Sara Bakhtiar is a second-year Master of International Affairs student concentrating in International Security Policy and specializing in International Conflict Resolution. She graduated with highest honors from Fordham University where she studied International Studies and Middle East Studies. Sara hopes to pursue a career in nuclear nonproliferation and arms control after graduating from SIPA in April 2021.
What experiences do you think prepared you for SIPA?
My undergraduate coursework in International Studies introduced me to important IR theories and concepts that are relevant to many courses in the MIA program at SIPA. Completing two undergraduate theses also honed my researching and writing skills, which have prepared me for the long papers and readings required in many of my courses.
SIPA likes to see that students have a good amount of experience working, or with international communities. This was something I lacked as an undergrad, so after graduating from Fordham University I decided to spend one summer volunteering for a small Greek NGO that worked with refugee camps in Greece. I studied the refugee crisis in Europe in several of my courses, and at the time was considering pursuing a career in humanitarian affairs. Working with a Greek-based NGO introduced me to activists from all over the world who were working toward the same issue. It was an inspiring experience, and solidified my decision to study at SIPA.
For those younger applicants still in undergrad, I would highly recommend taking advantage of your university’s study abroad program. One of my biggest regrets from undergrad was not spending at least one semester in a different country. This will definitely help you as you navigate the SIPA application and will provide you with unforgettable experiences that you would not be able to attain in your home country.
How did you find the core curriculum at SIPA?
The core curriculum can be challenging at times, but it is certainly doable, and absolutely necessary to complete if you want to have a solid understanding of international issues. It is doable because SIPA offers you so many resources and opportunities to be successful in each of your core courses, including office hours with the professor, recitations, and office hours with your TA. Additionally, because everyone in your degree program is required to take those same courses, you’ll find that many of your classmates will invite you to join their informal study groups, so it’s always nice to know that you have the support of your classmates, too.
For me, SIPA’s core courses are absolutely necessary to complete in order to navigate a career in international affairs or public policy. My knowledge of macro and microeconomic issues has helped me understand complex issues addressed in other courses. Additionally, my core coursework in Quantitative Analysis and Budgeting and Financial Management for Governments have also been great additions to my resume, as I lacked work experience related to these topics.
One of the best bits of advice I received from my Peer Advisors during orientation was to complete all of my core coursework during my first year. This allows you to zero in on the topics you are really interested in during your final year, without the stress of having to attend recitation sessions or complete long problem sets.
Have you taken other classes at other Columbia Schools?
Yes, and I would highly encourage all SIPA students to do so, as well. As a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellow for the Persian language and Middle East region, I am required to take upper-level Persian courses and courses related to the Middle East in addition to my SIPA courses. There are a few SIPA courses that can fulfil this requirement, which is great, but if you are able to fit it into your schedule, try to take some non-SIPA courses. Last semester, I took a highly insightful course in Columbia’s MESAAS department (Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies) called Gender and Sexuality in the Arab World instructed by Dr. Joseph Massad. The course touched on subjects I was already familiar with, like the history and politics of the Middle East region, but introduced me to gender and feminist theories that I only had a superficial understanding of prior to taking the course. I can truthfully say it was one of my favorite courses I have ever taken!
Did you choose to attend SIPA to change careers, or to gain experience in a career path you already had experience in?
I chose SIPA to gain more experience in the international affairs field, and to help me better understand my career options. When I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies and Middle East Studies, I was still very unsure of what career path I wanted to pursue. The amazing thing about studying international affairs is that you can really do anything with this degree–the stressful part is that the number of options open to you is overwhelming!
When I got to SIPA, I had a vague idea that I wanted to pursue a career in foreign policy by joining the State Department, or a career in international conflict resolution at the United Nations. My two internships at both entities, as well as my Capstone project, which has me working as a graduate consultant for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, have made me realize that I am passionate about solving issues affecting U.S. national security specifically, and that I want to pursue a career in U.S. government. My ISP coursework has broadened my understanding of key international security issues facing the U.S., including nuclear nonproliferation. One of the greatest things SIPA has provided me with was the opportunity to narrow down my career options. I now know that I want to pursue a career in the U.S. government focusing on nuclear nonproliferation issues.
What most surprised you at SIPA after you arrived?
As a younger incoming new student, I was anxious about sitting in class next to professionals who had years of experience in the field that I wanted to enter and who, I thought, had way more insightful experiences to offer in class. I was surprised to learn that most students, even those with 10 years of experience, were just as anxious about starting their Masters as I was and just as confused about their futures. Because of the uncertainty and anxiety of starting a new program in a new city in a new country for so many SIPA students, you will find that your classmates are genuinely interested in learning more about your background and what brought you to SIPA, and that the relationships you form are based on helping one another navigate SIPA, New York City, and the field that you are studying together.