Xu Zhang MIA ’22, a student in International Finance and Economic Policy at SIPA, is the current president of the SIPA Student Association (SIPASA). Zhang grew up in Heibei, China, and is an advocate for market-based solutions to help achieve sustainable development around the world. He recently spoke with SIPA News about his passion for sustainable methods to promote economic growth, advice for incoming students, and his hopeful legacy as leader of the Student Association during a global pandemic.

This interview, conducted by Christina Sewell MPA ’21, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What policy issues brought you to SIPA?

I’m really interested in working toward sustainable development in developing countries. Growing up in Hebei, China, I witnessed first-hand how strategic industrialization can promote economic growth and lift millions of people out of poverty. However, I also experienced severe pollution as a result of uncoordinated and unregulated mass industrialization, which has led to the need for people in China to wear masks daily. My reason for coming to SIPA is to seek pathways to ensure that China’s future development agenda is a truly sustainable one.

What are some ways or sectors in which you hope to effect that change?

In recent decades, China has followed a state-led economic model with strict market regulation as a central component of the economy. To achieve sustainable development, I believe the state must discontinue its emphasis on state regulation and rather should adopt more market-based solutions to help incentivize an efficient transition to sustainable growth. Right now, I’m researching carbon market systems and similar initiatives that can help China achieve its decarbonization goals. When working at the United Nations, I also had opportunities to explore social impact investing opportunities in Africa and Asia, which are still in their infancy in China. I’m hoping to take what I learn about all of these market based approaches at SIPA back to China to further the sustainable development of these exciting projects.

How has SIPA’s international environment helped you as a student?

There are 162 countries represented in our student body at SIPA! The diverse student body has definitely been the most fun and interesting part about our community. While attending classes through Zoom for the past year hasn’t been easy, I’ve been happy to join various student group events to learn more about the various causes and cultures of our diverse cohort. Although I’m Chinese, my favorite student group on campus is the South East Asian Student Association, whose events vary from chai tea appreciation gatherings to deep policy dives into the 2020 presidential U.S. election. At SIPASA, we also have a diverse board this year, which gives me a chance to learn my colleagues’ different perspectives on a variety of issues and to better understand the needs of all SIPA students.

What legacy do you hope to leave as leader of SIPASA for your class?

For the past semester, the main goal of SIPASA has been to help student organizations plan their respective events and to support students who have found themselves in financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. As many SIPA students are currently studying in different continents across a wide range of time differences, our board serves as the liaison between the international student body and the School’s administration to address various student needs. For example, we’re currently in close communication with SIPA’s Office of Academic Affairs office and Office of Career Services to adjust some course and event schedules to better accommodate students in different time zones. When all is said and done, we hope to have helped make students’ lives a little easier through this challenging period.

The current SIPASA board will serve for one more semester and we’re very excited about the prospect that in-person school life will resume very soon. We have a lot of activities in the works for the fall semester, like networking events, the student mentoring program, and of course—the Halloween boat cruise! Otherwise, we’re just working to ensure that our initiatives, like the SIPASA summer internship grant and our mentoring program expand to support as many students as possible.

Do you have any advice for prospective candidates who are about to join SIPA in the fall?

The one piece of advice I’d like to pass to future Seeples is to reach out to the SIPA community before the start of their first semester. Current students can provide really helpful advice on New York City housing, course selections, and summer internships. In addition, SIPA has a very extensive alumni network across the globe covering all kinds of industries. I would recommend joining the SIPA alumni network and reaching out to alumni early, which can help put new students in advantageous positions for future job placements.

What are your plans after graduating from SIPA?

As for now, I’m still deciding between returning to the United Nations, exploring impact investing opportunities in Asia, or going to law school and entering politics. While each path looks different, the end goal for each is the same — to promote sustainable development in developing countries.