An Interview with Renée Birch ('08M)

Conducted in 2009

Renée (Haston) Birch ('08M) serves as the director of a program at Duke University that serves academically gifted minority students throughout the United States. The program provides services such as summer enrichment programs, Kaplan SAT/ACT courses, business entrepreneurial camps, leadership opportunities, academic advising, and many others throughout their four years of high school with the ultimate goal of getting them into a selective college or university.

Renee (Haston) Birch ('08M)

Renée (Haston) Birch ('08M) poses after JMU Commencement with fellow MPA graduate Nate Winn ('08M)

Why did you choose to participate in the MPA program at James Madison University?

I chose to participate in the MPA Program for several reasons. Most importantly, it was close to my hometown and allowed me to be closer to my family, which lives about an hour from JMU. I was looking forward to relocating back to Virginia. My brother and aunt are JMU alums so was already familiar with the university. Also, I liked the fact that the program was a smaller program where I would not be a number. A major attraction for the program is that it is designed to accommodate the schedule of working professionals. I liked the fact that I would be able to have elective courses in other areas and would have flexibility in my concentration.

What was the most interesting course for you in the MPA program and why?

My favorite course was Dr. Robert's Law course. I have always enjoyed the law and following court cases. So, this was a personal interest of mine. Dr. Roberts is very knowledgeable and was able to personalize the cases in order to make them memorable through his stories. You could tell that he was very passionate about teaching the course as well.

What is your favorite JMU memory?

My favorite JMU memory is graduation! I worked full time and traveled with my job while attending the MPA program. I also got married to my wonderful husband during the program as well. To be able to complete the program with an abundance of activity going on outside of school was a great accomplishment and feeling. I liked being a working professional as opposed to going to school full-time but it meant that I had to learn how to balance and organize myself and my time. There's this moment at graduation when you are with your classmates wearing your caps and gowns, where you simultaneously breathe a sigh of relief and excitement knowing that you have reached yet another exciting milestone in life.

When did you start looking into jobs in the Public Administration field and what led you to one at Duke University?

I was fortunate to not have to worry about the typical job search that most students go through. I had the exact opposite experience. I received a call out of the blue, early in my last semester, asking me if I was interested in becoming the Director of the program that I now oversee. It was the perfect opportunity and a true blessing because it allowed for my many passions to be combined into one position! It reminded me that hard work always pays off and when you think that no one is watching what you are doing, there is always someone observing your work ethic, your performance, and your character. I actually started my new position in North Carolina while completing my last semester of graduate school. It took careful planning on multiple ends, including much travel, to make it work. I appreciated the flexibility of my current supervisor and Dr. Skelley to allow for everything to work out in the manner that it did.

What qualities/characteristics/skills do you think it takes to be successful in the Public Administration field?

This field is one that takes passion, dedication, hard work, and honesty. You have to find a balance to be both empathetic and assertive. It's important that you are knowledgeable in your position, no matter what the position may be, and that you stay current in your knowledge of it.

What are some big projects that you have worked on that you are proud of?

My program has doubled in size since I was brought on board so I have been excited to hire new staff members and bring a sense of teamwork amongst existing and new staff. I have really been trying to build a sense of teamwork and standardization across the program. I have traveled and participated in multiple events and started building relationships with everyone from students, to parents, to donors, etc. I've enjoyed the challenge and excitement of tackling a multi-million dollar budget and working with minority students on a daily basis to ensure that a bright future is in store for them. I am currently working on coordinating a business entrepreneurial program for 50+ of my students this summer at Duke's Fuqua School of Business. It is taking a lot of planning, coordination, details, organization, time, teamwork, and dedication to bring it to fruition.

What specific MPA skills have you taken away with you upon completion of the program that have been particularly useful in your career?

I did an independent study with Dr. Skelley which allowed me to explore educational policies, which has been helpful in my current role. Also, Dr. Roberts' HR course proved to be helpful in my Corporate role that I had prior to my new position.