Author Archive for Meagan Barrera

Classes, a UN assistantship all in a semester’s work for Ashleigh Montgomery, MIA ’17

There are so many amazing opportunities for assistantships, internships, or other extra-curricular activities at SIPA. Many students will be elected to leadership positions with the various student-run groups at SIPA, work as Teaching Assistants, Program Assistants, or Departmental Research Assistants, or even have an internship during the semester. The classes at SIPA are often time-consuming, requiring a lot of work outside of class time to complete assignments, making it difficult to balance classwork with other responsibilities. It is not an easy task to manage both, so we thought it would be useful to get a student’s perspective on how to effectively manage your time if you choose to work in any capacity during the semester. Today we will highlight one of the many SIPA superstars that somehow find time to do it all.

Ashleigh Montgomery is pursuing her Master of International Affairs degree at SIPA with a concentration in Human Rights and a specialization in Gender and Public Policy. During her first year at SIPA, Ashleigh worked as the Program Assistant for SIPA’s Day at the UN initiative under Professor Lindenmayer, who served as the Assistant Secretary-General to Kofi Annan. She is the Community Outreach Officer for the Human Rights Working Group and is a Board Member for the Women in Peace and Security Working Group. This past summer, Ashleigh spent 10 weeks as a Women, Peace, and Security intern with UN Women in Timor-Leste, where she worked on the National Action Plan for Women, Peace, and Security. As a grantee for the Women’s International Leadership program at International House, she led a team that created a video, an exhibition, and a book that explores feminism in different cultural contexts. She was also awarded a Davis Projects for Peace grant to supervise Peacebuilding Workshops in Burundi this past summer, where she worked with local partner organizations to remotely project manage the workshops throughout Burundi. She has served as a volunteer for the non-profit Burundi Friends International (BFI) since 2014, and co-founded Women Vision Association, an organization working on women’s empowerment and English learning projects in Burundi. Before coming to SIPA Ashleigh worked at a group home for abused children, then served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Botswana, where she taught life skills at the local primary school.

Ever busy, here’s how she says she manages it all.

This interview was lightly edited for brevity and/or clarity.

Where did you work and what were your responsibilities?
I was the Program Assistant for SIPA’s Day at the UN initiative, working under Professor Lindenmayer. Many students apply for the initiative and after review and selection of applications with Professor Lindenmayer, students are placed in one of their top three choices of UN departments. Students then shadow this department for 1-3 days, gaining an inside look at what it means to work at the UN. I coordinated each student’s visit, liaising among myself, Professor Lindenmayer, UN staff members, and the students. I then gathered all necessary follow-up documentation for each student’s visit. The initiative culminated in a panel I helped organize, in which the UN hosts and SIPA students shared their experiences with each other and with the initiative.

Why did you decide to take on extra work during the semester?
I wanted to work on something I believed in and was excited about. While I love learning (like nerdy sitting in the front of the classroom love), I am inspired by application outside of a classroom setting, which working on this initiative allowed me to do. One of the reasons I chose SIPA was because of its access to opportunities and proximity to the UN, and I really wanted to take advantage of this right from the start. Working on this initiative allowed me to build relationships with UN staff, and to connect other students with the UN.

What were the challenges you faced working during the semester?
For me, the workload was erratic. One week two UN departments would want to schedule student visits and the next week eight departments would. So my hours were never set and the time commitment was constantly in flux. As the visits were arranged around dates that worked for both the UN departments and the students, this was something that was out of my control. Of course, midterms, papers, and finals don’t shift just because you can’t anticipate your weekly workload, so the lack of control over my shifting hours was a challenge. Another challenge was that given the nature of UN work, there were many times when I went through the entire process of scheduling a student’s visit, only to have the UN staff go on mission or be called into an international meeting right before, thus forcing me to reschedule the visit. This happened several times, and there was one student who this kept happening to over and over!

How did you overcome them?
In many ways the lack of control over my schedule was just something I had to learn to deal with, as it wasn’t something I could change. Setting a schedule for myself in terms of what tasks needed to be done on which days of the week allowed me to create consistency and routine, which gave me a plan to stick to even when visits were shifted around last minute.

