At SIPA, Election Brings Uncertainty, Awakens Resolve as Students Ponder Career Plans

Bebe Santa-Wood and Kylee DiGregorio | SIPA Class of 2018

After hours standing elbow-to-elbow in a confined waiting area at the bottom of a staircase inside the Hillary Clinton Campaign Headquarters at 1 Pierrepont Plaza in Brooklyn, New York, Lisa Mueller-Dormann, 25, a German student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), finally ascended the stairs and entered the venue in which Mrs. Clinton was to address her audience as America’s president-elect.

“We only made it in because so many people had left,” Ms. Mueller-Dormann recalled in a recent interview at Publique, a cafe inside Columbia University’s International Affairs Building. Ms. Mueller-Dormann studies Human Rights Policy and International Conflict Resolution at this Columbia University graduate school.

As Ms. Mueller-Dormann recalls, many went home once the results started to come in and the mood shifted, but she stayed until the end. Finally, a member of Clinton’s campaign emerged on the stage to tell those remaining that the Democratic candidate would not be making an appearance. “I was perplexed, in shock and extremely sad.”

It is a common refrain heard throughout SIPA. The potential implications of a Donald Trump presidency—from shifts in foreign policy to rumored hiring freezes—are not lost on students, many of whom are preparing to work in international and domestic affairs. “If the U.S. has been a role model in terms of liberalism,” says Agathe Sarfati, 25, “international relations will look different and maybe international order, too. In that sense, [Trump’s election] will change my career.”

Since its founding in 1946, SIPA has embraced a distinctly global perspective as a public policy school. According to its website, 50 percent of SIPA’s student body is comprised of international students, and alumni currently work in over 155 countries, further highlighting the School’s global reach. SIPA is committed to bridging international and public affairs, housing six transnational, independent institutes spanning from The Center on Global Economic Governance, to the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and The Center on Global Energy Policy.

The School’s mission, as emphasized by SIPA’s dean, Merit Janow, in her Welcome Letter to newly admitted students, is “to serve the global public interest by educating students to serve and lead and by producing and sharing new knowledge on the critical public policy challenges facing the global community.”

Walking through the halls of SIPA, one can hear students speaking a multitude of languages, many dressed in professional attire, on their way to a Humanitarian Affairs Working Group meeting or a lecture hosted by the European Union Student Association. Bulletin boards brighten the walls, plastered with colorful posters and fliers advertising events such as “Globalization of Financial Markets” and “United Nations Peacekeeping and Environment with Under Secretary-General Atul Khare.” Each of the School’s concentrations and specializations, from International Finance and Economic Policy to Energy and Environment, are global in scope and assume a favorable view of greater international integration and partnership.

Sense of uncertainty

It seems almost natural, then, that the corridors of SIPA—below banners hung from the ceiling commemorating the School’s 70th anniversary and celebrating the institution as the place “Where the World Connects”—were tinged with a sense of uncertainty as peers and colleagues discussed the news of Trump’s election and weighed the possible effects of his administration.

An informal Twitter poll conducted in October by the Morningside Post showed that 59 percent of SIPA students supported Hillary, while 22 percent supported Trump and 19 percent supported other candidates.

The idea of a President Trump has therefore given pause to some students, who are now taking another look at the anticipated professional paths and positions that originally brought them to SIPA.

British student Eleanor Haisell, 29, applied to SIPA and chose to concentrate in International Security Policy, seeking a career in peace negotiations. On June 23, however, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Just before arriving at SIPA, Ms. Haisell had worked on the “Remain” campaign, which advocated for the UK staying on as an EU member. She considered the Brexit vote the “event of the year.” Until the election of Trump.

“I’m basically being chased around the world by these terrible decisions,” Ms. Haisell told us. Taken together, she said the two electoral results “really, really shook up my career plans completely.”

Now, Ms. Haisell is considering work that is more domestic in scope, and has begun thinking about changing her stated focus from International Conflict Resolution to a regional specialization on Europe. “I feel now that my contribution will be best in the UK.”

