FORT LAUDERDALE —Linda Cabassa, a native of Brooklyn, left both her home and family for the first time to take advantage of an opportunity in Broward County.
Earlier this year, the 37-year-old single mother decided it was time to earn her master’s degree in public administration, and submitted her application for the National Urban Fellows (NUF) Program.
Of the 70 applicants selected for an interview, Cabassa received a call back and became one of the 40 people selected to enter the Fellows program.
“Being a single mother, I had to care for my child; it set me back a little,” Cabassa shared. “So I saw the Urban Fellows program as a perfect opportunity for me to advance, and faster than I’d imagine. It’s not just about earning my master’s, but the experience I gain.”
Cabassa’s son, Thomas, 18, is living with his uncle in Brooklyn, where he is finishing his last year in high school.
The NUF, a top graduate degree Fellowship program, is offered through Bernard M. Baruch College, part of the City University of New York. The 14-month intensive program comprises two semesters of academic coursework and a nine-month mentorship with senior-level administration in a partnering government agency or non-profit organization.
The NUF’s 2009 national leadership conference, titled New Wave: Leaders Changing America, will take place Jan. 11 to 19 in Fort Lauderdale. The conference, which is not open to the public, is expected to attract former graduates of the program, mentors of the organization and the current class of Fellows.
Cabassa, who is currently enrolled in the nine-month internship aspect of the program, is being mentored by Broward County Administrator Bertha Henry who, because of her schedule, was unavailable for comment to the South Florida Times.
The program was established in 1969 as a means of getting women and people of color involved actively in a career track in public administration, said Floyd Johnson, executive director of the Rivera Beach Community Redevelopment Agency.
Johnson is co-chair of the committee of Broward County business and community leaders who are volunteering their time to help plan and host the NUF conference in January.
“We have always attracted African Americans, Hispanics, women, Native Americans and Asians. We have a reputation of being inclusive in terms of individuals who have applied for the program,’’ said Johnson, who was the first black Broward County administrator, and the first black Fort Lauderdale city manager.
“Anyone, anywhere in the country can apply.”
The $63,000 scholarship includes full tuition and a $25,000, tax-free stipend, which is paid out over the 14-month period. Fellows also receive health insurance, a relocation allowance, program-related travel expenses and a book allowance.
Johnson graduated from the program in 1975, and served as a mentor during his tenure as Broward County administrator and Fort Lauderdale city manager.
Miguel Garcia Jr., the National Urban Fellows program director, described the mentorship program as a “real-life scenario that serves as a practicum. Fellows are able to observe and act on the best practices that their mentors employ in day-to-day decision making. The highlight is having exposure.”
Garcia also said he feels that the absence of men and women of color in the public sector, in large numbers in leadership positions, “keeps the NUF in business.”
Before applying to the Fellows program, Cabassa worked for Begin Managed Programs in Manhattan, where she served as a job coach for single mothers entering and reentering the workforce.
“I was in the non-profit world,” Cabassa said, “so having an internship on the government side is really stepping outside of my box. I really feel exposed to a world I may have otherwise not known.”
Cabassa continued, “But that’s what they [NUF] want. It’s their plan for you to experience something different and help you develop. I never thought I would be so open to new things.”
At the end of her nine-month internship, Cabassa will return to New York to complete 10 weeks of intense study at Baruch.
“But, with the networking I’ve been doing, the passing along of my resume, I may be offered a job elsewhere,” she said.
Now that she has lived outside of New York for the first time, and has had exposure to several opportunities, she said, “I won’t mind relocating for a permanent position.”
The only girl in a family of six children, Cabassa, who is slated to graduate in July 2009, is the first in the family to earn a master’s degree.
Garcia said, “all of our Fellows must relocate, move from their comfort zone. We’ve done that for 40 years because we realize that if we kept those individuals in their hometowns, they would be distracted by their daily obligations. We also want to give them a fresh perspective.”
Many Fellows, Garcia said, are doing something that they have never done before, something they don’t expect. Interns also interact with the members of the cabinet.
“That’s leadership exposure at the highest level,” he said. “It allows them the opportunity to enmesh into a new paradigm. Many of the Fellows come at this new opportunity with a hunger. Many are achieved, but need the challenge to take on new responsibility. Everyone sees you as an asset, someone with a fresh perspective.”
Garcia served as a Fellow in 1985 under Willie Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first African-American mayor, but turned down an offer to stay on permanently.
“I accepted another position in the non-profit sect, but never would have gone into the world of philanthropy were it not for the Fellows,” he said.
Public administration, Johnson said, is a field that has “come into its own” and ranks among the desirable career choices.
“It’s come a long way in terms of status and compensation. Now there is a lot more stability and credibility,’’ he said. “The need for quality persons in those fields is important.”
The NUF partnered with Baruch after searching for an institution that shared its vision, Johnson added.
“They have an excellent department in public administration, and we’re a match,” he said.
Many of the Fellows have proven the program to be successful by their actions and accomplishments when they go out into the work world, Johnson said.
Garcia added that several of the program’s mentors who are heading major organizations want to and do hire Fellows, if the Fellows want to stay.
“It’s about 80 percent of them [Fellows],” he said.
Most MPA programs don’t have an internship component, Garcia explained, “and when they do, that component is usually an assignment at the bottom of the organization. Our Fellows are assigned to the top of the pyramid. They not only interact, but see an organization from the top down.”
Johnson added that the selection process is based on a rigorous review of both essay and academic requirements.
“It’s a process that we take great pride in because we have a mission to try and attract top-quality persons,” he said.
The NUF is seeking applicants who have a U.S. citizenship, a bachelor’s degree, a minimum of five to seven years administrative or managerial employment, and the ability to meet Baruch’s admission requirements.
GRE scores are not required for the NUF program.
Fort Lauderdale’s mid-career women and men of color are strongly encouraged to apply.
The application deadline for the class of 2010 is Jan. 23, 2009. For more information, contact Miguel Garcia at
212-730-1700; email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the NUF website at www.nuf.org.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Linda Cabassa, left, and Floyd T. Johnson, executive director of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, right.