities and education, he was consistently encouraged by faculty, staff and the rest of the Trojan community.

In fact, it was USC’s reputation as proponent for military and veteran initiatives that was the “big selling point” as he researched potential program options.

As Brands graduated from the program in 2022, he is now in the process of voluntarily transitioning out of active duty and is in the midst of a job search. In particular, he is on the hunt for a position that blends both his past military experiences and the skills he has gained from the MPA program, checking a foreign policy, Department of Defense, consulting or private sector role as options.

“I’m looking at other kinds of federal employment roles the most … I could see myself possibly working either within the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, Department of the Air Force or one of the other sister agencies from the Army, [but] I’m open to an array of options,” he said.

No matter where Brands ends up, he is proud of the time he put into the MPA program online and knows it will be vital for this next step in his career journey.

“I feel like it’s really going to help me get to where I need to go,” Brands said.

Learn more about the Master of Public Administration (MPA) online today.

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