Archive for Columbia University

Schooling myself at SIPA

Every Wednesday during the semester, I would make the four-block stroll from SIPA to PS 36 Margaret Douglas, a primary school in Morningside Heights. If the children were in the playground, I could hear their unbridled laughter and shouts from almost a block away, and it would always make me smile. My 45-minute sessions with my mentee, who was in kindergarten in my first year and then Year One in my second year, quickly became the highlight of my week and my time in New York City. 

I first learned of the opportunity to volunteer in my first weeks at SIPA, through a standard university-wide email asking for students to sign up. I was excited by the chance to continue benefiting from volunteering and start building connections to my new local community. Read Ahead had a vision I was keen to contribute to: ‘students have the opportunity to unlock their full potential through mentoring relationships based on a love of reading.’

Columbia University has partnered with Read Ahead for almost 22 years and has two schools in the area specifically set up to better accommodate the university calendar. The partnership makes volunteering as a university student easier because the Read Ahead Coordinators are familiar with semester breaks and you get to see friends who are also mentoring and meet new ones. Once I was accepted into the program, there was a tailored volunteer training at Columbia before I first wandered into the brightly decorated corridors of PS 36 to meet the child I’d been paired with.

At first, she was very shy and I would get only monosyllabic answers to any questions. So I spent the first few weeks reading different books and seeing if anything piqued her interest. We eventually found a book that she became obsessed with, and at last count, we had read it together at least 50 times (sometimes multiple times a week) and she had memorized most of the words to ‘Clay Mates’ by Dev Petty. Every week we read, drew, colored and played games together. I was often the victim of a very unfair game of Uno or Headbandz but she repaid my silent suffering a thousand times over with great portraits and artwork, like the two pictured in this blog.

I also enjoyed being able to visit a school and see the US education system up-close. My mother is a teacher and principal, and I worked in education funding before coming to SIPA, so I’ve always felt connected to schools even after leaving school myself. It was my first experience with US school cafeteria food because we met during lunch so the children ate, and that’s how I first saw chicken and waffles (with maple syrup!). 

As an Australian and South African, my accent leans more towards British-Commonwealth English with distinctly round vowels so I often have to “correct” my pronunciation of words, like “fast” or “park” so that my mentee doesn’t accidentally adopt my strange hybrid accent too. If I forgot to change my pronunciation or word choice, sometimes she would just stare at me blankly, as if I were indeed speaking a foreign language. 

With schools closed, the program is temporarily suspended while the world adjusts to COVID-19. I was delighted to receive an email from the Read Ahead staff this week inviting me to send my mentee a written message along with photos and a video message. So I sent her the YouTube read-aloud version of Clay Mates (watching it made me very nostalgic) and introduced her to my cats, hoping she won’t be too mad at me for not visiting her for so many weeks already.

I wish I could have spent more time as a Read Ahead Mentor, perhaps just long enough for us to read all of the Harry Potter books together. And though we’re now 9,951 miles away from each other, I hope our love of reading will continue.

To Dual-Degree with an MBA or not? MBA vs. MIA/MPA with IFEP

For the people wanting to steer their careers toward economics and finance, a huge question appears very often…..Should I get an MBA?

Then, for those wanting to steer their careers toward economics and finance AND applying to SIPA, a similar question appears……Should I get an MBA OR an MIA/MPA and concentrate in IFEP?

Now while I can’t make the decision for you on which degree to pursue, I can walk you through how I and a fellow SIPA classmate, Laila Fouad went about our decision to get a MIA/MPA in IFEP instead of an MBA. We’ll also be joined by another SIPA classmate, Leslie Conner-Warren who is also a dual degree MIA/MBA student.

Did you want to go business school and if so, why?

Steven: For me, foreign affairs/diplomacy/global policy have been fields that I have wanted to build a career in so that put automatically put my mind towards an international affairs school. I did think about going to business school but only for a couple of days. The idea of an MBA never really interested me. The material that was covered in an MBA program is useful and definitely interesting but I wanted to learn some of that but apply it in a policy context and learn more political economy.

