I’m pleased to share that the Office of Admissions welcomed a new team of Program Assistants (PAs) this semester. So over the next few days I’ll be introducing you to each of them in the form of self-interviews. Say “hello” to Meagan Barrera, a second-year MIA student. Meagan is concentrating on Human Rights and Gender and Public Policy. She is originally from Texas, but has spent the past seven years living in the Northeast. She studied International Politics with a concentration in International Law and earned a certificate in Justice and Peace Studies for her undergraduate degree. After graduating she spent two years working as the Appellate Litigation Fellow for the Attorney General of New York, and continued working there part-time during her first year at SIPA. She most recently spent two months of the Summer in Bolivia working with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation as part of the International Conflict Resolution Practicum course at SIPA.

What were you doing before you came to SIPA?
Before coming to SIPA I worked as the Appellate Litigation Fellow at the New York Attorney General’s office. I worked with the attorneys in the Appellate Division to research, cite-check, and prepare briefs before submission to the court. I applied mainly for paralegal type positions because my original goal was to go to law school. Working at the Attorney General’s office was a great way to figure out what my interests were. Although I enjoy learning about the law and I think it is a very important profession, I realized that the policy issues that our office pushed through its legal advocacy was what interested me the most and inspired me to apply to SIPA.

What attracted you to SIPA and Columbia University?
I decided to apply to SIPA because the curriculum is a perfect match to my interests and it allows me to tailor my degree by providing options for concentrations and specializations. I have always been interested in human rights, but I knew I wanted to focus on gender specifically, and SIPA’s curriculum allows me to work in both disciplines. I also wanted to study at Columbia to be able to take advantage of the location in New York City and the ability to access the many resources available to the University.

How did you find the core curriculum at SIPA?
I think the core curriculum provides all-around necessary skills for a degree in international or public affairs. The classes are practical and cover a wide range of topics, and for most of them you have the ability to choose between different courses that will best suit your career goals. I knew the economics and quantitative courses would be difficult for me, but in the end I am glad that I took them, and they have enhanced my ability to engage and understand the materials in other classes far more than I expected.

Do you feel like you have gotten to know some of the faculty members?
The professors that have taught my classes have been very accessible and willing to talk to any students. Despite the fact that Columbia is a large university, and SIPA in particular is a large school, it is never difficult to get in touch with a professor to talk about the course or even about professional or other academic interests. In some of my smaller concentration or specialization classes I have been able to interact with my professors on a very meaningful level. I would certainly recommend that everyone attempt to engage their professors outside of regular class hours to take advantage of their knowledge and experiences outside of teaching.

What has been the most challenging part of your SIPA experience?
The hardest part about my SIPA experience was working part-time during my first year. There is so much going on at SIPA and at Columbia in general with constant events and speakers, however because I worked I was not able to spend much time on campus outside of just attending class. I know that I missed out on a lot of events and social interactions, and I was not able to take full advantage of all the resources SIPA offers. It often seemed like I was the only person that was experiencing this, but I know there are several other students with similar demanding schedules because of work or internships. I want to reassure everyone that if you find yourself having to work during your time at SIPA that it IS possible! In fact, I often found myself better off for it because it left me very little time to procrastinate and kept me focused and motivated to do well in class.

What was the most challenging aspect of the application process?
The most challenging part of the application process was writing the personal essay. It is always difficult to capture everything I need to say with such a limited word count. The personal essay is also one of the most important parts of the application, so I felt a lot of pressure to make sure it accurately reflected me as a candidate for SIPA. I went through several drafts of my essay, completely changing the focus of it more than once. It was nerve-racking to know that the decision to accept me could be influenced by my essay, so I made sure to spend extra time editing it and asked several friends and family to read over it before I submitted the application.

What experiences do you think prepared you apply to/attend SIPA?
I am glad that I took some time off to work before applying to SIPA, I think the experience outside of academia helped me to better understand myself and what I wanted to gain by getting a masters degree. I thought I wanted to apply to law school, however, after interacting with attorneys in the office and getting a glimpse of the kind of work I could expect to be doing I realized that it was really the policy and advocacy aspect of law that interested me more than anything. I also think that spending time around people that are passionate about their work inspired me to work hard while I was applying to schools so I could also get to that point in my life.

Did you have a lot of quantitative experience when you applied to SIPA? Why or why not? How did you perform in those classes?
For my undergraduate core curriculum I had to take four economics courses and a quantitative methods course, but that was the extent of my quantitative experience. I have always struggled with quantitative courses, and I did not pursue any other quantitative courses once I was done with those core classes. I think that having taken those courses prepared me for the quantitative courses at SIPA and helped me to understand the material, but even without that experience I think the quantitative courses at SIPA are definitely manageable and worthwhile.

Photo courtesy of Meagan Barrera