By Katharine Webster
So three veterans from Lowell – a soldier, a Marine and an airman – walk into a classroom.
David Provencher, his cousin Aaron Patterson and Patterson’s friend John Buckley are all earning their Master of Public Administration degrees at UMass Lowell because they want to rise through the ranks of Lowell firefighters.
Provencher, 32, is already a firefighter on Ladder 3 at the JFK Civic Center downtown. Buckley '16 and Patterson, both 28, are full-time students while they wait to get onto the department.
All three are using their military benefits to study public administration so they can learn the skills they will need to advance in their careers as fire captains, lieutenants and deputy chiefs. An M.P.A. degree also would qualify them to apply for the chief’s job one day.
“I’m the kind of guy who wants to work his way up the ladder and get in the highest position possible in the quickest amount of time,” Buckley says.
The new Master of Public Administration program offers three tracks: public humanities and the arts, human services management and justice administration. Provencher, Buckley and Patterson are all in justice administration because it aligns with their career goals and offers the most scheduling flexibility, with numerous electives and online classes.
Provencher says he’s learning about the big picture at the Lowell Fire Department, including how it works with other city agencies and nonprofits – and the constraints administrators face.
The three men decided they wanted to be firefighters at different points in their lives.
Provencher always wanted to join the Lowell department. He knew that being a veteran would help him get hired, so he enlisted in the Army and served with the infantry for seven years, including a 15-month deployment to Iraq, rising to the rank of staff sergeant.
He also earned a college degree in finance online, his “backup plan.” That proved to be smart: He worked in finance at Raytheon and Parexel for three years until he was hired as a firefighter in January 2016.
Patterson and Buckley, who became good friends at age 13, followed parallel paths. After high school, both worked their way through Middlesex Community College. Buckley earned his associate’s degree in criminal justice, while Patterson studied more generally before leaving to enlist. They joined the military within six months of each other, although in different branches.
Buckley returned to college at UMass Lowell after going on inactive status with the Marines and finished his undergraduate degree in criminal justice last December. He also began a master’s degree in criminal justice through the bachelor’s-to-master’s program, thinking he would apply for a federal law enforcement job. Then he changed his mind.
“When my friends started getting out of the military, a lot of them became firefighters, and they talked about how much they loved their jobs. There are a lot of things on the fire department that you can compare to military life, like the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush and the mentality,” Buckley says.
“You’re talking about people with Type A personalities – very strong-willed, confident and with leadership qualities,” Provencher adds. “Everybody knows their role and everybody has a specific role, both in the military and in the fire department.”
Most of Buckley’s graduate credits transferred into the M.P.A.’s justice administration track. He says a public administration degree gives him more career flexibility.
“You can do a whole lot more with it. It demonstrates that you’ve studied about leadership and management and everything you want in a supervisory role,” he says.
After four years as an Air Force mechanic working on B-52 bombers, Patterson moved to North Carolina and worked as a mechanic at Raleigh’s wastewater treatment plant. He returned to Lowell in 2015 and went back to school full-time at the university, where he’s on the verge of completing his bachelor of liberal arts with concentrations in history and sociology.
And, like Buckley, he’s already started on his master’s degree through the bachelor’s-to-master’s program while waiting to get onto the fire department. With his work experience and his education, he feels he will be ready to build a successful career.
“I think it’s really important, if you’re going to be a manager, to know both sides of the job,” he says.
Provencher, meanwhile, expects to be the first graduate of the M.P.A. program this December. He will use the administrative and interagency cooperation skills he’s learned in a capstone project this fall: researching possible placements for other M.P.A. students with nonprofit and public agencies in greater Lowell that need help with budget issues, grant-writing, project administration and more.
“My project is to find the organizations and find out what they need, so our students can help them. I’m excited to do it,” he said.
He praised sociology lecturer Thomas Piñeros-Shields, the M.P.A. program director, and Asst. Prof. of Political ScienceAaron Smith-Walter, who teaches the core public administration classes, for their flexibility and help.
“They’ve both been wonderful in working with me,” he says.