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Student Experiences

Bridging Local Efforts and Global Impact: The 2023 Buckwalter Award Recipients

Erica Jensen and Brianna Merling, two MPA students from the BYU Marriott School of Business, each received the 2023 Doyle W. Buckwalter Award, which includes a $1,500 cash prize, for exemplary performance in respective off-campus internships.

A professional quality photo of two young adult Caucasian women their heads pressed together smiling into the camera. Both have long hair and are posed in front of a glass wall.
The 2023 Buckwalter Award winners: Erica Jensen (right) and Brianna Merling (left).
Photo courtesy of Brianna Merling

Jensen started her internship with the City of Spanish Fork, Utah, in an unexpected way: hunched over, shoveling sand into sandbags under the sweltering early summer heat. A local river was threatening to flood its banks, and Jensen—alongside other city employees and volunteers—spent the day working to mitigate damage to nearby businesses, parks, and residences.

After the river overflowed, Jensen applied skills she learned in the MPA program and worked from behind a desk as well as on the streets to help the city recover. “Using basic principles from statistics and qualitative data analysis, I recorded more than 5,000 hours from 2,700 volunteers to secure an emergency reimbursement from the US government for repairs,” she says. “I earned the city $167,000 in reimbursement in just over two weeks through careful data collection and analysis.”

A skinny red-haired young woman squinting into the sun and holding shoes, a water bottle, and a hat. Behind her is a brick building with a sign over the entrance that says "Thurber School".
Erica Jensen spent her summer interning with the city of Spanish Fork.
Photo courtesy of Erica Jensen.

While her internship may have started with manual labor, it has since allowed Jensen the opportunity to try out other areas of local government. “I have spent every day learning the language of government,” Jensen says. “My responsibilities have included designing and administering surveys, conducting quantitative analysis, facilitating workshops, and planning events.”

She even had the opportunity to help organize the annual Fiesta Days Rodeo—a five-night-long event hosted by the City of Spanish Fork. For two months she worked to connect with vendors, create schedules, and anticipate the needs of guests.

The internship has been challenging at times, but Jensen’s coworkers have set a powerful example for her. “My spiritual and emotional experiences with city employees have taught me about true leadership. Often their work—like hauling sandbags in the heat—isn’t glamorous. But Christlike leaders face adversity with resilience and optimism,” she says.

“Overall, my internship experience has been an incredible opportunity to learn new skills,” Jensen says. She is set to continue her internship through April 2024 and hopes to jump back into local government after she graduates.

Merling, who graduates alongside Jensen this April, worked as an intern at BDO, an international network of public accounting, tax, consulting, and business advocacy firms. Using video conferencing, Merling coordinated with BDO’s nonprofit and grantmaker advisory team.

The close-up of a young woman with long dirty-blond hair smiling into the camera. She is wearing a cream-knit sweater and is posing in front of a glass wall.
Brianna Merling interned at BDO and will work there after graduating in April.
Photo courtesy of Brianna Merling.

One unique challenge Merling faced during her internship was building relationships with colleagues over Zoom. “Each team at BDO had a different combination of skills and personalities,” Merling says. "The teamwork I learned in my first year of the MPA program was critical to my success navigating complexities and communication effectively.”

She worked on more than a dozen projects—both independently and in teams—beginning with financial health assessments and moving on to database software, client proposals, and fiscal infrastructure reviews. As she explored the different facets of her job, she discovered a passion for the nonprofit sector. “I have loved working with organizations that have powerful missions and passions,” Merling says. “It draws in amazing people.”

BDO is the fifth-largest accounting network in the world, with offices in more than 160 countries. Because of the company's size, Merling initially had a hard time believing her work could make a real impact. Despite her feelings of self-doubt, she didn’t stop showing up every day and putting in the effort.

Her work culminated in what she considers the greatest success of her BDO internship: adapting a company model to help a nonprofit client predict their financial health given different recession possibilities. As she watched the nonprofit apply and benefit from her work, the value she added as an intern became clear. “I was able to see how the projects I completed led to further opportunities for the company,” Merling says. “The trust we built with clients led them to contact us for other areas of work.”

Merling’s internship has been extended through the school year, and she plans to take a full-time position at BDO this June. “I'm looking forward to continuing my work with BDO,” Merling says. “I feel like my internship just scratched the surface. I can't wait to dive deeper.”

The Doyle W. Buckwalter Award is presented in honor of Doyle W. Buckwalter, the former associate director and internship coordinator of the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics, who passed away in December 2023, at the age of 85.


Written by Shayauna Putnam