Stories of Service: The School of Government Celebrates Veterans Day

Presented clockwise from top left: UNC MPA student MaryBeth Spoehr, Assistant to the Dean Alecia Matthews, and Faculty Member Charles Szypszak

On November 11, 2021, the School of Government and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill celebrate Veterans Day by honoring all those who have served in the United States Armed Forces.

The School is proud to recognize its own who are veterans of the United States military. The School would also like to take this opportunity to thank those among us who are currently serving as active duty members in the armed forces.

In honor of Veterans Day, the School is highlighting the stories and impact of military service among its faculty, staff, and students.

A passion for helping others

For Alecia Matthews, the initial draw to join the U.S. Army was based in large part around the educational benefits veterans receive after serving. After enlisting, however, she found an education—wholly separate from the classroom—that led her to discover the career path that fulfilled her most: public service.

“What I got was so much more than that. I gained a newfound understanding of principles like discipline, teamwork, and mission,” Matthews said. “The Army truly helped me discover who I was, and what I wanted out of my life.”

Matthews continues this dedication to service as the assistant to Dean Michael Smith, coordinating projects for the dean’s office and putting to use the principles she learned in military service toward helping improve the lives of North Carolinians.

“It is from my military experience that I discovered my love and passion for helping and serving others,” she said. “And I have since spent my career as a public servant.”

“Mission first, people always”

After earning her undergraduate degree, MaryBeth Spoehr commissioned into the Army. She knew from a young age that service was a passion of hers, and joining the armed forces seemed like the natural next step in that pursuit. Through her five years of service as an intelligence officer, Spoehr’s exposure to communities in need only strengthened this resolve to serve. 

“Through the Army, I had the opportunity to experience many diverse communities and began to witness the role of the local government in service to their communities,” Spoehr said. “I was inspired by the way that the communities embraced all members including the military population. These positive experiences drew me to continue my passion in public service through public administration in local government.” 

The ethos instilled within her during her time in the Army—to hold service to people in the highest of regards—inspired and continues to inform Spoehr’s pursuit of an MPA degree at UNC.

“A common phrase in the Army is, ‘Mission first, people always.’ This mindset has helped me as I apply my military experience and what I have learned in the program to public service,” she said. “It means that while we must do the work we are entrusted to do as public servants, we must ultimately work to serve the people of our community. Focusing on the people part of public service cannot be overlooked in our careers.” 

Duty above self

Charles Szypszak, Albert Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government, joined the U.S. Marine Corps days after completing high school. At age 18, he was drawn to the same ethic that guided Spoehr to join: the idea of service above self.

“Being an officer in the Marines is immersive public service. Training and the rich cultural legacy keep your focus on mission accomplishment above self-interest, and you learn the utmost importance of being able to depend on each other,” Szypszak said. “The sense of honor, courage, and commitment that I felt, and often saw in those with whom I served, deeply moved me then, and has been with me since.”

Following his military service, Szypszak said the choice to pursue public administration was an organic one. Above all, he wanted to continue to serve others. At the School, he does just that—working diligently to provide counsel on issues that affect communities across North Carolina daily. 

“I was drawn to other public service as a natural sequel,” he said. “As an advisor at the School, I can help public officials who face hard-to-understand legal issues or other tough challenges. As a university professor, I can try to teach students to understand law in a way that better equips them to have a positive impact in their communities. A day does not go by in these roles without my reflecting on my military experience.”

His sense of service and duty continues to this day. To help future generations of military members successfully navigate the transition from service to academia, Szypszak volunteers as an instructor for the Warrior-Scholar Project. This non-profit initiative gives enlisted service members the learning strategies and academic skills they need to operate as effectively in college as they do in the military.

 

In gratitude, the School recognizes Matthews, Spoehr, Szypszak, and all veterans in its employee, alumni, and MPA student ranks for their service and its continuation as public servants to North Carolina.