Graduation Profile: Program empowers student to build mentorship network for female police officers

Lacking a support network while climbing the ranks, Sonta Wilburn looked to a Master’s in Public Administration to build leadership capacity for herself, others

Sonta Wilburn and her family
As Sonta Wilburn worked her way up to major and patrol commander with the Overland Park Police Department, she found few other women in her situation to talk to about the experience. She has used her experience in her Master’s of Public Administration program to develop more networking opportunities for women in police forces around the Kansas City area.

“We need more female leaders.”

It’s a sentiment often heard, yet Sonta Wilburn had experienced its truth firsthand in the police force. Now a major and patrol commander in Overland Park, she worked her way up the ranks to her current position without many female mentors to consult.

“I would experience different things, people treated me a little different, and I didn’t really have anybody to talk to,” Wilburn said.

Wilburn knew she wanted to move up in her job, while being a better employee and making a difference in the community. One step she took to accomplish that was enrolling in the Master’s of Public Administration program through the University of Kansas School of Public Affairs and Administration in the fall of 2009.

Wilburn was drawn to the program’s strength, ranked number one in the nation, and knew many people in her department and in the metro area had attended KU.

“Also I think a big factor for me was the Edwards campus. I think if I had to travel to Lawrence every night I may have reconsidered. So for me, it was a no-brainer. I felt very blessed to have that opportunity right here in Overland Park,” Wilburn said.

Her courses in ethics, leadership, public service and more fueled her desire to help other women in the police force.

Her chief put her in touch with Ellen Hanson, then the chief of police of Lenexa and currently the chief of police of Kansas City, Kan. Wilburn saw the immense advantage of having a professional female mentor to consult. She continued to meet other women in the same situation, looking for guidance in the police force.

Sonta Wilburn
Sonta Wilburn found tremendous benefit from getting her master’s degree. “I grew as a person. I’m a better person and I know myself better than I did when I started this program. It transformed me not only professionally but personally.”

She began meeting with other female commanders for lunch and discussions. That group began to grow and is still growing now, about two years later.

The group offers women in the police force a networking, mentoring and relationship-building opportunity at the lunch meetings every other month. The meetings began at a local Chili’s restaurant, but soon outgrew its capacity. Now, the women travel to different police stations for the meetings.

“This is just something really local and regional. If you have a question, you want to see a little perspective from a commander, and sometimes it’s better not to ask someone in your own agency so someone can be more objective and you don’t have to worry about the politics in your own agency,” Wilburn said.

Balancing a full-time job as a police commander, starting a women’s leadership organization, working on an MPA and having a family, including two active sons, sounds like an overwhelming load. For Wilburn, it made sense. She’s been busy, but she’s found purpose in all of it.

“I’ve always had a passion for women in leadership. So I think what the [MPA] program did for me, it built my confidence to reach out and do something like this. I’m not the same person that walked in those doors five years ago. I have grown so much just in my leadership skills, just in my ethics, just in everything to be a better public servant,” Wilburn said.

Wilburn will receive her MPA this spring. She plans to use her education to continue her work in the police force, helping her community and fostering women’s leadership. She said she wants to improve and better understand her current job, and then make a positive impact on her organization and move up. With the help of her education in public affairs at KU, she knows she has the strength and skills to continue making great strides in the job she loves.

“It just makes you a better employee,” Wilburn said about the MPA program. “It gives you the confidence and the skills you need to do your job better. I don’t know if everybody’s this way, but personally, I grew as a person. I’m a better person and I know myself better than I did when I started this program. It transformed me not only professionally but personally.”