Why I Chose an MPA Program

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Columbia University

“The path is made by walking,” writes poet Antonio Machado. My path has certainly been a winding one–leading from Capitol Hill to a military analysis think tank, from ed-tech in India to a design school in New York. Two weeks ago, I began my newest endeavor–graduate school. A Master in Public Administration degree wasn’t always part of the plan, but after accounting for my experiences and interests over the years, it now seems like it was inevitable.

I’ve been interested in public service and international affairs since childhood, but as I made a shift towards the world of social entrepreneurship after college (which I explained in this essay two years ago) I became determined to pursue an MBA. Business school has become the graduate school of choice for those working in social enterprise. The good and bad (and expensive) reasons to attend any graduate school aside, the thinking goes that a strong understanding of business will enable better business models and management for social change initiatives. As you’ll see on this blog and others, there is a lot of truth to that notion, and many smart, impactful social entrepreneurs with an MBA.

But while working with social businesses in India and New York, I was continually struck by my own lack of knowledge about socioeconomics, despite a BA in Political Science. And I saw how business and its tools–without a dedication to iterating on theories of social change and understanding socioeconomic dynamics–cannot alone solve the complex problems we face. As I explain in this Huffington Post article, “a social entrepreneur can run the most transparent, well-managed, profitable social enterprise in the world, and still not be solving the social problem their business is founded upon.” Furthermore, after seeing social enterprises in action, I realized that policy and social justice, and integration of social initiatives with policy change, is more important than ever.

In addition, our world is met by cross-cutting, systemic challenges that are increasingly centered in the urban environment. As David Kilcullen writes in Out of the Mountains:

“In particular, research on demography and economic geography suggests that four megatrends are driving most aspects of future life on the planet, including conflict. These are rapid population growth, accelerating urbanization, littoralization (the tendency for things to cluster on coastlines), and increasing connectedness. If we add the potential for climate-change effects such as coastal flooding, and note that almost all the world’s population growth will happen in coastal cities in low-income, sometimes unstable countries, we can begin to grasp the complex challenges that lurk in this future environment.”

Addressing megatrends such as these requires deep understanding of systems, policy, economics, urban environments, and yes, business.

Realizing that an MBA wouldn’t school me on all these vital subjects, I stopped studying for the GMAT, and researched other options. Graduate school isn’t for everyone, but I knew that it was the right choice for me at this point in my career. I learned that some MPA and MPP degrees can be incredibly interdisciplinary, offering a range of macro-level and skill-based courses. That led me to the MPA program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).

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The SIPA Building

The SIPA program is 60% international students, emphasizes quantitative coursework, and offers access to all of Columbia including the urban planning, business, and law schools. I will concentrate in Urban Policy and specialize in Management, while taking advantage of Columbia’s resources to build a deeper understanding of systems thinking and modeling. I plan to incorporate the ethos of the design process throughout my learning and experience.

This semester at SIPA, I am taking Microeconomics, Accounting, Politics of Community Planning and Participation, Nonprofit Financial Management, and Politics of Policymaking: Comparative Perspectives. My Community Planning Professor is a Political Scientist, urban planner, and community activist; my Accounting Professor has taught at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia business schools; my Politics of Policymaking Professor spent much of the first lecture discussing the importance of empathy and learning from failure (which regular readers know are common topics on this blog). They combine the best of practitioner and scholar, and with over 400 classes to choose from in just four semesters, there are plenty of options for all interests and topics.

As an actor in social change, whether I work for an international corporation or a local nonprofit, I need to care and know as much about policy, economics, social justice, and urban systems as I do about management, business models, and finance. Though my path has been a winding road to get here, I know that with this MPA program I’m in the right place at the right time, and I couldn’t be more excited about the two years of learning ahead.

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One comment

  1. I really appreciate this. I’m a first year MPA student at USC Price and am considering a certificate in Social Innovation. I’ve gone back and forth on if an MPA is the best avenue, but I absolutely agree with your points about needing a cross-discipline approach to solving our most wicked problems in urbanization. I would love to hear your take on if the MPA degree still feels right now that you’ve finished. Any insights for a new student?

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