What was the most rewarding part of working during the semester?
One of the commitments asked of students participating in this initiative was to submit an account of their visit. Through these accounts and by speaking with students, I learned that some were offered internships and other possibilities because of the initiative. It was rewarding to read about their excitement about the various experiences they had (getting to sit in blue chairs in the Security Council, spending time on the 38th floor, where the Secretary-General’s office is, attending closed meetings they otherwise wouldn’t have attended, etc.) and to see what was demystified about working for the UN. Some students had dreams of working for the UN since childhood, so it was great to play a small role in them building relationships with UN staff.

How did you juggle classwork and the assistantship?
This might sound counter-intuitive, but I manage time better when I am involved in projects outside of just classwork. If I have ten hours to work on assignments, study, etc., chances are I will waste at least six of those hours and be productive for four (possibly even less). However, if I only have a two-hour gap in my day, I will be productive for the entire two hours, largely because if I waste the only time I have I won’t get anything done.

What would you recommend to other students considering taking on an internship or assistantship during the semester?
I would recommend that you have a clear vision of what you want to get out of your time at SIPA, and spend your time outside of the classroom pursuing this vision! Don’t take on an internship just to have an internship; make sure it aligns with your career aspirations, goals, and most importantly, with your passion. It is definitely manageable to do both during the semester but it will be challenging and there will be a time you question things like your sanity. This is normal for SIPA so embrace it! I would also recommend taking time to reflect on your successes and what you could have done better once the semester is over. Professor Lindenmayer asked me to share with her how many email exchanges I had during the initiative, and it was heartening to have concrete evidence of all the work I had put in!

 [Photo courtesy of Ashleigh Montgomery, MIA 2017]

Some advice on the optional essay prompt

We receive several emails and calls from applicants asking for advice about the optional essay, so here are a few things to keep in mind if you plan to submit the optional essay as part of your application.

First, what is the optional essay?
As taken from our Application Checklist, the prompt for the optional essay is:

This optional essay will allow you to discuss any issues that do not fall within the purview of the required essays. Please share any additional information about yourself that you believe would be of interest to the Admissions Committee. Please focus on information that is not already reflected in the other parts of your application or might not be clear in the information submitted. 

Is it a requirement?
Nope! We aren’t trying to play a mind game with you, it really is optional! There is no formal interview process for your application to SIPA, so applicants often take advantage of the optional essay to address topics that might typically come up in an interview. If you don’t think you need to write anything, then don’t feel obligated to do it.

What is the word limit?
There isn’t one! This is one of the most common questions we get, but unfortunately we can’t give you an exact number. We do recommend that you use the other essay prompt word limits as a guide (200-400 words). Remember, this essay is only meant to share information that isn’t otherwise made clear in the other components of your application; it shouldn’t be a second personal statement.

What should I write about?
We don’t want to read your senior thesis as your optional essay. The essay is meant to provide added value by explaining any shortcomings you see in your application, expand on something previously mentioned, or to highlight a relevant achievement. For example, maybe due to personal circumstances you had a bad semester at your undergraduate university and your GPA dropped, or you have gaps in your resume. The optional essay can provide a space for you to explain these instances and tell us why that doesn’t reflect your ability to succeed at SIPA.

If you think there are not any shortcomings to explain, you can expand upon something you view as a strength that makes you an ideal candidate; especially if you were unable to mention it elsewhere in the application. This might include something in your resume that you didn’t get a chance to address in your personal statement, such as a volunteer experience, or relevant professional project you excelled at.

Does it have to cover a single topic?
Do not feel obligated to stick to just one topic. The essay doesn’t need to be one continuous narrative.  If there are multiple things you would like to address, feel free to devote a paragraph to each.


I hope this information is useful as you finalize your applications for admission. Keep in mind our application deadlines for Fall 2017 are coming up: January 5, 2017 with fellowship consideration, and February 5, 2017 without fellowship consideration.

[Photo Courtesy of Casper Folsing (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)]

Brooklyn Hotspots: Tips from an off-campus student

One of the coolest parts about living in New York City is exploring all the city has to offer throughout the five boroughs. As a student who lives off campus in Brooklyn I often get questions from fellow SIPA students about places they should check out when they venture in to my borough. Brooklyn is the most populous boroughs of NYC and the second largest by land mass. I couldn’t possibly tell you about all of the interesting things to do in Brooklyn, but I will try to highlight some of my favorite places. If you’re traveling to NYC this holiday season, here are some “must see” places to check out.

