Author Archive for Columbia SIPA

What I Wish I Knew About Taking a Language

Thanks to Amanda Schmitt MIA ’19 for this guest blog post! Amanda’s concentration is Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy with a regional specialization in the Middle East.

When I started at SIPA, I knew that my goal was to reach a proficient level of Modern Standard Arabic by the time I graduated so thereafter I could spend time working in the Middle East or in an intensive Arabic program to convert that knowledge into working level proficiency. But I also knew that taking four semesters of Arabic, at 5 units/class, with daily homework and four sessions each week, would mean giving up other SIPA opportunities. Besides the language courses that SIPA offers, most other language courses are offered through Columbia University with both undergraduates and graduate students from other Columbia programs. When deciding between the MIA or MPA degree and before deciding on your course schedule, I strongly suggest considering the tangible cost-benefit of taking language courses during SIPA for your career upon graduation. 

Due to the format of MIA vs MPA and our very international program, most students come in already speaking multiple languages and can pass out of the MIA language requirement, or they choose an MPA (though a concentration in EPD still has a foreign language component). But for Seeples who feel they need the international emphasis of the MIA degree and have certain language requirements yet to fulfill, I have some advice.

Questions to ask yourself about learning another language in graduate school:

  • Is it necessary for your job aspirations and anticipated job applications to leave SIPA at the intermediate etc. level of language proficiency? I knew that my short-term career goals required these language skills, but for peers that anticipate language needs in the long-term, there may be more inexpensive ways to learn the language after SIPA. This consideration should also take into account the skills you perceive as most necessary for job applications after SIPA and which courses would most effectively fulfill those needs, language or otherwise. 
  • If you are starting from Year I, Level I and plan to take 4 semesters of language courses, are you willing to give up 4-7 SIPA/policy courses for your language coursework? Language courses range from 3-5 units. Since Arabic is 5 units each semester, I put 20 units toward Arabic, giving up potentially 6+ SIPA courses. 
  • Are you prepared to take on a heavy course load each semester to complete the language courses required and your SIPA requirements? For me, this meant taking about 18 units three of four semesters. (If you want to take over 18 units in a semester, the additional cost for me was $1100/credit.)
  • What other priorities do you have for your time at SIPA? I did not get as involved in student organizations, campus jobs, or internships because I had 16-18 units most semesters with daily language homework. However, this varies by individual and what you feel comfortable taking on. 
  • Is it necessary for you to take Columbia language courses? Or could there be another way you could study the language (external language courses, summer courses, Language Resource Center tutoring, group language practice sessions, etc.)? This consideration varies by language and individual learning style. Since Columbia emphasizes Modern Standard Arabic as a baseline for beginning to study Arabic, I will still need to learn colloquial Arabic afterward, which (inshallah) should be easier because of this background. For people learning a language that does not significantly distinguish in form between formal and colloquial, the courses may allow you to reach a working level proficiency if starting from scratch, or be unnecessarily formal if starting from some base of understanding. I highly recommend assessing which format of study would be your most efficient, cost-effective, and timely to your goals. 

The main takeaway: before taking a language at graduate school, consider how critical it is to your short-term career goals and whether you are willing to take the tradeoff of the other potential policy coursework that it would necessarily replace. The Admissions Committee looks for clarity of vision among applicants, regardless of language determinations, so I recommend focusing on how to most effectively enjoy your learning opportunity while converting your time at SIPA into tangible growth for your career.

I think language skills are extremely important, both for professional application and personal cross-cultural understanding and growth, so this piece is not at all intended to discourage Seeples from learning additional languages! I just hope to help incoming students more pragmatically assess the most effective use of your two years at SIPA. As you decide MPA vs MIA and whether to take language courses, please consider these components so you can maximize your time at SIPA.

Peter Zheng MPA ’20 reflects on his first year at SIPA

Hi! I’m Peter Zheng, MPA Class of 2020 and concentrating in Economic and Political Development and triple specializing in East Asia, Management, and Technology, Media, and Communication Studies! I was part of the 5-10% accepted from undergrad so I did not have work experience prior to SIPA. I graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Pittsburgh Honors College with quadruple majors in Economics, Political Science & Government, Business Administration, and a Bachelor of Philosophy (master’s-level degree) in Psychology within 4 years.

What was your first year of policy school like?

