This year’s class of 50 students represents significant enrollment growth since the program’s 2015 launch.
In diverse environments, MPA students sharpen their quantitative, communication, and policy leadership skills
Students and faculty alike describe the Watson Institute’s one-year Master of Public Affairs as rigorous, demanding, concentrated and intense. Perhaps that’s why this program is so desirable; this year’s class of 50 students represents significant enrollment growth since the program’s 2015 launch.
This program – the only one-year MPA offered by an Ivy League institution – also innovates with experiential and global learning opportunities. “Our curriculum is different; Professors John Friedman and Emily Oster teach economics and statistics as an integrated course, with combined labs and final projects,” said Carrie Nordlund, the MPA program’s associate director.
At the Council of Economic Advisors, on which Friedman served during the Obama administration, economists and statisticians collaboratively debated. “Why would we teach these skills to the next generation of scholars and leaders,” Nordlund posited, “as if they were independent of each other?”
“I’m falling in love with economics and quantitative assessments,” confessed Michael Fubini, a 2014 Vassar graduate. An English major whose last math class had been during high school, Fubini described those classes as “trial by fire,” yet lauded the support students receive from prestigious faculty, teaching assistants, study groups, etc.
After Vassar, Fubini recognized a need “to develop his policy chops”; a Center for American Progress internship and an analyst position at the Rhode Island Department of Business Regulation cemented his interest in policy-making. Studying in Rhode Island and completing the MPA, with 10 core classes and three electives, in a condensed program emphasizing marketable skills led him to choose the Watson program.
Fubini and Jon Macomber, a former U.S. Army medic and 2016 Rhode Island College graduate majoring in health care administration, will spend two weeks this summer in Berlin, Germany for their Global Policy Experience (GPE). Other students will visit either Brazil (Belo Horizonte and Brasilia) or Cambodia and Myanmar.
Watson’s academic partners at each GPE site arrange high-level meetings for students with foreign ministers, nongovernmental organizations’ leaders and policy-makers. While Watson’s GPE is mandatory, other MPA programs may offer discretionary international experiences. In past years, Watson MPA students studied Swedish health care or Brazilian environmental policies; this year, the GPE has one unifying theme: immigration.
Very few Americans travel outside of the country, yet international policy issues – poverty, immigration, climate change, etc. – are all interrelated. “We are a global university. Students must see policy challenges on the ground level around the globe,” Nordlund said. This fall, Professors Mark Blyth and Nick Ziegler will teach a new core class, Global Policy Making, to reinforce students’ experiential overseas learning.
Emily Gell will visit Cambodia and Myanmar, as she seeks to understand Southeast Asia, which is, she said, “so culturally and politically different from the United States.” After earning her undergraduate degree in international relations from Wellesley College in 2014, she worked for the Legal Aid Society in New York City.
Eager to return to the professional world, Gell is pleased Watson’s one-year program focuses on quantitative analysis. “I had experience in advocacy, but these economics and statistics classes challenged me a great deal,” she said. Calling the faculty “talented professors and researchers who are responsive and engaging,” Gell added, “My peers have exceeded my [already high] expectations… they are incredibly passionate and very focused. It’s not cutthroat; there’s a strong sense of community.”
Fubini concurred. In describing labs where students apply quantitative techniques in a policy-related context, he said, “It was good to work collaboratively, good practice for professional settings.” Macomber appreciated the relevance and immediacy of their problem sets and group projects on timely issues, such as minimum wage increases and Medicaid expansion.
“Our required three-month consultancy blends an internship opportunity and a capstone project, which other MPAs offer separately,” said Nordlund. Past consultancies have included such sites as the U.S. Department of Energy, Oxfam, Microsoft, the United Nations, and a water project in Delhi, India. For their consultancies, Fubini and Gell will apply to Watson’s Rhode Island Innovation Policy Lab (RIIPL) and Macomber will seek a health care setting.
Finally, adhering to Brown’s Open Curriculum and recognition that policy issues are intimately interwoven, MPA students may “do a deep dive into a topical area,” said Nordlund, and choose a concentration, such as health care or environmental policy. Given employers’ desire for employees proficient in data analysis, our new elective, Introduction to Programming, will make students more competitive in the job market, Nordlund said.
Even as they devote 30 or more hours every weekend puzzling out problem sets, Fubini, Gell and Macomber anticipate their futures: implementing statewide policy changes; addressing health care policy; and effectuating housing policy changes, respectively.
— Nancy Kirsch