Danielle Conley still has aspirations of becoming a lawyer, but she has already made a positive difference in the lives of many people in her current role.
Conley, who graduated with a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from UTA in May 2017, is an AmeriCorps VISTA team member for GrowSouth, a City of Dallas initiative for “short-term and long-term infrastructure and capital improvements that will support and enhance growth in Southern Dallas.” AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is essentially a domestic Peace Corps founded in 1965.
“I feel like once you are in a grassroots organization, you see the difference you make and the difference in the people,” she said. “They tell you all of their problems, so you have to keep your word when you say, ‘Hey, I’m going to let the mayor know’ or ‘Hey, I’m going to fix this.’ They’re literally depending on you to do it.”
Conley is also a single mother of two sons, Dario (14) and Phillip (10), and a daughter, Riley (7). Plus, she takes care of her cousin Koby (5), for whom she is the child safety parent.
“I had some understanding professors,” she said. “I totally bombed a midterm in one of Dr. [David] Coursey’s courses. He emailed me and basically said, ‘Hey, this is not you. What’s going on?’ I told him what was going on with my little cousin.
“He said, ‘Danielle, I’ll let you retake the test. We’re all good.’ It’s the understanding and the relationships that you build with professors that make the difference. They’re pretty flexible. I thought, ‘Okay, you probably saved me from making a B back to making an A.'”
Just in Case
After she graduated from the master’s program, Conley began to earn certifications in financial management and financial budgeting from UTA. Once she finishes the certifications in August, she hopes to start law school within the next calendar year.
“We [AmeriCorps VISTA members] work at poverty level, so I took this vow that I would do it for one whole year,” she said. “One of the advantages is that we get non-compete status, so we can apply for any federal job and the application is given priority over civilians.
“My plan is to either apply to work at HUD [U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department], GSA [General Services Administration] or the DoD [Department of Defense] so I can pay off some of these student loans. Then, I’ll try law school.”
Conley feels confident she is ready for wherever her path leads her now that she has an MPA.
“It wasn’t in the plan all along,” she said. “I wanted to go to law school, but my GPA wasn’t as strong as it needed to be. My adviser said, ‘Go get your master’s and then try law school. Be sure to get it in something you like because it’s going to be a lot of reading and a lot of writing.'”
The curriculum in the MPA program is perfect for Conley’s work with GrowSouth. In fact, it was the degree program that also helped her land the position.
“It went hand in hand with school,” she said. “They [the MPA program] always send out email blasts within the program, and I saw an opportunity for GrowSouth. I looked at the description and thought, ‘You know, I can do that.’ I applied, passed my two interviews and started the program.”
In August 2016, she started with the organization, which is led by Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.
“I basically work in the Oak Cliff area,” Conley said. “I work with some apartment managers and two neighborhoods associations. My job is to help the neighborhoods build capacity so the people who live in the community can build up the community instead of having different outside agencies come in and do the work. It is better if the community takes ownership to clean up their own neighborhood and make their neighborhood better.”
She has also benefited tremendously from Dr. James Farmer’s courses and the insights of some of his guest lecturers.
“He gives this real-life experience on things he’s been through,” Conley said. “He even took the liberty to bring in different speakers in the summertime who are in the profession we are trying to enter. They were city managers from Dallas and Benbrook.
“We got to ask them whatever questions we wanted to. They came in and spoke on what we were reading about. Dr. Farmer gave them the chapters we had gone over, so they talked about those chapters and then opened it up for discussion. That was one of my favorites. Very practical, very honest.”
Ready for the Future
Conley grew up in Monroe, Louisiana. She moved to Texas in 2007, and then earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice with a minor in government from Texas Woman’s University in Denton in 2014.
“I knew I wanted to go to grad school,” she said. “Initially, I wanted to study American Intergovernmental Relations at the University of North Texas [in Denton], but I had moved to Arlington. There was no way I was going to commute. I just looked into the programs at UTA, researched it, and I talked to Dr. Coursey. He called me, and I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to do it.’ I guess it was God’s plan.”
Conley is the first person in her family to earn a college degree. That, coupled with the fact that she is raising four kids and helping so many people in Dallas improve their community, is a tremendous source of pride. She couldn’t have been happier to walk the stage at graduation, or more excited about what’s to come in her future.
“It was pretty fun,” she said. “It was a little overwhelming. It was a very huge milestone to accomplish this master’s. I would say to anybody entering the master’s program to go in with an open mind and be ready to roll.”
Learn more about the UTA online Master of Public Administration program.
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