Whenever people ask me about policy school, I always say, “It’s a choose your own adventure.” It’s not hard if you don’t want it to be hard, but it can be hard if you make it hard. You prioritize what is important to you.

To me, I value experimental and classroom learning. In my first year of graduate school I took 12 courses at SIPA, 2 courses at Columbia Business School (CBS), and 4 courses at a rigorous online business certificate program outside of Columbia University. Boy, OMG did I learn. It’s probably something I will never ever do again, but I learned a lot and met so many cool humans because of it. So, for that, I am super grateful.

During my first year, I created a startup (but decided to pause after talking to media executives because the media ecosystem is highly distorted, and barriers of entry are super high). I started an independent research project at Columbia Business School with a CBS PhD student, and did research in the management division at CBS, which was a continuation from my summer internship before SIPA. I applied and received five fellowships from CBS/SIPA, joined the board of SIPA’s Technology Student Association, learned how to live alone in Manhattan (Hell’s Kitchen is lit), and met some really cool people who have become dear friends!

What are your plans this summer?

I’ll be spending my summer working at UNICEF as a business operations analyst (networked from a SIPA professor). I was also accepted into a joint healthcare entrepreneurship program at Harvard Medical School and MIT in June. I’ll be TA-ing the Executive Ethics EMBA course at CBS (networked through a CBS professor). I’ll also be creating a new social impact startup, synthesizing both SIPA and CBS resources.

Do you have any regrets?

I used to question whether coming straight into an MPA program without full-time work experience was the right choice, and whether I should have pursued a different degree because my interests span across disciplines. I was considering a deferred MBA or a PhD in Management. I didn’t know if the MPA was worth the investment or whether this degree was right for me.

A year later, I learned it’s not the letters on the degree that matter (our graduates enter each sector at a proportional rate: private sector, public sector, and government) but the connections you make, which land you the opportunities.

As a SIPA student with access to all of Columbia University’s resources, I was able to spend my time pursuing interests at both SIPA and Columbia Business School. This created rare, intersectional opportunities that make this question easy to answer. It was most definitely worth it, and I don’t question it anymore!

Why did you choose SIPA?

Location, faculty, school brand, and job placements (median salary & industry) — These were the most important things to me! I was deciding between 9 schools (Cornell, Georgetown, Duke, Oxford, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, McGill, University of Chicago, and Columbia), but chose Columbia for the aforementioned reasons.

I approached my decision objectively by creating a grad school utility function and allocated criterion with separate weights and running it through Excel. I included additional personal reasons as well: I wanted to be in a progressive city; I’m a foodie so food options were a must; living and tuition costs; and a place where my parents and friends could easily visit me!

The location of SIPA is unbeatable and something you should consider heavily if you are a go-getter and want to network with people. It is so easy in Manhattan! The faculty is top-notch at SIPA and Columbia University as a whole. You have amazing guest speakers e.g., former Secretary of Education John King Jr., Hillary Clinton, Wendy Kopps, and talented adjunct faculty who are working in these fields that bring their work experience into the classroom settings. These are just to name a few!

What is your advice for student starting their first year?

  1. Stay true to your core values. If you don’t like drinking, ditch the happy hours and attend other events that don’t circulate around booze! I don’t drink so I invite people to coffee/tea/food outings and create meaningful connections there.
  2. Don’t lose confidence in yourself and ditch the imposter syndrome! You were admitted for a reason.
  3. Consider taking cross-registered courses for Pass/Fail if you don’t need the credits for a concentration or specialization. Grades can vary across classes, so if you cross register in other schools at Columbia, know that an “A” there may translate to an “A-/B+” at SIPA.
  4. Engage in intentional networking and relationship building.
  5. Taking all of your core curriculum courses during your first year can get exhausting. Frontloading your core can mean doing multiple problem sets and studying for exams every week. I took half the core my first year with interesting electives and will take the other half my second year with some fun electives. This makes the semesters more fun for me. This also gives ample opportunity to spread yourself across Columbia, engage with the greater NYC community, and do fun things.
  6. You’re here for a terminal degree: Spend less time in the library, take advantage of Columbia University’s resources and not just SIPA (you are only here for two years, so maximize the university’s resources while you can as a student), and create your own unique SIPA experience.

If you have more questions about SIPA or want to chat, please reach out! I’m on Instagram at @peteey27 and SIPA Admissions can connect us by email. I’ll show you my favorite food and coffee spots! 🙂

Pictured at the top: Peter hosting a housewarming party with SIPA classmates.

