The SIPA Office of Alumni and Development is pleased to share A View from the Class, a SIPA stories series featuring current SIPA students, recently graduated alumni, and faculty. 

Hello, I am Sarah Alshawish, a first-year Master of International Affairs (MIA) candidate, concentrating in Urban and Social Policy and specializing in Management. I am also honored to be the recipient of the Mosse-Noble Fellowship and SIPA Merit Scholarship.

What were you doing prior to attending SIPA?

I earned my bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, City University of New York in 2015, where I was a dual major in economics and history. As an undergraduate, I worked in medical research at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, where I conducted research on HPV cancer and grew interested in the correlation between economic opportunity and disease susceptibility. Thereafter, I became engaged with the non-profit and local government sectors to learn about social welfare distribution, most recently serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA for two years in the New York City Mayor’s Office facilitating access to social services and healthcare for hard-to-reach populations. Working with these communities has been a privilege and has inspired me to pursue my graduate studies in public policy.\

Why did you choose SIPA?

I sought a program that was dedicated to providing students with the resources they need to succeed in their graduate studies and beyond. I greatly admired SIPA’s diverse student body and faculty, as well as its rich selection of classes. SIPA’s course offerings in quantitative skills, management, healthcare, economic policy, and human rights were beyond what I could have asked for. Conversations with current students also highlighted how program administration and faculty go out of their way to provide hands-on learning, networking, and professional development opportunities. The energy and support I saw on campus made me look forward to the prospect of joining SIPA’s community.

Why did you choose to concentration in USP and specialize in Management?

Witnessing the impact of poverty on the wellbeing of urban families inspired me to understand how people and their governments can work together to address systemic policy issues. Raised in a family who struggled financially, my personal and professional experiences have motivated me to understand why challenges persist and the developments needed to create change. I sought to obtain a comparative social welfare perspective and historical framework on how some nations are able to sustain healthcare-for-all programs and other comprehensive social welfare programs. The MIA in Urban and Social Policy and Management was a natural choice for me as it offers expertise on this topic and core training in economic analysis and policy implementation.

How has your public health background influenced your SIPA experiences? How are you drawing on those experiences to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic?

While working in healthcare and the non-profit sectors, I assisted families who could not afford health insurance or who struggled to pay for their existing medical costs. Some had to make difficult decisions as to whether or not to receive treatment, and often sought healthcare only after their medical conditions worsened. At SIPA, I am learning about the short- and long-term implications of poverty on life expectancy and upward mobility and how governments can address areas for improvement in the social welfare system.  Several aspects of public policy are interconnected and my education at SIPA has provided me with the training to consider these intersections when developing policy solutions.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting you? How will it impact your studies as you move into your second year and your post-graduation plans?

The pandemic has made me realize how quickly life can change and how important strong leadership is in times of crises. It has also brought to the forefront unresolved challenges in U.S. urban cities. Those experiencing major health complications are largely from low-income or historically disenfranchised neighborhoods. In my hometown, Elmhurst Hospital is struggling to care for the multitude of patients seeking treatment, with all too limited resources and overworked medical staff. The virus has affected several people I know, and it concerns me that the magnitude of this pandemic could have been prevented.

Access to healthcare in the U.S. needs to be adequately addressed and this event has strengthened my interest in working toward expanding comprehensive social welfare programs, which I believe reflect a government’s commitment to human rights and social justice. I am looking forward to courses in global health, financial inclusion, and tax policy. My current studies have provided me with insight on the current economic challenges limiting the U.S. healthcare infrastructure and the steps local communities can take to deliver change. I hope to continue learning more about these topics in my graduate studies.

How has SIPA affected you?

My experience at SIPA has exposed me to the types of innovations possible in domestic and international policy. I feel much more equipped for a career in public service, keeping in mind that public policy design is best informed by regular and open exchanges between communities and governments, as well as between nations. I am also inspired by my fellow classmates who I am fortunate to have developed lifelong friendships with, among whom have had careers in development and social policy in their home nations or across the U.S.

Can you tell us about some of the classes you are taking this semester?

This semester, I am taking Budgeting and Financial Management for Government with Professor John Liu, which provides brilliant insight into the current budgetary challenges of the U.S. government, including the high costs associated with healthcare spending. I am also taking Innovation and Urban Social Policy with Professor Ameera Horriyat, which encourages students to develop creative solutions for social change inspired by examples from entrepreneurs and community-based organizations. These classes have provided me with excellent perspective on the factors impacting policy decisions as well as how innovative strategies can deliver change at the local level, which can ultimately inspire national and international policy. I am glad to have the opportunity to learn public financial analysis and develop my creative toolbox with the support and encouragement of professors who are dedicated experts in the field.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I have learned so much in my first year and am amazed at the resilience of our community to handle this crisis. My cohort is now scattered across the globe and have shifted to online learning, but we look forward to once again returning to the International Affairs Building and campus life.

I believe that in times like these, it is imperative to have professionals with experience and passion step up and deliver for their communities. With the work of policy thinkers and leaders, including Columbia University professors and SIPA alumni, we can soon arrive at an end to this crisis and better protect ourselves from similar challenges that may lie ahead.