Ben Jurney MPA ’21 concentrates in Urban and Social Policy with a specialization in Management. He recently spoke with Ahmad Jamal Wattoo MPA ’21 about his time at SIPA and his aspiration to transform the U.S. education system. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How has SIPA’s international environment helped you as a student?
I think this is the most valuable thing about SIPA, that it puts you in a classroom with people from different backgrounds who have different philosophies and different cultural experiences.
In my first year, I had a class with Professor Yumiko Shimabukuro, Comparative Social Welfare Policy. We spent the whole semester looking at social welfare policies in different countries, and seeing how each solves problems in its own way, specific to its own population and needs. You begin to understand that everything takes place within a social, economic, and political context. A country’s social welfare policy is informed by its institutions—maybe the church is really strong in a community, which is going to influence social welfare policy, or maybe the election system is really faulty and it prevents legislators from being able to make change.
It was this wonderful process where you hear from everyone in the room about how their country has worked to solve the same issues we are all dealing with. It makes for such a rich educational experience because it allows you to find consensus about what the important things are, in each culture. We all have the same kind of universal truths, but you can only find those if everyone’s putting their two cents in. And Professor Shimabukuro is a master at eliciting those opinions and finding that consensus.
What are your plans after graduating from SIPA?
I’m on a mission to reform America’s education system. Immediately after SIPA my focus will be on building up community colleges and helping them form connections with regional industry. You can have this sort of great synergy—where schools and employers are working alongside each other, just like in Germany. You want the employers to help determine the curriculum so that when the students get out of school, they’re actually prepared to enter the workforce. I feel that by investing in community colleges, you’re investing in social mobility. These are inclusive institutions. These are democratic institutions. They’re nicknamed democracy’s colleges.
And you’re working on a Capstone project related to education, as well?
I had the opportunity to work with Harlem Children’s Zone, which is a really great organization. My team is working to develop a set of college readiness indicators. Meaning, if I’m in middle school and I get this test grade, does that mean I’m more likely to go on to graduate from college? Or more specifically, if I have this level of parental support, or social support, does that make me more likely to get through college? A lot of these factors that help people get through college are social—support, encouragement, knowledge, social capital, career advice—it’s a big package of things that you need to give kids along the way to make sure they’re going to go through college.
What are your most memorable moments from your past two years at SIPA?
I think for everyone who’s my graduation year, some of the most memorable moments were during the transition from COVID. Because it was a really fascinating and, you know, somewhat traumatic experience.
And so one very memorable moment was in my macroeconomics class with Professor Thomas Groll. When we transitioned from in-person to virtual, he would send us emails that made it feel like things were exactly the same as they were. We might have just gone home and you get an email: Okay, everyone, we’re going to change the syllabus a little this week. But, office hours are still from two to four. And we’re gonna have this test come up eventually. He’d say really encouraging things like, take care of yourselves, and take care of your friends and family, and we’re gonna get through this.
I think a memorable moment was just seeing how our faculty, but also the students, really transitioned through COVID and the students’ willingness to put themselves into the virtual setting.
Are there any other faculty members who helped you a lot or made you grow as a person?
I have to give a shoutout to Seth Freeman, who taught the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution class. He was, in my opinion, the teacher that mastered Zoom teaching. It involved the combination of switching from PowerPoint to a big gallery discussion, to breakout rooms, and he would constantly throw us in breakout rooms and bring us back. Then he did all this fun stuff, like simulations and role plays where he was a nightmare negotiation partner. In that situation, he would say, Okay, I’ll be right back. And then he comes back to the screen and he has a costume on. It was just so funny.
Did you participate in any extracurricular activities while you were at SIPA?
I participated in the SIPA Civic and Voter Engagement Coalition. We did a voting drive at the start of school and it was really nice to be among a community of civically engaged people during the election cycle.
This year I’m president of SIPA Follies, which is the comedy group. And that’s just a blast. I have a background in humor writing and it’s just totally thrilling to be able to create content again. But it is very tough to create what I call “distance comedy.” No one really has the time to do anything more than survive during COVID right now, but we have brought together a group of people who were willing to hang out and make stuff.
Can you talk about SIPA’s overall transition to online learning due to COVID-19? Did you feel engaged, as engaged as when things were in person?
I think SIPA did a really good job in that. I don’t think I lost much of my academic content, or my academic growth. The faculty themselves are leaders. So when you’re in crisis, you don’t really need the administration to micromanage those faculty members. I think that’s what was really impressive to me is that you’re going to lose the social side, but I don’t feel like I lost much academic progress. And the fact that they use Courseworks was really ideal because they were really prepared to transition to a really fully digital educational experience. That was impressive.
Do you have any advice for prospective candidates who are about to join SIPA in the fall?
I think I was in the minority in that I was really hyper-focused on one policy area, on wanting to work on adult education, workforce development, and public education. My suggestion would be to just take a bunch of different stuff that first year in different concentrations. If you set those tent poles out as far as you can, then eventually by that second year, you’ll have a good enough foundation to get to something more specific. Take the opportunity to explore!