Bridging Theory and Practice

Dialogue emphasized in Master of Professional Studies Program in New York City
Bridging Theory and Practice
Friday, January 29, 2010

Melinda White devoted dozens of weekends shuttling from Los Angeles to New York on Fridays and flying back Saturday nights after a day in ILR's Master of Professional Studies Program (MPS).

"One of the reasons I chose Cornell ILR is because it's known on the West Coast. This is the premier school.  It will open doors," said White, manager of academic relations for engineering and research at Yahoo!

White, who has also worked as technical talent acquisition lead at Yahoo!, returned to college part time for a master's degree through the ILR program that began 10 years ago this month in New York City.

Two years of Saturday classes more than 2,000 miles from her home in Long Beach, Calif., didn't faze her.

"This is my investment.  It applies to the real world … It all comes together -- everything you've studied," said White, graduating in May.

Courses on collective bargaining, human resource management, labor economics, organizational behavior, law and policy, and research methods helped White "think more analytically" about the workplace.

Learning alongside working professionals from diverse fields who also wanted to complement their practical workplace experience with academic interests was a motivator, too, she said.

"We learn from each other -- people from their 20s through their 60s," said White, one of more than 100 in the program during the past decade.

Currently enrolled are 22 students from the private, public and non-profit sectors and in fields including aviation, education and human relations.

Faculty members encourage dialogue, White said. "They want our perspective, which I value, and it's reciprocal."

MPS Program Director Sara Edwards said, "The most exciting thing about the MPS program is that it draws professionals with such a diversity of expertise -- and the accompanying diverse perspectives -- but who share a real engagement with the realities of the workplace."

"The opportunity for this kind of exchange really illuminates the complexities of the world of work for our graduate students and allows them, as practitioners, to bring a bigger picture understanding to their current and future roles," she said.

Alecia Prince, graduating in May, said she leverages her MPS network for information on best practices.

"You really do form strong connections with professors and students," said Prince, manager of organizational development for American Express.

Prince's MPS research project is on e-learning and social media tools in the workplace. It contributes to a company-wide initiative by American Express to expand the relevance and attractiveness of web-based learning for employees, she said.

When Samuel Bacharach founded the MPS Program, he envisioned its practical application in the workplace.

"This program is consistent with the ILR tradition of bringing quality academic work to the practitioner," he said. "It is embedded in the tradition of the founders of the ILR School, bridging the world of theory and practice."

"In the days of quick growth, changing ideas and dynamic workplaces, this program has really found a niche with the workplace practitioner, who does not have the time to pursue a degree full time," he said.

In addition to being academic director of the MPS Program, Bacharach is ILR's McKelvey-Grant Professor in the Department of Organizational Behavior, director of the school's Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Studies and the Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City.

Bacharach wrote about the entrepreneurial spirit of the program -- which he continues to administer -- in E"ra magazine.

"For me, these nontraditional students," he wrote, "serve as a reminder that Cornell's positive influence reaches far beyond campus boundaries."

Edwin Lopez, manager of the New York City chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association, said his Cornell experience has changed the way he works.

"Being in an academic atmosphere ... the stimulation of thinking and talking and debating people…it's an opportunity for working professionals to structure the way they think, plan, lead, make decisions and, ultimately, perform at work," he said.

The MPS Program, he said, is "a tremendous fit … it gave me the formal training and the ability to look at what it is I do and almost rethink what I do."

Decisions previously guided by instinct now have an academic context, he said.

"I'm more exact, better at affecting change, encouraging other people and getting people on the management side engaged," Lopez said. "I go in with more conviction."

The program "bonus," he said, "is interaction with students from all walks of life and all worlds of work."