The morning of November 9 kicked off a period of reflection for many at SIPA, students and faculty alike. A panel titled, “The Media After Trump: What Have we Learned and Where do We go from Here?” was held on November 14 in the place of another that was to be called “Design Thinking for a 21st Century Government.” Anya Schiffrin, SIPA professor and Director of the Technology, Media and Communications specialization, noted in her introductory remarks that the original panel had to be postponed because the panelists traveling from D.C. were still in a state of shock.

Media’s inability to predict Trump’s victory

The panel that did take place included SIPA professor Claudia Dreifus, former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Michael Massing of the New York Review of Books, Natasha Noman of the liberal publication Mic, Mic senior staff writer Aaron Morrison, and Kristin Grennan, a community organizer for the Clinton campaign. Addressing the media’s role in Trump’s victory, the panelists sought to explain the prediction of a Hillary win made by many outlets, and also focused on the media’s ability to provide accurate and balanced coverage of the varying viewpoints found across the U.S.

The exchanges were heated at times, but it soon became clear that the panelists were just as interested to hear from students. Many in the audience expressed confusion about the election result as they tried to parse what a Trump presidency might mean for the future.

For many students, particularly those studying human rights and humanitarian policy issues, the prospect of a Trump Administration seems to have prompted measured deliberation of their professional plans.

Allie Solomon, a second year SIPA student studying Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy, attended the panel. She said she had been feeling particularly down since the election, hardly going out in the initial days afterward. For her, the panel provided a cathartic release for many of the feelings she was experiencing. “I thought it was really validating to see people who were as frustrated and emotionally overwhelmed, almost . . . combative as I felt.”

After graduation, Ms. Solomon hopes to work on human rights issues in former Soviet Union countries. Beyond the impact on her career, however, she says, “the whole campaign was really difficult for me on a personal level,” citing what she described as Trump’s misogyny, anti-Semitism and openly anti-Muslim views as issues that affected her personally.

Trump’s election serves as moment of professional reflection

Yet, for many students at SIPA—“the world’s most global public policy school,” according to Dean Janow—the reaction to Trump’s election is not merely a reflection of personal politics, but rather a matter of professional plans and preparations.

The question now on the mind of many SIPA students is whether to work in the U.S. Foreign Service, or within the federal government at all, given the change in administration. Being “a diplomat has always been my fall back,” says 26-year-old Shanna Crumley, reflecting positively on her time as an intern at the U.S. Department of State, as well as in Colombia where she served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. “But I don’t think that’s where I’m going to be the most useful,” Ms. Crumley told us after the election.

A Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy student, Ms. Crumley thinks that “it’s a really discouraging time to be going into public service on the government level.” Throughout President Obama’s time in office, she said, “funding for refugees, human rights programs, development assistance programs—a lot of that funding came from the government,” adding, “this change in administration is really going to impact that field.”

One area of impact is employment itself and the number of jobs that will continue to exist. Though the Trump Administration is unlikely to eliminate international development and humanitarian assistance programs entirely, Ms. Crumley continued, “the government is still highly likely to limit the budget, which is going to limit jobs.”

Aside from logistical considerations, it is also Ms. Crumley’s opposition to the agenda of the new administration that confirmed her decision to “lean away” from working on behalf of the U.S. Government. “As a Foreign Service Officer,” she said, “you are no longer allowed to have an opinion.” You must be “the mouthpiece representative of not only America as a whole,” she continued, “but of the administration directly. Imagine me going into a country as a Foreign Service Officer interested in refugee issues and I have to say, ‘Sorry, my administration says we don’t care about refugees anymore. This is our position.’”

Pausing a moment, Ms. Crumley clasped her once busy hands together and folded them in her lap, concluding, “I don’t feel comfortable defending an administration to that degree.”

Anika Michel, 24, also studying Human Rights Policy at SIPA, feels similarly. “When you work as a civil servant, you are seen as an extension of the president,” Ms. Michel said, leaving no doubt that this would be problematic for her under a Trump presidency. “I do not agree with the platform or policy of our next president.”

