My name is Monica Vega Herrera, and I am a second year student in the Master of International Affairs program concentrating in Economic Policy and specializing in Latin America. I graduated in 2018 from the University of Georgia with majors in Economics and International Affairs. Before SIPA, I was working as a legislative fellow in the office of Congresswoman Yvette Clarke. I have also done internships with US Embassy London and in the Department of State’s Office of Bilateral Trade Affairs.
What attracted you to SIPA and Columbia University?
I wanted to find a program that would allow me to zero in on my specific interests. I found that at SIPA! At SIPA, you have the ability to craft your degree to your interests. I am interested in economic policy in Latin America so that’s what I’ve tailored my degree towards. I also found that SIPA offered a lot of flexibility if I wanted to explore other interests. I am taking a class on gender this semester (a subject I have never formally studied) and am actually considering adding the Gender and Public Policy specialization.
SIPA’s reputation as the most international global policy school was another main attraction. SIPA attracts a diverse set of students from around the world. I wanted to learn alongside students from other countries to experience different perspectives. As someone who wants to work with people from different cultures, this was very important.
Lastly, for me it was all about location, location, location! Beyond finding the perfect graduate program, I also wanted to love the city I would be living in for two years (I did not expect a global pandemic to ruin this plan). New York is dynamic, full of different cultures, and offers opportunities for students interested in any sector.
What kind of work do you hope to do when you graduate?
As a Charles B. Rangel International Affairs fellow, I will be joining the foreign service after graduation. I applied to this fellowship because I have always wanted to work on substantive foreign affairs issues and I wanted a job that would allow me to travel all over the world. As a foreign service officer, I will have the chance to do this while also representing US interests abroad. I am entering the foreign service as an economic officer. I hope to focus on issues related to trade, investment, and economic development. My intention is to work mostly in Latin America. Specifically, I want to focus on Central America, the Caribbean, and Brazil. But, as a foreign service officer you must have worldwide availability so I am open to any region of the world!
Can you comment on the quantitative rigor in the curriculum?
Some background before I answer this question: I majored in economics in undergrad so I had taken several quantitative courses before coming to SIPA. Also, as an International Finance and Economic Policy concentrator, I had to take the “upper level” micro and macro courses (SIPA U6400 and SIPA U6401). I also had to take both quant courses (SIPA U6500 and SIPA U6501).
I won’t sugar coat it and say these courses were a walk in the park, but they were definitely doable. Compared to my undergraduate courses, SIPA’s courses are more fast-paced and in-depth. However, I did well in all courses because I put in a lot of effort and time into them. SIPA provides many resources for students to do well in these foundational courses. The week-long Math Camp during orientation was a great refresher and set me up for what to expect. I also regularly attended office hours with the TAs when working on problem sets or when I just needed extra help. On top of that, I relied a lot on my fellow classmates since we are allowed to work in groups for the problem sets. The collaborative environment in these classes is critical to being successful. Lastly, during midterms and finals, the TAs offer several review sessions which are extremely helpful.
If you do not have a quantitative background and are nervous about these requirements, don’t be! The resources to do well in these courses exist. You just have to take advantage of them. If you go to class and recitations and put in effort into the problem sets, you will be successful.
What advice do you have for current applicants?
My biggest piece of advice would be: effectively articulate why you want to come to SIPA and what you hope to get from this experience. This will help guide the rest of your application. I think it is important to have clear and concise reasons why SIPA is the right program for you.
Also, I would say craft an application that captures who you are as a whole, not just your grades. Test scores and grades are important but the admissions committee also wants to get to know who you are. Mentioning a personal anecdote about why you are passionate about the program you are applying for can help you stand out.
What’s something interesting or unexpected that you shared on your application?
I used the optional essay to talk about my experience as an immigrant to the U.S. I thought that my experience as an immigrant from Mexico gave me a unique perspective as a policy student so I wanted to highlight it. Also, I mentioned that being an immigrant has guided my decision to study international affairs as I am passionate about understanding other cultures and challenges that are unique to certain countries. I think tying my unique, personal experience to why I wanted to study international affairs helped my application stand out.
I would encourage current applicants to take advantage of the optional essay to let the committee know what you can bring to your chosen program. Don’t be afraid to get personal but remember to always link that back to why you are a qualified candidate!
What do you think makes a good SIPA student or what qualities do stellar SIPA students typically possess?
From my experience, SIPA students are:
- Problem solvers: We are at SIPA to learn how to identify and address problems to hopefully make the world a better place.
- Curious: SIPA students ask a lot questions! In order to solve problems, we need to ask questions. SIPA students are good at figuring out what the pertinent questions are.
- Good communicators: SIPA students know how to write a good memo and argue their points of view. Class discussions are lively because we all have something to say.
- Open minded: SIPA students listen carefully to other points of view in order to better understand issues. In a campus where almost 60% of the students are international students, we need to be open to what others have to say. This will better inform how we perceive the world.