Archive for Academics

Pride Month at Columbia University, at SIPA, and in NYC

Pride Month is still going strong as we head into mid-June, and New York City has a strong connection to Pride. June was chosen for LGBTQ Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots in June 1969, where black, brown and trans members of the LGBTQ community protested against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn. Today, the Stonewall Inn is a National Historic Landmark; back in 1969, it was the target of an anti-gay legal system and rampant homophobia.

Being a policy and international affairs graduate school in the center of New York, LGBTQ rights in law and policy is a course that Adjunct Professor Jessica Stern teaches here. She describes the course as “life-changing,” not just for LGBTQ students, but also for straight allies.

This is something that is a beautiful part of a large school of critical thinkers (and do-ers) in the diverse and dense city of New York: you have every opportunity to learn about the intersection of LGBTQ rights, race, policy, and law – as well as the history of the LGBTQ movement.

That being said, I am writing this post from my own perspective as a straight person and generally average New Yorker.* I used to live in Hell’s Kitchen, an extremely gay-friendly neighborhood. I worked closely with many Broadway workers, and every single one had lost close friends and loved ones during the AIDS crisis. I’ve gotten out of the subway countless times at the Christopher St. stop, right in Greenwich Village where the Stonewall Inn is located. Even if you’re not in New York City, being on the internet exposes us to countless words and phrases that were invented and coined by the gay community, with users enthusiastically commenting “yas queen!” without knowing where it came from.

Being at SIPA will cause you to think about your place in the world, and what your work in policy and international affairs will mean for others. What does it mean to have inclusive policy? What work needs to be done to shift rhetoric and policies in my country? What do I need to learn to be more effective in creating sustainable change?

Pride Month is a celebration: of the LGBTQ community, of dignity and equality – and honestly, the marches and parties in NYC are really fun.

This month, I’m also thinking about what it means to be a straight ally. I was once told by a friend that he didn’t want an ally in this movement; he wanted an accomplice. He wanted someone to conspire with him, to protest with him, to actively change the status quo with him.

Professor Stern says that it’s essential to incorporate LGBTQ studies into curriculum. Perhaps this is something you’re intimately familiar with, and perhaps this is something that you’ve never thought about because of your environment and upbringing.

At Columbia SIPA, you have the opportunity to learn things, that you didn’t even know you didn’t know. Tomorrow we’ll share a post from a SIPA student about his perspective on Pride Month in New York City as a policy student. Until then, some resources:

*I ran a first draft of this blog post past a SIPA student who pointed out that I was missing the intersection of race within the LGBTQ movement. I include this as an anecdote of the SIPA community being a supportive environment in the collective quest to do better!

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.

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.)

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

Your Frequently Asked Questions, Answered by Current SIPA Students!

Hello! The Admissions team would like to say congratulations to all Admitted Students! We have been receiving a lot of questions on a variety of topics, from housing options to SIPA’s quantitative coursework. We decided to compile our answers to some of your most frequently asked questions. Feel free to drop other questions in the comment!

What is SIPA’s quantitative coursework like? Will I be able to pass macro/micro economics?

Samantha: The quantitative coursework for the core courses at SIPA consist of three courses: Microeconomics, Macroeconomics, and Quantitative Analysis (statistics). Usually students take Micro in the fall semester, and Macro in the spring semester. However, Quant can be taken in any of the four semesters, but most students complete it in either of their first two. The workload is going to be a bit heavy, as you have homework, recitation, lecture and exams for all of these quantitative courses, but it’s all doable. You don’t need to be an expert in either of the three areas in order to do well in them, but getting in some practice before hand can’t hurt. In order to prepare yourself for the coursework I recommend completing the summer math tutorial SIPA provides, as well as attending the Math Boot-camp during orientation. However, If you’re still panicked about the fact that you’re going to see numbers and have instantaneously forgotten all the math(s) you’ve ever learned, remember you are going to be ok and I guarantee you will pass.

Julia: I would also say that the weekly homework are done in groups so some of the stress is shared. Many students don’t have an economics or statistics background (like me!) so you won’t be alone! The professors are also very approachable and helpful if you are struggling.

What is the SIPA community like as a whole? Or for a specific concentration?
Dylan: The SIPA community is generally very open and welcoming. Before arriving at SIPA, I assumed that most people would be very competitive and serious. While everyone here cares about their academics and career, I have found the opposite to be true; in general, people are very supportive and friendly. I think one of the other benefits of having such huge incoming classes is that you are always meeting new students. So on top of it being a friendly, collaborative environment, I’ve never really felt like I lacked opportunities to meet new people.

I’d say most people end up befriending people within their concentration. Makes sense right? You take a lot of classes with them, you probably end up at the same events, and you naturally share a lot of similar interests. As a USP concentrator, I met most of my USP friends my first semester and we’ve remained close since then.

What is the recruitment/job-hunt like at SIPA? Does the Office of Career Services, or SIPA in general, support students?

Julia: SIPA students have very diverse interests, so there isn’t a standard way students go through the internship or job search. When I was looking for my summer internship last year, I used the Office of Career Services internship database, which is a detailed account of all the internships previous students have done, to give me an idea what I could be interested in doing. I then applied for internships through the job/internship portal on SIPAlink. I would also say the info sessions that OCS organize are helpful as well. I just went to an ACLU panel discussion last week that was inspiring and exactly I needed to motivate me in my current job search!

What is something you wish you knew about SIPA before attending?
Dylan: I wish I knew more about cross-registration and dual-degree options at SIPA. That was more me not doing my due diligence on researching SIPA’s program offerings before attending, but it is something all students can do if they prepare in advance.

What has been the best/worst part of your time at SIPA?
Dylan: The best part has been developing my interest in anti-corruption policy and journalism. I came from a very theory focused Political Science background, and SIPA was the first place where I was able to really dive into policy.

Worst time has definitely been the quantitative coursework. I appreciate it and I begrudgingly recognize its importance. But it can be an enormous pain! That being said, everyone who comes to SIPA will pass the core quantitative classes. Do not fear!!

Julia: My best time was traveling with other Seeples on student trips. Last summer I went to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and this winter break I went to Israel. It’s a great way to learn more about the politics and history of the region, but also spend quality time with your fellow Seeples.

What are the housing options like in the Columbia area? How much can I expect to pay and where should I generally look?

Samantha: I would say that most students who do not get Columbia student housing generally live near or north of campus. Most of us live in shared apartments in Morningside Heights, Harlem, and Washington Heights. Living with roommates helps keep the cost down, and living near or north of campus is 1. Convenient and 2. More affordable. While rents vary, I say students usually pay anywhere from $900-$1500 a month in rent. The farther north you go from campus the less expensive apartments become, so if you’re looking to cut costs I recommend looking uptown. The benefit of living near campus is that it is close enough for you to walk to, so you wouldn’t have to pay for transit expenses to get to school like you might need to if you live further north.

How do you manage time between classes and internships/work?

Dylan: This is a hard question to answer because it really depends on the classes I’m taking and the way assignments are structured for each class. Some weeks, I’ll have no assignments due besides reading for class. During those weeks, I obviously attend classes, work around 15 hours at SIPA Admissions as a program assistant, and do my readings either in the afternoon after classes or in between classes while I’m still on campus.

Other weeks, it’ll feel like my professors conspired to absolutely slam me with assignments. In those cases, I’ll usually plan on working 11am – 5/6pm-ish on weekends (at least) and then work in the afternoons after classes are finished and in between classes. If I’m particularly stressed with my program assistantship work, I may ask to take a few hours off and make them up at a later date. Most SIPA jobs are understanding and flexible with students.

"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

Boiler Image