Laila: Even though I had worked in a more corporate field before, I was never interested in getting an MBA. I wanted a degree that had a solid academic and theoretical aspect, as well as practical implications. At the same time, I was more interested in policy and world affairs, since that is more closely linked to what I want to do after graduation. I also wanted more focus on economics and analytical skills, and so thought the MPA was a better choice.

Leslie: I actually didn’t start out as a dual degree student. During my first year at SIPA I grew an interest in the technology industry, especially in tech policy, and I thought an MBA would be a beneficial added perspective in pursuing that as a career after SIPA. I applied to CBS during my second semester at SIPA, and completed my first semester at CBS this fall.

How is business school different from SIPA?

Leslie: There are lots of differences, and pros and cons between the two. Firstly, I think the business school core curriculum is very structured. At SIPA, you are able to choose which courses fulfill certain core requirements, but at CBS there is just one course per core requirement, although the topics are similar between the two. I think for those interested more in the policy making side, the SIPA Economics core would serve you better, but for those interested in the more technical business skills the Finance and Accounting courses at CBS are very beneficial. Socially, the MBA program is structured more around “clusters” which are cohorts, whereas at SIPA the social scene is more structured around student organizations.

Why SIPA?

Steven: Being a native New Yorker, I always wanted to come back home. I also wanted to improve my economic analysis skills while have the flexibility to pursue courses in other areas such as security and energy. Along with this, SIPA has a good balance of coursework that focuses on hard skills and other coursework that focuses on soft skills. Also, I had heard great feedback about the alumni network and the students here and wanted to be a part of that. With all of this combined, I had to choose SIPA.

Leslie: For me, growing up attending little Model UN conferences in a small state, this was exactly how I pictured what I wanted from my education. A school where you can learn about and from people from every corner of the globe has been an absolute gift in my life.

Laila: SIPA provides a good balance of theoretical and practical. At the same time, the course offering is so diverse that you can tailor your degree any way you like. I have been able to take a good balance of advanced economics and quantitative courses, as well as more applied courses in financial policy or emerging markets. The faculty is also excellent, and was a motivating factor behind choosing SIPA at the end.

What do you believe an MIA/MPA degree can give you that an MBA can’t or vice versa?

Steven: I believe it that a MIA/MPA degree gives me more flexibility in terms of being able to go into private or public industry.  This is not to say that one can’t go into public with a MBA but for me, there was no desire for me to get an MBA. I wanted to get a deeper understanding of policy and SIPA was a better fit for me for that.

Leslie: SIPA offers an incredible opportunity to examine the issues of any industry or public policy field in a completely unique way. In my business courses, I am often able to contribute perspectives from the political and regulatory sphere to our discussions, and many of my MBA classmates want to join the discussions and student group events at SIPA for this reason.

Laila: More focus on the public sector and policy sphere. I also think courses at SIPA help you understand the key concepts behind some of the world’s most pressing economic, financial, and institutional issues, whereas an MBA would more likely take them at face value.

Any regrets?

Steven: No, I’m happy with the choice I made. I got a good balance of policy and business skills such as fundamental accounting, corporate finance and budgeting. If there is any other business skills I want to learn, I can always go to Lynda. In terms of SIPA, I would’ve taken some more time in my first semester trying to plan classes but everything worked out fine.

Leslie: Absolutely not! The dual degree is a great way to get two perspectives and double the number of interesting people you can meet at Columbia. An extra year felt like a huge mental barrier for me in the beginning, but I know it will be worth it in the long run.

Laila: Not planning out my courses from Day 1! I had a general idea of what I wanted to take and figured it out at the beginning of each semester. Totally fine, but a more comprehensive plan from the beginning may have given me better direction. Also, more networking!

