Welcome to the first of our two-part series introducing the International Fellows Program (IFP)! This post will provide insights from its director, Professor Stephen Sestanovich.

Commonly referred to as IFP, this year-long interdisciplinary SIPA program has existed for half a century and unites 30 graduate students from across Columbia University. IFP selects 10 first year SIPA students, 10 second-year SIPA students, and 10 students from the University’s other graduate programs. The course also comes with a $9,000 USD stipend, in-person or virtual trips to the United Nations and Washington D.C., and amazing opportunities to engage with expert practitioner guest speakers. I’m currently participating as a second-year SIPA student. You may have seen IFP in the optional application essay.

The course is directed by Prof. Stephen Sestanovich, the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor for the Practice of International Diplomacy. With his deep bench of experience serving both in and out of government, Prof. Sestanovich brings rich insight to help us grapple with understanding the current international order, the U.S.’ role in it, and future changes and challenges in international affairs. Prof. Sestanovich also hosts guest speakers who are practitioner experts after each of our units to make sense of our weekly discussions.

The last time we featured the IFP on the Admissions Blog was in 2015. Can you share some changes to the program since then?

Prof. Sestanovich: The International Fellows Program is always changing, and the past half-decade has sped things up — first, it’s been a period of unusual flux in America’s global role; second, it’s been a period of unusual stress domestically, and that always has foreign-policy repercussions; third, students’ interests are changing, and that means when we sit down at the fall of the fall and think about what we want to study in the spring, new topic come up.  Two or three years back we started paying more attention to global public health, to cyber security, to populist attacks on some traditional foreign-policy concepts.

One big change that had me worried last spring was having to do our legendary Washington, D.C. trip via Zoom – but even though we had 16 or 18 speakers in the space of two days, the interaction with them – with senior officials, with top journalists, corporate lobbyists, foreign ambassadors, NGO and think tank leaders – was as lively as ever.  Maybe moreso.  Members of the IFP always find the trip an eye-opener, but the virtual trip was actually one of the best.

IFP’s two-course curriculum provides students with a thorough historical review of the U.S foreign policy, before examining a world that has become less American. Can you comment on the importance of SIPA students understanding the U.S role in world affairs, how IFP helps students develop this understanding, and what you hope IFP members will leave with?

Prof. Sestanovich: I always tell students at our first session that although the title of the seminar is “The U.S. Role in World Affairs,” we’re as interested in the second part of that phrase as in the first.  The U.S. role changes because the world changes—they change each other.  We want to understand the interaction.

What is one tip or piece of advice you have for prospective IFP applicants?

Prof. Sestanovich: There are – fortunately or unfortunately — always many more super-qualified applicants who would make a terrific contribution to the IFP than we have room for.  But do apply: no other graduate seminar, in all of American higher education, has the cross-disciplinary intellectual and professional diversity of the IFP.

IFP has certainly been one of the highlights of my SIPA career. Learning from graduate students across the university in this year-long seminar has broadened my understanding of the international system as we know it and the U.S.’ changing role in it. Additionally, by taking U.S. Role in World Affairs I & II, you are ⅔ of the way to completing the Regional U.S. Specialization! Additionally, either of these courses can satisfy the MIA Interstate Relations Core Requirement or count for the International Security Policy Concentration.

If you’re interested in applying, make sure to complete the IFP optional essay when submitting your application. You can find that application link here. Stay tuned for our second installment of this two-part series on IFP where we hear from the courses, two amazing student Program Assistants, Kara Fitzgerald MIA ’21 and Lance Truong MIA ’21!