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Oregon State online public policy grad working for ‘an entire generation of children’

Prior to enrolling in Oregon State’s online Executive Master of Public Policy program, Matt Pennon earned his sociology bachelor’s degree online with OSU Ecampus.

Matt Pennon felt called to support kids in the foster system. OSU Ecampus offered him the practical knowledge online to build a satisfying new public policy career.

By Erin J. Bernard

Matt Pennon knew firsthand the joys of fostering children — he and his husband built their family by fostering five kids in six years in Santa Barbara County, California, three of whom they adopted.

He was also no stranger to the challenges. Resource parents (aka foster parents) must navigate a notoriously complex system as they advocate for kids in their care, and it’s a hard job to do alone.

Thanks to employees in Santa Barbara County’s Department of Social Services who saw his potential — and the opportunity to gain relevant skills online with Oregon State University — Pennon has successfully parlayed those experiences into a career offering families like his essential training and assistance.

“It’s an entire generation of children we are working for and that we have the responsibility to do right for,” says Pennon. “I know our children are safe and have a great environment and two loving parents who will do whatever we have to for them, but there are so many kids right in our backyard and in the county and state and nation that deserve that opportunity, and their families deserve it as well.”

Earning an Executive Master of Public Policy (EMPP) degree online with Oregon State Ecampus has empowered Pennon to effect change from within the system, and he’s thriving today as a child welfare professional.

A pivot to public policy work felt right for Pennon, who had worked in the pet industry since adolescence and felt burned out. When the county offered him a job recruiting resource families, he jumped.

“The information I was learning helped me constantly improve my skills, which made me a vital part of the work we do within Santa Barbara County.”

Pennon loved the work but craved a broader understanding of the frameworks, theories and policies he was encountering. He needed to gain foundational knowledge, but starting from scratch didn’t appeal: He already had college credits, his career was humming and raising kids was a job by itself.

Pennon scoured the internet for the right program, and Oregon State Ecampus stood out; his previous credits would transfer and the coursework could be completed between home and professional responsibilities.

In 2017, Pennon began working toward a bachelor’s degree in sociology online. Ecampus really replicated the on-campus experience, Pennon says, and forming connections with professors and students came naturally. In fact, it was a sociology professor who encouraged him to pursue an EMPP degree, which could be earned entirely online, without career interruption.

“The information I was learning helped me constantly improve my skills, which made me a vital part of the work we do within Santa Barbara County,” says Pennon. “Getting a master’s would put me in a different bracket when applying for jobs.”

Pennon earned his bachelor’s degree in 2019 and went straight on to executive master’s studies, concentrating on social and rural policy. Working nearly full time for multiple agencies, raising kids and pulling late nights studying wasn’t easy, but Pennon persevered, completing his capstone research project defense in spring 2022.

Pennon’s capstone explored how emergency orders issued by California’s governor during the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the work of his Santa Barbara agency and its social workers, and in turn resource families themselves.

“Lived and professional experience allowed me to be a voice within the system to advocate for change. … It’s rewarding, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

The county had established a firm foundation of trust with families pre-pandemic, Pennon discovered, and a moment of crisis actually strengthened those relationships as the community came together to support resource families.

One area for potential improvement: helping families — particularly non-English-speaking ones — to access the technology essential to connecting during the pandemic and beyond.

Oregon State EMPP students’ capstone results are shared with employers, and Pennon’s research has directly impacted the recruitment, retention and training work he does for Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties today. His findings are also being circulated across other California counties and further still by Casey Family Programs and Children’s Trust Fund Alliance — among several organizations he currently does contract public policy work for.

Our country’s child welfare system has a painful history, Pennon acknowledges, but states and counties are waking up to the importance of giving kids in the system a voice, resource parents the tools to be advocates, and birth parents the opportunities to assume meaningful support roles too.

Pennon is proud to play such an active part in that awakening.

“Lived and professional experience allowed me to be a voice within the system to advocate for change …,” he says. “It helps to improve a system that is not perfect whatsoever. It’s rewarding, and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”


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