Service dog helps military vet earn his master’s degree

Corey Dawson receives diploma on stage with Oscar the dog at side.

At the Humphrey School commencement ceremony this spring, Corey Dawson walked across the stage with his service dog Oscar at his side.

As a graduate of the mid-career Master of Public Affairs (MPA) program, Dawson says the accolades he received for earning his degree were—in no small part—a credit to Oscar.

“He was there with all the classes and all the Zoom meetings,” Dawson says. “He sat with me, making sure I was OK. We earned it together.”

Dawson, a military veteran, enrolled in the MPA program while working in the U of M’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA) in the Department of Political Science. He says the flexibility of the program, with a cohort learning community structure, allowed him to maintain his job as an administrative associate in CLA while working toward his master’s degree.

Having centered his undergraduate research around the disparities faced by veterans transitioning from active service, Dawson says he knew he wanted to use the MPA program to increase his efficacy in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts to become a more effective advocate for underrepresented groups.

“I am working within the college; using a diversity, equity, and inclusion lens to promote positive changes,” Dawson says. “I want to be part of how our college and the University respond to the need for equity and inclusion that goes beyond hiring practices, and dives deeper into creating environments where culture fosters a sense of inclusion and belonging.”

The MPA program’s core curriculum focuses on leadership development, critical thinking, policy/program analytical skills, interdisciplinary research methods, and the ability to work and lead as part of a team.

Students work in groups on a final capstone project, where they apply the lessons learned in their coursework to a community-based research project. Dawson's group project was “Restorative Justice in Minnesota,” which came at a heightened time of social injustice amid the pandemic. 

The MPA program helped Dawson find where his future passions lie. But he said his military experiences and the hardships of the last few years were not always easy to navigate.

“Stepping into a master’s program at a top public affairs school in the country is a bit scary, especially after transitioning from the military. There are different stakes at play and I felt the ‘imposter syndrome’ sink in,” Dawson says. “But you get to know everyone and realize they are going through similar feelings.”

Dawson said with the help of his MPA cohort and Oscar—who was paired with Dawson through Believet Canine Service Partners, a program in Northfield, MN, that specializes in training dogs for disabled veterans—he found support and resources needed to complete his master’s degree.

“[Our MPA cohort] built really strong connections with one another and we helped each other throughout the program,” Dawson says. “I know this program was definitely the right choice.”