SIPA Students Compete in the Total Impact Portfolio Challenge

On May 1st, a team of five SIPA graduate students represented Columbia University in Philadelphia for the inaugural Total Impact Portfolio Challenge, organized by the Wharton Social Impact Initiative and the Good Capital Project. After months of preparation, the Columbia team was one of five out of 25 teams who earned advancement through two initial rounds to the final presentation round of the competition, which began in August 2018. The final presentation was made during the 2nd annual Total Impact Conference.

The Columbia team members are Alecia Hill MPA ’19, Ji Qi MPA-DP ’19, Marc Tannous MPA ’19, Kingsly Wang MIA ’19, and Mingyi Xu MIA ’19 (pictured above). They were very proud to represent Columbia and to have been selected for the final round. They would like to thank the many advisors who helped them throughout the process, including Anna Ginzberg (U.S. Trust), Cary Hanosek (Merrill Lynch), Ethan Powell (Impact Shares), Andrew Hornung (Brookmont Global Eguity), Professor Inna Okounkova, Professor Deborah McLean, and Professor Colm O’Cinneide.

The Total Impact Portfolio Challenge is designed to train students to construct and execute a 100% impact portfolio, incorporating publicly traded securities and private investments to achieve a market rate of return and specific impact targets according to the mandate of a hypothetical client.

The Good Capital Project (GCP) is a collaboration to drive more capital towards purpose-driven investments. Founded in 2017, GCP is an Intentional Media Company. Sharadiya Dasgupta is the Managing Director of GCP and is a SIPA alumna (MPA ’17, Economic Policy).

Interested in Learning about Impact Investing?

We asked the team what advice they would give for incoming and prospective students if they want to learn about impact investing:

Join the Columbia Impact Investing Initiative (CI3) and apply to be a CI3 consultant or a MIINT team member.

If you are interested in the Total Impact Portfolio Challenge (TIPC), consider applying your second year. The process begins in August and is greatly benefited by experience – including in CI3 – connections, and relevant coursework. It would be helpful for your TIPC team to have at least one person with substantial investment / portfolio optimization experience (and ideally a CFA charter holder).

For students interested in impact investing, explore courses in the following areas:

  • Courses focused on the implementation of impact, such as: Community economic development; social value investing; PPP.
  • Courses focused on the measuring and evaluation of impact, like: Impact investing courses; impact frameworks and tools like the GIIN’S IRIS, GIIRS, Toniic; and ESG standards like MSCI, Arabeque, Sustainalytics, and Bloomberg.
  • Courses focused on traditional finance and quantitative skills, including Statistics, International Capital Markets, Multi-Asset Portfolio Management, and non-SIPA courses. (SIPA students can cross-register at other Columbia University graduate schools, including Columbia Business School.)

The Unexpected Product of Mentorship at SIPA: A Shout-Out on Late Night TV

My name is Katherine Kirk, and I am a second-year MIA student concentrating in International Security Policy with a specialization in Russia and the Former Soviet States. In addition to the traditional SIPA specialization, I am completing the Harriman Institute’s Certificate Program in conjunction with my SIPA degree to deepen my regional expertise. A native of the D.C. metro area, I came to SIPA directly from Yale University, where I received my BA in Global Affairs.

Last Monday, on my final day of class, I received a surprise call from my sister, who informed me that Stephen Colbert had just quoted my work on The Late Show. Needless to say, this was not what I was expecting from my last day at SIPA. To back up slightly — this spring I enrolled in Alexis Wichowski’s course, “Technology, National Security & the Citizen.” The course focused as much on developing real-world skills as it did on teaching specific course material, and so rather than more traditional academic papers, Professor Wichowski’s assignments include a briefing document and an original op-ed. It was the latter assignment, which I began in March, that brought my words to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on May 3.

While conducting research for my capstone project ­– an analysis of Russian active measures on Twitter targeting Americans with content about the Syrian conflict – our team came across a study on Russian trolls’ participation in the online vaccine debate, which I used as a foundation for Professor Wichowski’s assignment. She told us at the beginning of the semester that the op-ed assignment usually resulted in at least one student’s work being published, but at the time it seemed a hypothetical prospect. Luckily for me, Professor Wichowski had other ideas, and encouraged me to submit the piece for publication. I took her advice, and shopped the op-ed to a handful of outlets before it landed at Foreign Policy. With the help of their fantastic editing team, I refined and expanded the piece, which appeared on the Foreign Policy website at the beginning of April.

