The Road to Fels: In the Emergency Lane

December 05, 2012

By Matt Bassett, MPA '14.

In a way, I started gravitating towards government before I was finished with my undergraduate studies at Johns Hopkins. I spent a significant amount of time (perhaps to the detriment of my studies) running calls with the campus volunteer rescue squad. I became a supervisor, and then a member of the Board of Directors, setting up training exercises and holding disaster drills with the local fire department. I responded to emergencies, but also worked with university leadership and public safety officials on preparedness policies. At the end of the day, it was a lot more fun than school.

After graduation, I was fortunate enough to get a job with the Maryland Department of Transportation, working in their emergency management and homeland security division. I worked with a talented mix of people who were willing to let a 23-year-old jump right into working in an emergency operations center, overseeing transportation safety programs or responding to a disaster. Two years there helped me build up a great portfolio of experiences, and I even got the keys to a cool state pickup truck with red lights and sirens.

My next move was across the river in 2009, when the Virginia Department of Rail & Public Transportation offered me a position running their rail transit safety oversight program. In short, I’d be working on a task force with DC and Maryland officials to make sure Washington Metro was complying with federal safety rules. Three months into that job, I was working with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to investigate a crash on Metro’s Red Line near the Fort Totten station that claimed nine lives. It was the worst transit accident in modern history, and was followed by a series of other accidents and safety problems. Again, I was fortunate to have bosses willing to let a 26-year-old tackle responsibilities like testifying before Congress and the NTSB. After a year, I was leading the safety oversight group, working with senior state officials, transit personnel and federal agencies to make Metro safer.

Although I enjoyed my time working in state transportation, I didn’t see myself making a life-long career in that field, hoping instead to transition to the federal government and work in national security. So I decided that a Master of Public Administration, done in a full-time program, was the best way to make that pivot.

In part, I was drawn to Penn, and Fels, because of the Goldilocks location in Philadelphia; not too far from DC, but still with enough distance to provide a bit of perspective and breathing room. The Penn In Washington program also got my attention; an established alumni network with connections to internships and networking opportunities would be essential for when I eventually re-entered the Beltway orbit. The Ivy League reputation didn’t hurt, either.

But it took an Admitted Students’ Day visit to show me why this program and I really were the right fit. Walking in the door to the historic Fels mansion, I got my first glimpse of how intimate (both architecturally and academically) the student experience would be here: seminar rooms, a computer lab, professors’ offices and social areas, not to mention an MPA cohort that was only about 35 full-time students per year. The day started with a talk by David Thornburgh, ended with a mock public-speaking class with Professor Buck Benedict, and I was sold. I can safely say I made the right call!

** In the photo above, Matt is greeted by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter upon his successful completion of the Philadelphia Marathon. Way to go Matt!

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