Ashley Fox is an MPA candidate at SIPA studying international security policy with a focus on technology issues. Ashley currently serves as the president of the SIPA Digital and Cyber Group and is a 2019 Thomas R. Pickering Fellow through the U.S. Department of State. Prior to attending SIPA, Ashley worked as a digital media strategist at the Brookings Institution, Center for International Private Enterprise, and in the office of Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). Ashley graduated from West Virginia University with two bachelor’s degrees in International Studies and Political Science.

What did you do before coming to SIPA and how did your background connect with SIPA, your chosen degree program, concentration/ specialization, and future career?

Ashley: Before coming to SIPA, I worked in various public and non-profit sector roles in Washington, DC. I started my career straight out of undergrad on Capitol Hill in my home state Senator, Jay Rockefeller’s, office as a staff assistant and eventually worked my way up to serve as the last press assistant of his 30-year tenure. Before working there, I had never really seen myself working in domestic politics but I am really glad that I did. That job really solidified that public service was the right career path for me. After the Senator retired, I worked for a few years at an international development organization, the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), which is one of the four sister organizations under the National Endowment for Democracy. I learned a lot about the intersection of international development, democracy, and free markets during my time there, especially programs on using technology for democracy promotion. After leaving CIPE, I worked as a digital media strategist at the Brookings Institution where I worked on a small team overseeing the Institution’s social media presence and digital promotion strategy. Along with managing the main Institution accounts, I worked closely with the governance studies and economic studies programs to message their research to online audiences. Looking back, those two years at Brookings are probably the most informed I have ever been on current affairs and critical policy issues in my life.

Each of these places offered me a unique experience working in the public policy space where I was able to learn a lot about a bunch of different policy issues. However, they each had one common theme that really helped inform my search for graduate programs: digital, cyber, and technology policy. I was fortunate to be exposed to some of the top thought leaders in the space during my six years in DC and knew that regardless of what I did next, I wanted it to be rooted in the tech policy space. I liked that SIPA has dedicated programs, like the Dean’s Technology and Policy Initiative and the project on cyber and national security. I also knew that I wanted to attend a public policy school that offers the flexibility of an international-focused education while getting an MPA degree.

As a 2019 Thomas R. Pickering Fellow with the U.S. Department of State, I’ve been given a pathway to joining the Foreign Service after graduating. Knowing this, I felt that the International Security Policy (ISP)  concentration was the right fit for preparing me for future diplomatic work. Diplomacy is an important component of security policy from a non-military perspective and my ISP courses have really helped me understand the nuances of this space.   Additionally, as a  Technology, Media, and Communication (TMAC) specializer,. I hope to leverage my coursework to further cyber deterrence and digital governance policy from a non-military perspective during my time at State..

I think one of the best things about SIPA is the opportunity to learn from phenomenal expert practitioners.. It’s one thing to read about a policy or event from a textbook or watch it on the news. It’s a whole other experience to learn directly from those who have first-hand experience and were actually in the room when it happened.   Some of my favorite professors so far have been Ambassador William Luers in his “Talking with the Enemy” course,

Prof. Jason Healey in his “Dynamics of Cyber Conflict” and “Cybersecurity: Tech, Law, and Policy” courses, and Prof. Alexis Wichowski in her “Tech and Tactics for Innovative Policymaking” and “Technology, National Security, and the Citizen” courses.

Can you share some of the extracurriculars you do on and off campus? 

Ashley: I’m currently serving as a Teaching Assistant to Professor Tamar Mitts for “The Politics of Policymaking: Issues in Comparative Politics” , the core policy class for the MPA program. This past summer, I also worked with Professor Mitts as a research assistant to support her work through Columbia’s Data Science Institute to analyze far-right extremism engagement with hate speech online and as a Program Assistant with Columbia World Projects development team. Both experiences were great as they  allowed me to apply my academic knowledge of technology and cyber policy in a real-world policy context. .

Within SIPA, I serve as President of the Digital and Cyber Group (DCG) where I’ve lead and developed programming to help shape the next generation of tech policymakers at SIPA. I first got involved with DCG when I participated in the organization’s annual NYC Cyber 9/12 Strategy Challenge as a volunteer. It’s a little surreal to think that one year later I helped  to lead it. Something great about DCG is that it has a dedicated and hands-on faculty advisor, who takes great care in making sure our members succeed during and after SIPA—, which is often rare for student groups. Through our affiliation with the Dean’s Tech & Policy Initiative, we have great access to events, alumni, and other thought leaders in the digital and cyber policy space in New York, DC, and more.

As many will tell you, it’s very easy to become insulated in the “SIPA bubble” during your two years here. I think working with entities outside of SIPA has given me a broader appreciation and understanding of Columbia’s many resources but it’s definitely incumbent on the individual to go out and look for them.

What advice do you have for prospective students applying to SIPA this year?

As a domestic student, I feel we often get caught up in how we look on paper (think test scores, GPA, etc). But focus on what makes you unique and the factors that make you an asset outside the scores. The application is the time and space for you to shine as an individual. Rather than trying to predict what the admissions committee wants to see by citing marquee professional or volunteer experiences, interest areas, or contacts, focus on what makes you interesting and authentic. Most of all, don’t get caught up comparing yourself to others and their successes Our individual experiences aren’t mutually exclusive to our peers’ experiences. There’s room for all of us to succeed in our own rights.

Lastly, two years goes by fast. Make sure you are using your time to your advantage while you are here. If you are able to take classes in person, make sure you visit the campus before deciding if you want to go here. Think of New York City and all it has to offer as your home for the next two years of your life. I was initially on the fence about choosing SIPA. However, visiting NYC and campus made me fall in love with the school and I knew I had to come.

Be sure to check out more student profiles and insights throughout the year at our blog’s Meet the SIPA Community tag!