I was thrilled with the article’s initial reception and grateful that it drew much-needed attention to Russia’s less overtly political information warfare operations. Little did I know that, when The Late Show with Stephen Colbert began work on a segment about Russian trolls and the online vaccine debate, my article would be one of their primary sources, which Colbert quoted when the segment went live on May 3.

Whatever I expected from my time at SIPA, it certainly did not include a shout-out on late night television. Writing and publishing my first opinion piece was one of the most impactful experiences of my SIPA career. Mentorship from SIPA’s faculty gave me the expertise to develop thoughtful opinions, the skills to put them into writing, and the voice to promote those opinions in the wider world.

MTV picks up SIPA-student-designed campaign to raise public awareness to maternal mortality

We’re excited to share this story about the impact of SIPA students’ work (L-R: Justine LaVoye MPA-DP ’19, Jenise Ogle MPA ’19, and Maria José Diaz MPA ’19). For reference, check out Stephen Friedman’s course “Art of Creating Social Impact Campaign.”


“It gave me goosebumps.”

That was adjunct professor Stephen Friedman’s visceral reaction to a pitch by three MPA students in his course on the Art of Creating Social Impact Campaigns.

The students’ idea—to raise awareness of the disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality in the U.S.—was a “punch in the gut” Friedman was not expecting.

Over a 25-year career in media and consulting that included a stint as president of MTV, Friedman has repeatedly launched innovative, socially impactful campaigns, that helped bring awareness to many critical issues, including the genocide in Darfur.

The course, which he taught for the first time at SIPA in the fall of 2018, seeks to apply the principles of storytelling to, as the public policy academic Marshall Ganz has said, translate “values into action.”

“The most complicated part of the class is ‘How do you translate a complicated social issue into something that gets past your analytic framework and hits you in the gut?’” Friedman said. “Because you have a lot of students at SIPA who are trying to do great things in the world, and they come at it with an analytical rigor, an important rigor, but the most successful campaigns must also appeal to your emotions and values in order to change behavior.”

That fall day in class, Friedman heard a pitch from Justine LaVoye MPA-DP ’19, Jenise Ogle MPA ’19, and Maria José Diaz MPA ’19 that creatively used narrative technique to address what Harvard Public Health magazine recently called “a human rights crisis.”

According to a 2017 UNICEF report, “the global maternal mortality ratio declined by 44 per cent” from 1990 to 2015. However, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that pregnancy-related deaths in the United States “increased from 7.2 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1987 to 18.0 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014,” a rate higher than any other country in the industrialized worldA 2018 report from nine U.S. states revealed that were 60 percent of all pregnancy-related deaths were preventable.

The disparity between white and black mothers is even more staggering, according to the CDC: 12.4 deaths per 100,000 live births for white women compared to 40 deaths per 100,000 live births for black women. A recent article in Harvard Public Health noted that for African American mothers, the “odds of surviving childbirth are comparable to those of women in countries such as Mexico and Uzbekistan, where significant proportions of the population live in poverty.”

“We have black women dying all the time from this and the community doesn’t really know why they are at risk,” Ogle said. “For someone like myself, who is African American, I didn’t know this, and I think the reason to focus on the social aspect of this issue is because there is a lack of awareness.”

Despite the dire statistics, the health of African American mothers has been under-reported, only recently gaining some media attention because Serena Williams’s story of a near-fatal birth experience and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to offer hospitals incentives to lower African American maternal mortality rates.

The reasons for this crisis are wide-ranging and, according to Ogle, stem from years of systemic racism and bias. A recent study done in Texas found that 8 out of 10 pregnancy related deaths in that state could have been prevented “one or more reasonable changes to the circumstances of the patient, provider, facility, systems or community factors.”

The students—all of whom had career experience in public health- and gender-related policy roles—said they were astounded by the statistics.

“Even at SIPA, where we are studying policy, this is still an issue that many people don’t know about at all,” LaVoye said.

The students researched other awareness campaigns focusing on the issue of maternal mortality, many of which targeted the medical community. They decided to aim their messaging at mothers and their support networks, emphasizing warning signs for the common causes of pregnancy-related deaths—like hemorrhaging, infections, and clots—and educating about self-care once new mothers leave the hospital.

