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.