Amb Holt persists through challenges to earn MPPA in local government management

by | Apr 29, 2024

Holt wants to work in local government administration, implementing policies that help underserved communities overcome disparities.
Amb Holt stands on the Wayne Goode Trail outside the Recreation and Wellness Center

Amb Holt is set to earn her master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in local government management. Holt initially joined the program in 2018, stepped away for nearly three years amid personal challenges, but returned to finish her degree. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Amb Holt doesn’t have to peer too far into the future now to imagine herself walking across the stage at the Mark Twain Athletic Center at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

On May 11, she’ll take part in the second of two commencement ceremonies for graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences as she earns her master’s degree in public policy administration with an emphasis in local government management.

It’s an accomplishment nearly six years in the making – and one she had to walk away from pursuing for roughly three years before returning to fulfill her goals.

“This degree means more to me because of the sacrifice, dedication and commitment it took for me to reenroll in the program,” said Holt, who previously earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UMSL in 2015. “To have the opportunity to come back, do well and be afforded scholarships and assistantships in the process – I really don’t have the words. The PPA department has been a significant help, and I’m really appreciative.”

Holt first enrolled in the MPPA program in 2018 after two years serving in AmeriCorps, where she provided college and career counseling to high school students while based at Gateway STEM High School.

“College was the key pathway we promoted, but we also partnered with the military and several different programs so that students could have a variety of career options,” Holt said. “We brought representatives from banks in to inform students about financial literacy, credit, banking and loans to help prepare them for the real world. Those essential life skills aren’t typically taught in public high schools.”

Holt’s position gave her an up-close look at how different public policies impacted the lives of students as they worked to navigate the education system as well as manage financial challenges while trying to advance their futures. It made her interested in pursuing her MPPA.

She had originally planned to follow the nonprofit leadership track, but an early internship working in economic and community development with the City of Jennings led her to alter her course.

“I wanted to get a different experience in the public policy program through the local government management emphasis, and impact people on a broader scale, in their communities and neighborhoods,” Holt said. “I’ve learned it’s all connected. Everything is connected.”

Holt never lost sight of that aim, even as she stepped away from the program at the end of 2019.

“There were a lot of personal issues, a lot of things going on the first go-round,” Holt said. “I made the deliberate decision that it was best that I just took a break from my studies and return when I was in a better position.”

She went to work for Job Corps as a career counselor, helping students navigate their way into trades and also receive their high school diplomas.

“I conducted frequent home visits and was able to witness students’ and their families’ lifestyles and living conditions in impoverished areas of St. Louis city,” Holt said. “I realized how important it was for these students to have a chance to succeed and thrive. I would drive students to appointments and court hearings, so my role was more connected, and more involved. I got a deeper and greater insight into the lives of students, their conditions and what they needed that we didn’t provide because we were restricted within our capacity, especially during COVID. It really opened my eyes to the local policies and programs that were needed to truly help these students become successful.”

She watched students who were excelling in their programs still have to drop out because of circumstances beyond their control, and it saddened her to see them miss out on opportunities.

It provided motivation when she ultimately returned to the MPPA program in the fall of 2022.

“The first thing I think of when I think of Amb is resilience,” said Associate Professor Adriano Udani, who serves as the director of the MPPA program. “In her second chapter of the MPPA, Amb has succeeded and has been driven to finish her degree.”

Holt was awarded the Robert J. Baer Endowed Fellowship in Public Policy Administration in 2023 and more recently was inducted into Pi Alpha Alpha, an international honors society recognizing excellence in graduate school for public affairs.

Over the past year, she’s been working as an intern with Patricia Zahn, UMSL’s director of community engagement and outreach, in the Office of Research and Economic and Community Development.

She also has operated a fashion consulting business, The Styled Life Consulting, and was selected to take part in FWRDSociety’s inaugural cohort program, FASHNXT, a six-month program geared toward helping designers, stylists, photographers and others grow their small businesses.

“Amb is a talented student who is also dedicated to making a positive impact in the community,” said Anita Manion, an assistant professor of political science.

With Manion’s encouragement, Holt has gotten involved with the St. Louis chapter of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which aims to increase women’s participation in the political process as well as the number of women in elected and appointed positions. Holt has been serving on the policy council and endorsement committee.

As part of her involvement with the chapter, Holt attended the annual Gutsy Women’s Gala earlier this month and had a chance to meet former U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and other women elected officials.

Holt hasn’t ruled out someday running for office herself, but she’d first like to find a role in local government administration.

“She has a commitment to develop and implement effective initiatives to help underserved communities overcome disparities,” Udani said. “Throughout her time in the program, Amb has demonstrated a dedication and interest in strengthening the role of local public administrators to best position underserved populations to make informed and strong decisions for themselves, families and communities.”

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