“We saw in our initial research that most of the focus was on generating awareness among the medical community,” Diaz said. “It was interesting to see there was a gap when it came to the social aspect — pregnant women and people supporting them.”

The group’s creative proposal referenced recent pop-culture touchstones that blend cinematic storytelling with social activism—including Childish Gambino’s “This is America” and Beyonce’s “Lemonade”—along with powerful PSAs like “Sandy Hook Promise.”

Friedman was blown away by the approach, which employed a double narrative and a surprise ending. “The creative storytelling was elevated and palpable,” he said.

“We want to emphasize that even during very joyous moments, like having a baby, having a gender reveal, having a baby shower, that you also have to be wary and think about the warning signs as well. We want pregnant women to be there when their baby is born,” Ogle said.

The creative concept hooks the viewer by establishing a joyful tone as an expecting couple plans for the birth of their child. As the narrative continues, it becomes more somber, implying that the child is danger—only to reveal that it is the mother who has actually died during childbirth. After flashing back through a sequence of actionable opportunities to mitigate risks for pregnant mothers, the video concludes happily after all, with the mother alive and well and holding her new baby.

On the last day of the class, Friedman was talking to his successor at MTV, Chris McCarthy. He told him about the emotional student pitch he couldn’t shake.

He said, ‘You never get goosebumps,” Friedman remembers. Friedman initially did not think the campaign would be right for MTV, but he had piqued McCarthy’s interest. With television properties like Teen Mom and Dear Mama on VH1, McCarthy felt the demographics were perfect for a campaign focused on maternal health.

“When Stephen shared the creative pitch from the SIPA students, I knew it was something that would resonate with our audience because the topic intersects with so many of the issues in which our audience is engaged—family, healthcare, and the life stage of young parenthood,” McCarthy, who is president of the MTV, VH1, CMT, and Logo networks, said. “Stephen is a mentor and a pioneer in the field of social impact and with his guidance and the students creative campaign, I felt we had a powerful way to address this important issue facing our audience.”

As the project progressed, strategic partnerships were secured with Every Mother Counts, an organization founded by model and activist Christy Turlington Burns, and Black Mamas Matter, a collaboration between the Center for Reproductive Rights and Black Lives Matter.

Then, Lena Waithe—the actress and screenwriter who recently made history as the first African American woman to win a comedy-writing Emmy—signed on to produce and narrate the PSA.

The students have been on board as consultants to the project and hope to continue after the video launches during the lead up to Mother’s Day. The campaign will also feature an online engagement platform to encourage viewers to learn more about the issue.

“Not only did the students pitch us this breakthrough idea, they joined our team throughout the development of the campaign,” McCarthy said. “They helped with research and getting to know the nonprofits working on this issue. They were in lockstep with our team and the campaign partners as key decisions were made around the messaging and call to action. Before the launch of the campaign, we looked to the students to provide feedback on the final video treatments and online resources.”

“We’re still those [SIPA] policy students, but now we’re in this fast-paced television media environment and they are looking at us as the experts on the content and they’re guiding us through this whole creative world,” Ogle said. “It’s really exciting.”

The students’ ambitions for the campaign’s reach has grown as it evolved from a fictional project to a reality.

“I hope a lot of people see it and we can improve the community responsibility with women’s maternal health ” said Diaz.

“Over half of these deaths are preventable,” said McCarthy, “and our hope is that this campaign will help sound the alarm about this serious issue and help moms receive the care, services, and support they need.”

Before enrolling in Friedman’s class last fall, Diaz, LaVoye, and Ogle had never met. Now they are bound together in ways they never expected.

“Learning from Maria José and her experience in Chile and throughout the different public and private sectors, and from Jenise, a woman who is from U.S. but has a very different lived experience than I do, I think that’s a very powerful thing,” LaVoye said. “I know that they will be on speed dial.”

Friedman hopes that the students’ maternal mortality campaign is just the beginning.

“That’s what was great about the students in our class,” he said. “I think students, in every group presentation, had a creative nugget like that, which has the potential to find its way into the world and have a positive impact.”

A week before the campaign was to air, Diaz, LaVoye, and Ogle had a chance to see a close-to-final cut of the video. They were pleased to see their artistic vision was intact.

“I watched it, went into shock, and then cried,” said LaVoye.

— Brett Essler

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

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