A Peek into the ‘Gender and Armed Conflict’ Class

This semester I enrolled in a new course offered by SIPA’s Gender a Public Policy Specialization called Gender and Armed Conflict: Contemporary Theory and Practice for Advocates. The course is taught by Lisa Davis who is a Clinical Professor of Law for the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic at CUNY School of Law. She has worked extensively in the field of human rights, gender and LGBTQ rights, particularly in conflict and disaster settings.

As part of the course, each student is writing a report on a particular human rights issue for women and LGBTQ persons in the context of the ISIS conflict. Our findings will be compiled into three jointly published reports that will be submitted to the international community, specifically The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, The U.N. Security Council, and the International Criminal Court.

Our research for these reports also involves interviews with relevant international conflict experts and local advocates working in Iraq and Syria. Professor Davis has been working with international human rights organizations such as MADRE, as well as local organizations in Iraq and Syria to address these issues, and she has several contacts that we can use for these interviews. These interviews will help to inform our analysis so we write a report that accurately reflects the realities on the ground.

A couple of weeks ago, two Iraqi advocates came to class to discuss their work and the difficulties they face protecting women and LGBTQ persons in Iraq. We had the opportunity to ask them questions that were relevant to our respective reports, and to discuss what they believed would be most important to include in the report. It was incredible to be able to hear from people that are on the ground providing services for women and LGBTQ persons, and to hear their inspirational stories. We will also have visits from advocates from Syria to discuss their experiences in relation to the ISIS conflict.

Professor Davis’s experience as a practitioner has enriched our class and helps to bring our studies out of the theoretical realm and into the real world. Once we are finished with this course, we will be able to say we gained the skills necessary to conduct interviews, and to write a report that will be submitted to an international body. Professor Davis also stresses the importance of remembering that these reports will have a real impact on the advocates in Iraq and Syria that are working every day to protect women and LGBTQ persons.

Classes like this are what make the SIPA experience so special. Being able to submit a report to a high level international body on an issue I am particularly passionate about is not your everyday experience in graduate school, and I am honored that I have the opportunity to participate in this process. The Gender and Armed Conflict course at SIPA is just one of many courses that provide this type of real-world experience, allowing students a peek at what their professional careers might involve.

If you’re interested in previewing this class or another, sign up for a class visit here.

[Photo courtesy of Lisa Davis]

Student Reflection on the U.S. Elections

We have received some concerned questions from prospective students about last week’s U.S. election results and what a Trump presidency means for students applying to SIPA. As a school of public and international affairs, SIPA has always been a place where students of different backgrounds can come together to peacefully and respectfully discuss their political views and challenge each other to expand their worldviews. We want to reassure everyone that SIPA will continue to encourage students to be open with each other and to advocate for what they believe in while respecting all members of our community.

As a current student, it is clear to me that SIPA strives to be a supportive community for all of its students. In the days since the election there have been several discussions and forums set up for students to express their reactions to the election results, and a tremendous out pour of support from SIPA faculty and peers. Professors have been available to share their views and reflect on what the election means for the SIPA community, and students have gathered together to strategize for the coming years. The election results may have come as a shock to many, but that hasn’t gotten SIPA students down. This gives us the opportunity to use what we have learned here at SIPA and to unite together. I came to SIPA to advance my career in human rights advocacy, and this election cycle has only strengthened my resolve to achieve that goal.

Whether you are upset or happy with the results of the election, and in the wake of political events the world over, it is time for everyone to take a long hard look at what the political system has become and how we can make it better. SIPA is the place for you to do that. The coursework, along with the opportunities to interact with experts in their respective fields and peers from around the world, will give you the knowledge and tools to overcome the challenges our world faces today. It is our responsibility to challenge what we see as unjust and to advocate on the behalf of others that are unable to do so themselves. SIPA will be just one stepping stone towards the positive change we all want for ourselves and the world.

[Photo courtesy of Alejandra Rivera Flavia | New Yorkers posted Post-Its on subway walls to express their feelings about the election results.]

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

Boiler Image