Look, if you are a prospective applicant of SIPA and you still can’t make a choice, feel free to call or drop by the Admissions office and talk to a current student or Admissions Officer.

Y no te preocupes (and don’t worry), if you decide that you want both an MPA/MIA and a MBA, you can also apply for a SIPA/Business School dual degree. For more information, you can take a look at the website here.

How to Choose a Graduate School

So now that you’ve submitted your graduate school applications, it’s time to start thinking seriously about choosing a school (after taking a much deserved break, of course). Most of you have applied to several schools, and all of the major schools of international affairs and public policy have so much to offer. How can you possibly decide? I certainly had a tough time with this decision two years ago so I’m going to discuss my decision making process in hopes of making this time just a bit easier for all of you!

  1. Determine your priorities

The first step is to determine your priorities. This is different for everyone, and there is truly no right answer. The specific course offerings, employment outcomes, financial aid opportunities, location, culture, class size, faculty, name recognition, and rankings are just some considerations that students may prioritize. Determine what is most important to you and prioritize those factors in your decision. It is often helpful to discuss these priorities with friends, family, or mentors.

  1. Compare courses and faculty

Of course, the majority of your time in graduate school will be spent in or preparing for courses so it’s vital that you are taking courses that both interest you and provide you with the skills you will need in your career. I found the best way to evaluate this was to create a full semester-by-semester course plan for each school I was considering. Using excel, I inputted each required course and the electives I wanted to take at each school. This provided me an easy way to compare each program in detail. I looked at the excel sheet and asked myself which program I would enjoy most while also developing the skills I would need in my career. In the end, the variety of electives and world-class faculty in international security, cybersecurity, and technology policy, the moderate amount of quantitative coursework, as well as the wide array of skills-based courses (and short courses) available at SIPA won me over.

  1. Location matters

Location has a huge impact on your access to employers, cost of living, and social life, but the most important factor is fit. You’ll be here for at least two years of your life, so you want to ensure you’re in a place that’s right for you. The best way to determine this is to visit the schools you’ve been admitted to. Explore the neighborhood, go out to eat, tour campus, and talk to current students about the quality of life. While I had been to NYC many times before and knew it was a place I wanted to live, attending SIPA’s Admitted Student’s Day assured me that Columbia and NYC would be a great fit for me. I can’t stress enough the importance of visiting campus, sitting in a class, and exploring the city.

  1. Cost

Finally, the least glamorous but still vitally important factor is cost. Research the cost of each school and then make a plan for how you will pay for graduate school. Review the SIPA Financial Aid page for information on costs and additional funding opportunities. You should also check out this blog post on Completing Your FAFSA and Budgeting by SIPA’s Associate Director of Financial Aid.

Choosing a graduate school is an intensely personal and difficult decision. While everyone’s decision making process is different, I found that going through the process I’ve described here enabled me to choose the program that was the best fit for me.

Top Five Classes At SIPA: A List From a Second Year EPD Student

Note from Admissions: Class visits are currently open! Register soon as spots fill up quickly.


So, after being at SIPA for near the marketed maximum of four semesters, I have a few thoughts about classes. This isn’t the usual, obvious offering of advise such as “don’t take an 8:30am on a Monday” because chances are, in grad school, most of us have been there and done that. No, in this essay I will outline my top five classes ( and some honorable mentions ). This is also helpful for prospective students with a keen interest in the EPD program who are on the look our for cool classes to sit in on for class visits!

