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

Jessica Hernandez is a second-year Master of Public Administration (MPA) candidate concentrating in Urban and Social Policy with a specialization in Management and a Regional specialization in Latin America.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your SIPA experience?
Being a student during COVID has tested my ability to be flexible and resourceful in the face of adversity. Like many other students in 2020, I have faced the challenge of continuing my studies during the global pandemic, while trying to maintain good physical and mental health. As a student leader and the vice president of the SIPA Student Association (SIPASA), I frequently had to prioritize efforts to support the student body during unprecedented and difficult times.

As an Urban Social Policy program assistant, I also started working with Professor Ester Fuchs and other SIPA students and alumni on the CovidWatcher project. CovidWatcher is a research, advocacy, and policy platform developed by Columbia University in collaboration with New York City based community partners, including city agencies, social service organizations, and business associations. Through anonymous, online surveys via our website or mobile application, CovidWatcher asks New Yorkers to report on the health, economic, and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What are some of the COVID-19 challenges that SIPASA helped to solve?
In the face of COVID-19, SIPASA had to work with the administration on problems with student housing, the transition to online learning, accommodation and assistance for international students, providing locker refunds, advocating for a prorated activity fee, and no charge of a fee the following year. We advocated for holding a virtual graduation ceremony, gave out remote internships grants for students who could no longer complete the requirement in person, and continued to connect SIPA students online through community events like SIPA’s Got Talent, among other forms of student advocacy.

How have you and other SIPA students addressed the recent social unrest?
Under an onslaught of irrefutable evidence, Americans were forced to acknowledge the racial epidemic plaguing our country. This provided an opportunity to elevate previous conversations among SIPA students and with the SIPA administration about academic and public policies that perpetuated institutionalized racism and discrimination in our own backyard. Working with SIPASA and a student-led Anti-Racist Working Group, we were able to advocate for change.

Over the summer, the Anti-Racist Working Group worked with the SIPA administration to address areas of concern and to start bringing about change, including a third party Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion assessment, offering more classes explicitly centered on racial justice and specifically in the realms of policy or advocacy, and reinvigorated efforts in recruiting more diverse students and faculty. There is, of course, still plenty of work to be done.

How would you sum up your experience over the last eight months?
Working with my classmates as a student advocate and representative has allowed me to practice the translation of advocacy to action. As the new school year shifts into full swing, I am proud to be able to continue this work with SIPASA, SIPA Students of Color, and through Urban and Social Policy concentration projects, like CovidWatcher.

What are your plans after SIPA?
I currently work as a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the Bureau for Resilience and Food Security alongside my studies at SIPA. I am also a Donald M. Payne International Development Fellow, which means that after graduation, I will join USAID’s Foreign Service. I plan to join the Democracy and Governance (DG) backstop under the new Development, Democracy, and Innovation (DDI) Bureau. As a DG Officer, I will work at a U.S. Mission abroad on urban and civil society projects, local governance, empowering indigenous communities and communities of afro-descent, and supporting free and fair elections.