"These sessions are invaluable: not only do we get to ask very specific questions pertinent to our interests, but we also get to delve deeper into concepts that are beyond the scope of an undergrad course."
Of all the distinctive features of Brown’s MPA—the real-world consultancy, the international policy immersion, the one-year duration—what students consistently cite as a draw is the program’s small size.
With fewer than 50 in a cohort, students are able to get to know their professors: in addition to office hours and check-ins, some even break bread together. Over the summer, as the program is just starting, Emily Oster, who teaches Economics of Public Policy, and John Friedman, who teaches Statistics for Public Policy, take their students out to lunch in small groups. "I really love the first-semester lunches with the students,” Oster says. “I always learn something about them, and I feel like it really cements our bonds."
“They asked us about what our goals are, what we like to do. And we got to know each other at the same time,” recalls Gabriela Arredondo-Santisteban, a Duke graduate who worked for two-and-a-half years in a nonprofit law firm in DC before applying to the program. “We formed connections that will last beyond this program.”
Oster and Friedman also made themselves extremely available to students, Arredondo-Santisteban adds. “The summer was such an intense period, and that’s when they were the most flexible and accessible. Being able to ask a question at any time was really convenient. They had office hours, but you could always just email them, too.”
Kyle Howard, a former consultant to the automotive industry, agrees. “There wasn’t a time where I emailed Professor Friedman where he didn’t respond—for example, if I was following up on an article I read after class. He always responded. All the faculty do.”
This rapport, both between faculty and students and among the students themselves, enhances the learning experience, according to Shashank Sreedharan, a graduate of Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University in India, because it “elevates the quality of the discussions in class and beyond.”
Shashank, who’s on the Comparative and Global Policy track, is taking political economist Mark Blyth’s "Money & Power in the International Political Economy,” an undergraduate course that is nevertheless highly relevant to policy making in the international space. Two of his classmates are taking it, too.
“Being master’s students, instead of doing the assignments involved in the undergrad coursework, the three of us meet Professor Blyth once a month to review the entire month's material and hold discussions aligned to our individual policy interest areas,” Sreedharan says. “These sessions are invaluable: not only do we get to ask very specific questions pertinent to our interests, but we also get to delve deeper into concepts that are beyond the scope of an undergrad course. In other words, we get to pick Professor Blyth's brain in a relatively more informal setting—so there’s much more learning and a lot more fun.”
Victoria Kidd ’16 notes the faculty are more than accessible: they’re eager to help. “They have a wealth of knowledge, they know so many people, they’ve been in so many different spaces that my fellow students and I are hoping to enter,” she says. “They are welcoming to questions and open to doing what they can to help us get to where we want to be.”
An alumna of Brown, Kidd is working closely with political scientist Susan Moffitt, who recently embarked on a three-year, $4.5 million study of the impact of the Common Core State Standards Initiative. She notes: “All the professors say, ‘If there’s someone from the outside world you’d like to bring to campus, let me know. I might know them I would love to make that happen.’”
Kyle Howard is quick to point out that small doesn’t mean lack of variety. He says the students’ range in ages and “great diversity of thought” make for “invigorating conversations.”
For Blyth, working closely with students pays its own dividends.
“Economists have a concept called ‘gains in trade:’ I have what you need and you have what I need, and we both benefit from the exchange because we cannot make it ourselves,” he says. “MPA students come to Brown with a set of experiences and concerns which are different from our undergraduates’ and academic graduate students’. They’re connected to the world in an immediate way. Being reminded of that connection in our interactions is of great value to me.”
-Sarah C. Baldwin