The Watson Institute’s one-year master of public affairs program saw a 58% increase in new students in 2021, due in large part to policy issues laid bare during the COVID-19 pandemic.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Like many Peace Corps volunteers, Emmery Brakke had plans to pursue a career in international affairs or foreign service after returning from abroad. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived.
In 2020, in the midst of her third year of service in Irpin, Ukraine, Brakke was evacuated as the novel coronavirus spread across the globe. It was then that she discovered her own country needed help, too.
“Coming back to the United States in the middle of a pandemic, and in an election year, after being abroad for a few years was a really fast and significant reality check,” she said. “I realized there were so many important topics and issues to get involved with domestically, and especially on a local and regional level. The idea of applying the Peace Corps’ participatory approach to community action and development to my own community appealed to me immensely.”
Brakke, a Rhode Island native, knew exactly how to acquire the skills she’d need to make positive change in the Ocean State: apply to Brown University’s master of public affairs program.
In June 2021, Brown’s one-year MPA program, housed at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, welcomed its largest and most diverse cohort ever. Brakke is among 109 new MPA students, a 58% increase from last year. Students in the cohort hail from 21 countries, and 52% of those from the U.S. self-identify as coming from historically underrepresented groups.
“Our largest MPA cohort to date brings an incredible range of talents, experiences and perspectives to Brown,” said Edward Steinfeld, director of the Watson Institute. “They come to us with educational and professional backgrounds in fields ranging from mathematics and business to environmental studies, education, health care and political science. I know, of course, that they will learn a great deal from one another through the course of the program. But, just as important, I know that the Watson community, of which they are now a part, will in the coming months learn a great deal from them.”
I think a lot of our applicants realized over the last year and a half that the role of public policy couldn’t be more important.
Why the marked increase in admitted students? Shankar Prasad, interim director of the MPA program, believes that more students applied as the pandemic made clear that public policy has a hand in driving just about every aspect of society, from economies to health systems to emergency responses. COVID-19 revealed that good public policies can help communities thrive, while poor policies have the potential to expedite their collapse.
“The pandemic showed us what good can come of successful policy — like an accelerated vaccine development and rollout process,” Prasad said. “But it also laid bare the economic, racial and educational inequalities that persist as a result of bad policy. I think a lot of our applicants realized over the last year and a half that the role of public policy couldn’t be more important.”
Regardless of their motivations for applying, Prasad said, one clear theme emerged in the students’ applications: a desire to solve the world’s most entrenched problems.
“These are students who want to develop skills that help them effect positive change, whether through policymaking, advocacy work or consulting,” Prasad said. “Some are first-generation college graduates who want to contribute to supporting more pathways to higher education. Others come from rural communities with underfunded public health systems, and they want to improve access to health care. All of them came here to make the world a better place at a time when the world needs their help more than ever.”
A flexible education
For six years, Brown’s distinctive one-year MPA program has prepared students to become public policy leaders, analysts and advocates in government, politics, nonprofits and the private sector. Over one summer term and two semesters, students take courses that equip them with the problem-solving, quantitative, communication and managerial skills they need to confront the biggest societal challenges the world faces, from racial inequality to poverty to education disparities. And each of them puts their policy knowledge to work by undertaking what’s called a policy-in-action consultancy — a team-based research project with an organization aligned with their interests, where they have the chance to address real problems with influential leaders in the community.
Prasad said the hallmark of the program is its flexibility. Students have the option to pursue a formal data-driven policy track, combine policy and medicine with the integrated M.D./MPA track, concentrate on both policy and public health with the two-year MPH/MPA degree, or design their own specialization. In the past, students have specialized in education policy, health policy, crisis management and resilience.
When designing the one-year MPA program, “we wanted to look at the best programs in the country and offer something no one else was offering,” Prasad said. “There’s a set of integrated core courses — including statistics and economics — that equip students with the tools they’ll need for any policy-focused career. From there, they can choose freely from the University’s full range of courses to apply that knowledge to whatever they’re passionate about” — whether it’s curbing childhood hunger or fixing the school-to-prison pipeline.
Another feature of the MPA is its 6:1 student-to-faculty ratio, which keeps discussions intimate and guarantees students dedicated face time with faculty experts and practitioners. Prasad said the Watson Institute is expanding course offerings and adding new faculty to keep that ratio even as its MPA cohort grows.