** For context, my course load is, as expected, very influenced by the fact that my concentration is Economics and Political Development and my specialization was Advanced Economic and Political Analysis but became Data Analytics and Quantitative Analysis in my second year. Therefore, I can’t say much in the way of courses that interest concentrations in human rights, energy, international security policy, et cetera. So, with no further blabbing, let’s get to the meat or vegetarian alternative, here’s my top five:

  1. Global Inequality with Suresh Naidu: For those interested in economic inequality and understanding it both on the level of economic theory and on a practical level of policy levers to counteract it, this class offers not only a comprehensive history of inequality, its origins, and policy solutions for it but why we should care. It covers everything from Kuznets curves to slavery’s impact on cross-country inequality. There is also space for practical applications with problem sets that lean on skills learned in quantitative analysis courses at SIPA and response papers to the readings.  Professor Naidu’s class is very conversational with very informative power points and interesting readings. This is a great class to test your aptitude for further economics study beyond the required Micro and Macro offerings at SIPA.
  2. Impact Evaluation Methods to Health and Social Policy with Rodrigo Soares: Professor Soares is an economist and noted expert in impact evaluations, especially in health policy, crime and violence, labor economics, and more with much of his work centering around his home country of Brazil. His class, Impact Evaluation Methods to Health and Social Policy is a considered a level three quant class so prepared to use STATA intently! In this course we learn basically the same thing as many other quantitative analysis courses at this level at SIPA – the principles of regression discontinuity, IV, etc. and how and  when to use these different quasi-experimental methods with observational data – but, each is unique due to each professor’s policy focus area and interest so it doesn’t hurt to take two. This course both prepares you to understand and implement these statistical methods in an impact evaluation context. This is possible one of the least theoretical quant courses as SIPA as its assignments, particularly the final paper — a policy evaluation project — mimic the prompts, instructions, and work expected if we were working as quantitative research staff at a think tank or NGO for a randomized-control trial, for example. It will also help you distinguish a bad study or evaluation from a good one and be able to critique evidence when it is given to you — a good skill for future policy makers.
  3. The Transatlantic Economy with Seamus O’Cleireacain: Seamus is a G. A trade economist by training, he excels at explaining economic theory and quantitative concepts in a class that is truly multi-disciplinary attracting students with no economics background at all and students like me who live and breathe the stuff and still keep us both entertained. With fair exams and a pretty comprehensive final paper, Seamus’ Transatlantic Economy course covers international relations, economic growth theory, trade negotiations, and macroeconomics through the lends of comparing the EU and United States positions and attributes. Taking this course during the Brexit era was doubly intriguing as Professor O’Cleireacain started each class with an overview of the updates to the negotiations and politics that occurred the preceding week and managed to always bring it back to the class subject at hand with humor and ease. Class participation was expected and, often times, helped us to digest the material better as they pulled on all our strengths from economic research papers to international relations or political science papers. This class, however, was more on the theoretical end, but it was really engaging and definitely a good way to spend a Thursday evening.
  4.  Economic Development for International Affairs with Miguel Urquiola: This class or its counterpart Economic Development for International Affairs, is compulsory. However, that doesn’t mean it is a dreary mandatory class that everyone suffered through. I enjoyed it thoroughly as an addendum to macro, which I happened to be taking at the same time. This course is a mix of basic quantitative analysis ( which you normally take in either your first or second semester in Quant Level I), open economy macroeconomics ( especially with regards to taking a deep dive in growth theory), development economics, health and education, and poverty studies. There are quantitative and qualitative problem sets you do in groups to share the load and interesting readings which assist you in comprehending the lectures. There are a few STATA-based problem sets at the beginning, which is why taking quant to learn or refresh your coding skills is a prerequisite, but it’s not too hard once you attended the lab sessions and did the practice problems with the teaching assistant.
  5. Private Sector Development Strategies for Developing and Transition Countries with Stephan Hadley: I am only a few weeks in but I can already tell that this class will be one of the most useful non-quant courses I’ll take at SIPA. This course looks at the evolution of private sectors in developing and transitional economies and the current economic, managerial, and political issues that they pose from macroeconomics, FDI, financial sector development, conflict, corruption and more. It’s a few weeks in so I can’t say too much about examinations and workload but the readings are really interesting so far and the professor has been nothing but courteous and understanding.

Honorable Mentions!

