Oakland University interns work to help Pontiac rebuild and rebound

Oakland University interns work to help Pontiac rebuild and rebound
MPA students with Mayor Waterman
Graduate students in the Master of Public Administration program are interning in Pontiac's City Hall. Pictured: Anthony Bowen, Mayor Dierdre Waterman, Sharole Speagle, and Erica Black-Zettle.

As part of a new and ongoing partnership, students in Oakland University’s communication, journalism, political science and public administration programs go to work in the City of Pontiac.

As the city emerges from the state control of an emergency manager, it does so with about 25 employees for its approximately 60,000 residents.

Above: Graduate and undergraduate students in the Master of Public Administration program and political science are interning in Pontiac's City Hall. Pictured: Anthony Bowen, Mayor Dierdre Waterman, Sharole Speagle, and Erica Black-Zettle.

Below: Senior journalism major Anthony Spak and Shaqela Chapman, a senior communication major and public relations minor, meet with Mayor Waterman.

Anthony Spak and Shaqela Chapman with Mayor Waterman


With such a small staff and much to do, Oakland students are filling the gap through service learning.

“It’s an overwhelmingly understaffed city government,” explains Dave Dulio, chair of the Political Science Department. “So the prospects for a great experience for our students are terrific. Our students can have some very real, very substantive experiences with what is going on in city government.” 



An invaluable experience

It’s an obvious fit, Dulio says, taking the talents and the willingness of students on campus to organizations — and in this case the government in Pontiac — that could use some help.

Nine of the students interning in Mayor Deirdre Waterman’s office are studying public administration; three are graduate students in the Master of Public Administration program and six are undergrads.

“They’ve been doing a whole host of things including background work on improving the city’s website, they’ve been involved with the city clerk’s office, had a chance to shadow the mayor in instances where she takes them around to all her meetings and events and let’s them see the real inside, nitty gritty of what’s going on,” Dulio says.

Mikaela Strech, a senior in political science, says working in City Hall has helped her build professional skills and network. 

“To work closely with government officials in Pontiac while they try to tackle major issues — like funding, blight, and development — has been an amazing opportunity,” Strech says. “To know that we are seeing the city strive to improve at such a critical time, or perhaps even play the smallest of roles in it, is very humbling.”

Writing Pontiac’s comeback story

On the public relations side, students are essentially acting as communication directors, says Garry Gilbert, director of the journalism program. Three communication and journalism students are working in lieu of a team of communications specialists.

“Our team will be using our writing and reporting skills to share the good news of Pontiac with its citizens,” says Anthony Spak, one of the students reporting for the Spirit of Pontiac newsletter.

Spak says he can feel new energy in the city now. The Holly native and OU campus resident has been involved in Pontiac much of his life because his father owns a building there.

“I’m excited to be a part of that rebirth and to see the city continue to grow in a new, cool direction.”

Their internship technically starts this September, but two journalism students and one communication major agreed to start early and produce the first 4-page color newsletter in time for the state of the city address in June. The next newsletter will be published in early fall.

Gilbert says that in addition to the printed and mailed newsletter, OU interns will also work on the city’s social media and web presence.

As a former editor for The Oakland Press, Gilbert says he’s excited to see Oakland University engage with a city he’s spent 29 of his years.

“To be able to practice the skills and theories they learn in the classroom in this type of professional environment is an experience that they will certainly profit from,” he said.