Students bring a wide variety of perspectives and experiences to their classes and consultancies, Prasad said. Some are new graduates from Brown and other universities. Others are former or active-duty members of the military. Still others have several years of experience in the workforce, and they come from the corporate sector, the public sector and the nonprofit world.
For three years, Liz Hecht had worked as a fundraiser at Brown, driven by a desire to support University faculty members’ impact-driven scholarship. It was through her work alongside Eric Patashnik, a professor of public policy and political science at the Watson Institute, that she learned about the MPA program and began considering a different kind of high-impact career.
“I wanted to move from one career field to another without starting at entry level all over again,” Hecht said. “The one-year program allowed me to make a pivot instead of hitting the reset button, yet at the same time it gave me absolutely all of the tools I needed to find success. I learned how to analyze policies, gather and interpret data, and work with stakeholders in a community to enact change.”
Hecht, who graduated with an MPA in 2020, said the opportunity to converse in class with government leaders inspired her to pursue a career in state or local government. She’s now a government innovation fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Government Performance Lab. Based in Austin, Texas, Hecht is finding ways to help families reduce their involvement with the child welfare system by connecting them with the resources and support they need before they’re in crisis.
Hecht said her MPA courses taught her to work backward to solve a problem. Once in Austin, she started by unearthing information about families’ lives in the years leading up to their involvement with the child welfare system. She discovered that many of those families had at least one parent who’d had an interaction with the criminal justice system — so she resolved to partner with public defenders, prison chaplains and probation officers to refer families to services like prenatal support or family counseling, which can help keep families together and prevent future neglect or abuse.
“There was a course in the MPA program called Policy Analysis and Problem Solving,” Hecht said. “That course took us through eight steps in policy analysis: You define the problem you’re trying to solve, you assemble evidence, you come up with options, you select the criteria to evaluate these options, and so on. That class provided the perfect blueprint for the first six months of my work in Austin.”
A drive to solve community problems
The ability to spend just one year out of the workforce — rather than the two years required for most master’s degrees in public affairs — is what draws many to apply to Brown’s MPA program, Prasad said.
That seems especially true today: According to Prasad, this year’s prospective MPA students cited the mounting urgency of issues such as unequal access to health care, worsening climate change and the ongoing migration crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border as their primary motivations for applying.
“A huge percentage of this incoming cohort had a concrete idea of what policy problems they’d like to take on, and they’re eager to get out there and start fighting for change as soon as possible,” Prasad said. “They like that this program gives them the tools and experiential knowledge they need in just one summer and two semesters.”
That was certainly true for Alán de León, a 2020 MPA graduate. After becoming the first in his family to graduate from college, de León returned to his hometown of Houston to become a special education teacher. But after spending several years observing the migrant crisis at the border and watching rapid climate change ravage the Gulf Coast region, he realized he wanted to play a role in policymaking.
“I was working directly with people in my own community, but I wanted to take that community work a step further,” de León said. “I wanted to play a more hands-on role in the creation of local policies and the allocation of public money.”
As an MPA student, de León took a course called Leadership and Social Change with Axelle Bagot, a Brown lecturer who is an organizational and political consultant. Bagot taught students how to mobilize different groups of citizens to act on certain issues, emphasizing ways to empower people who are underrepresented.
De León has taken those lessons with him back to Houston, where he now works as an advocacy organizer for the nonprofit Move Texas. His chief task is to mobilize support for policies that would expand voting rights, advance climate justice or lead to meaningful criminal legal reform. On a day-to-day basis, that involves designing and executing issues-based campaigns and working with elected officials, community members and other nonprofits to drum up support.
“The idea that leadership is not necessarily making decisions for people, but creating space to uplift underrepresented voices, is a more nuanced understanding of leadership that Axelle Bagot’s class taught me,” de León said. “I’ve never lost sight of it. That class made me a better organizer and a better resource for the communities here in Houston.”
De León had some advice for the largest ever incoming MPA cohort: Dream big, network and take advantage of every minute at Brown.
“While you’re in the MPA program, you’re part of a world-class community of people who are extremely bright and talented,” he said. “To be able to grow together with people who have similar goals, who all have a higher calling, is among one of the biggest privileges there is.”