Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, December 15, 2014

Cao gains skills, experience in nonprofit management

Shiyao Cao

Shiyao graduated with a Master of Public Affairs degree in May 2015 and is now working as a consultant with the Education International Corporation.

The opportunity to study nonprofit leadership brought Shiyao Cao to the La Follette School of Public Affairs.

"When I was researching graduate schools, not many provided classes in nonprofit management," the second-year student says. "The La Follette School's Master of Public Affairs degree program lets me customize my classes to fit my interests."

In addition, public policy is a good combination with nonprofit management, says Cao, who graduated in 2013 from the University of Colorado-Denver with a degree in economics and a certificate in mathematics. "Public policy may be something I want to do later in my career, given my undergraduate work in stats and economics. The La Follette School is very flexible, so we can take a lot of electives in social work and other areas."

Cao transferred to the University of Colorado-Denver after studying at China Agricultural University for two years. After she completes her master's degree, she hopes to work for a nonprofit organization in the United States before returning home to China, where the nonprofit sector is not very large. "I hope to accumulate experience for a few years," Cao says. "Nonprofit organizations are very new in China."

She became interested in nonprofit work through volunteering with different organizations in Denver, including Joy Junction and Project C.U.R.E. "These volunteer experiences introduced me to a career in the nonprofit sector," says Cao, adding that she is most interested in education, families and labor.

She returned to Denver during the summer of 2014 and interned with Champa House of the Denver Rescue Mission. "Denver Rescue Mission is a Christian faith-based nonprofit that helps needy people be self-sufficient and productive," Cao says. "Champa House is transitional housing for single mothers. To graduate, these participants need to go through five phases by taking life skills classes, finding jobs or going to college, doing shores and obeying policies."

Cao worked in the onsite childcare center and watched the agency's staff and management in action. "I observed what I had learned in the La Follette School's nonprofit leadership course," Cao says. "I saw how the staff plans, the management of programs, how they set up for meetings. I watched the senior leadership meet and how the CEO ran the meeting and created an atmosphere so that people would speak up, and how he encouraged the staff to be more effective."

Her experience is resonating even more this year because she is taking a two-semester course in nonprofit board leadership in the university's School of Business. "I am learning a lot that is practical," Cao says, "including how to organize a meeting, to express ideas and how to do a strategic plan."

Through that class, Cao has joined the board of the Journey Mental Health Center and serves on its governance committee. "The board will start a new strategic plan next year," Cao says, "so I will help with that. I will help them identify the center's stakeholders, which will drive their policy and establish the foundation for the strategic planning."

Cao is working with other real-world clients in her two La Follette School courses. For the program evaluation course, she and her group are helping the campus Office of Child Care and Family Resources prepare to evaluate its child-care tuition assistance program. For her cost-benefit analysis course Cao and her team are looking at ways to reduce childhood obesity for the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

The courses are exposing Cao to a good mix of qualitative and quantitative skills. "I like the combination, especially compared to other schools I looked at," says Cao, who also considered the La Follette School's high rankings, what her friends who are graduate students in other departments said about the university, as well as the University of Wisconsin–Madison's reputation in China.

The faculty also live up to the school's excellent reputation, she adds. "They have very good backgrounds in what they are teaching, and the staff are also valuable resources. The professional development course we take in our first year was helpful with career planning, especially for someone like me who has never worked before."

"The La Follette School offers a good program for people with varied backgrounds," Cao adds. "No matter what is your background, you can find courses that fit you. Public affairs students are interested in energy, social work, policy analysis. The variety of what can be studied makes it easier for students to figure out what they like."