These are classes that I hear my fellow Seeples rave about but haven’t gotten the chance to sample: Race Policy & American Politics with Christina M Greer, Theory of International Political Economy with Markus Jaeger, Gender, Globalization, and Human Rights with Yasmin Ergas, and Data Science and Public Policy with Tamar Mitts ( or anything with Tamar Mitts for that matter).

So there you have it! The courses I’ve taken and loved and the ones who got away. For more courses that are non-econ and quant (can’t blame you) check out fellow PA Stuart and his over view of the ISP concentration.

You’re invited to visit a SIPA class

We welcome you to experience being a student at SIPA with a class visit. Until late April 2020, you have the opportunity to meet SIPA faculty and current students in their natural habitat – the classroom. 

If you’re in NYC or planning a visit, please register for a class at least one week before. Prospective students may attend a maximum of one class by two different professors (two classes total) so choose wisely. You can use the Course Curricula to find out more about each class and you can use the SIPA Faculty Directory to learn more about the professors. 

Here’s a list of classes I recommend but you should look through the calendar and see what interests you most.

The Core: Economics and Budgeting

If you’re interested in finding out more about the core economics curriculum or you’re a potential International Finance and Economic Policy (IFEP) student, Professor Andrea Bubula teaches Macroeconomic Analysis for International & Public Affairs Monday through Thursday morning. This class is one of the two macroeconomics courses that are part of SIPA’s core curriculum (this class has more calculus). Professor Bubula is an exceptional teacher and he also serves as the IFEP Concentration Executive Director.

You can join me and Professor John Liu in Budgeting and Financial Management for Government on Thursday afternoons. This is one of the options to complete the management/financial management curriculum (requirements are different for MIA and MPA candidates). Professor Liu is a New York State Senator and previously served as the Comptroller of the City of New York from 2010-2013. This is a great class to discuss the politics of government spending, and to hone your Microsoft Excel skills to analyze budgetary data.

Concentration: Urban and Social Policy (USP)

I spend my Wednesday evenings studying Urban Social Policy with Professor Yumiko Shimabukuro, who is my favorite professor at SIPA. As a student of social policy, I took her Comparative Social Welfare Policy class in my first semester and she made an indelible impression on me. In this class, we’re learning about social issues in urban settings like educational inequality, child abuse, and other obstacles to greater inclusion.

Professor Christina Greer is at SIPA on Thursdays to lead students in examining Race Policy & American Politics. This class is a highlight of my time at SIPA and helped me to better understand American history, politics, and society. Professor Greer has phenomenal political nous and I learned so much from her, particularly in our class discussions of current events.

Specialization: Technology, Media and Communications (TMaC)

On Tuesdays, you can learn the Art of Creating Social Impact Campaigns from Professor Stephen Friedman. Professor Friedman is an Emmy-award winning creator of social impact campaigns and was the President of MTV for seven years. He is incredibly generous with his time and insights, and in 2018 a student campaign on maternal mortality developed in this class was picked up by MTV.

Specialization: US Regional

The US Role In World Affairs with Professor Stephen R Sestanovich is the second installment of the International Fellows Program (IFP) curriculum. Professor Sestanovich is the IFP director and has had an impressive career, including as an ambassador-at-large. He is the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and serves on the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy. He also teaches Contemporary Diplomacy on Thursdays.

While you’re on Columbia’s campus, you might enjoy the Guided Historic tour to learn more about the history, architecture, and sculpture of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. There’s also a self-guided walking tour and, for those who can’t make it onto campus, there’s also the option of a virtual tour.

You are always welcome to drop by the office, Monday- Friday, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM (excluding holidays) and you don’t need an appointment. We would be happy to share more information with you about SIPA and you can speak to one of the current students, like me, who are working as Program Assistants this year. Directions and travel information may be found on the SIPA page. You can always call our office or email us should you have questions before your arrival on campus.

"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

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