Some students feel more motivated to get involved in governmental work

Others, however, think this strong opposition should serve as greater motivation to enter into government work. Individuals should not “let one man in one part of the government derail” their career aspirations, says Mario Ponsell, 30, an Urban and Social Policy student who served for eight years in the U.S. Army before arriving at SIPA. “It’s important to be out there representing the U.S.”

A Republican, Mr. Ponsell did not support Trump throughout the campaign, calling him a poor “representation of the Party” and of “what many Republicans believe.” Nonetheless, he would aim to dissuade those who are thinking of abandoning plans of a career as a representative of the U.S. Government in response to Trump’s election. “If your love of country is that deep,” says Mr. Ponsell, “then go be that person.”

This spirit of defiance is shared by Tom Lind, 31, a dual-degree student who spent last year studying at Sciences Po’s Paris School of Public Affairs and is now studying International Security Policy at SIPA. Though deeply concerned over many of president-elect Trump’s stated policies, such as that on torture, he is still open to the idea of landing a government job. “I stake my flag on the idea that you have to change things from the inside.”

“I find the idea of changing your mind after Trump’s victory kind of understandable from an emotional perspective,” Mr. Lind said. “You wanted to build something you believed in and then all of a sudden the thing you believed in is kind of taken away or shown to have an uglier side.” But he adds, “Just because the thing you’ve decided to serve is uglier than you thought—if anything, it should make you want to serve more, rather than walking away.”

Many do not regard their reevaluations in light of Trump’s victory as indicative of “walking away,” however. Instead, they consider their reassessments as simply a re-charting of their path toward unchanged goals set long before November 8.

While the outcome of the election has made Ms. Michel reconsider her specific “career trajectory,” it has only served to strengthen her “commitment to the work of international affairs” more broadly. “Now more than ever we are going to need public policy practitioners,” she said. “We need to keep advocating on behalf of the issues that we study,” adding that, by adopting a defeatist attitude, “you’re allowing a sentiment that you disagree with to set you back and to ultimately set the country back and international cooperation.”

No longer interested in working in the public sector, Ms. Michel has set her sights firmly on international institutions, looking forward to a career at the United Nations or as part of a non-governmental organization.

SIPA students preparing to become policy experts, Ms. Michel says, should perceive the election result as “a catalyst . . . not a detriment.”

While government work no longer resonates with some American students, many international students are energized to return to their countries upon graduation to work on internal policy issues. “I think many of us are torn between wanting to contribute to resolving some of these issues when you so profoundly disagree with everything your government is proposing,” said Ms. Haisell. But she says she now thinks her efforts are best placed working in the UK Government trying to negotiate a “good deal” for the country as it exits the EU.

“We just focused elsewhere and thought everything was fine,” Ms. Haisell said. “And it isn’t fine. And it wasn’t fine. And now it really is not going to be fine unless we do something to address it.”

According to Ms. Sarfati, an Israeli student concentrating in International Security Policy and International Conflict Resolution, Ms. Haisell is not alone in thinking this way. “I have spoken with many international students,” Ms. Sarfati said, “who want to go back home and work on domestic issues because they think, ‘We can’t let this same thing happen in our own countries.’”

Uncertainty challenges students to step up to the plate

Many students have expressed this enterprising determination, greeting Trump’s victory as an opportunity. Raymundo Tamayo, 32, an Economic and Political Development student from Mexico, feels “privileged to be living in a time where this level of uncertainty is putting us to the test.”

“If we’re not able to handle this,” Mr. Tamayo said of the election result, “maybe we’re just not able to do the job and maybe we need to think twice about whether we’re in the right field.”

Particularly interested in political development and government planning, Mr. Tamayo says that the election of Trump has only “reaffirmed that I’m in the right place at the right time and now more than ever the work that I do is needed.”

Mr. Tamayo says that many U.S. companies will be looking for specialists who understand Mexico, and that “there will be a demand for my profile after graduation.”

Still, some international students are not so sure that they will be welcome in the U.S. after Inauguration Day. “I fear that the rise of Trump has emboldened a lot of people,” says 26-year-old Daniel Schnok, a German student concentrating in International Security Policy. Identifying as a “global citizen,” Mr. Schnok feels that he would be more affected by a Trump presidency if he were “not white and male.” But he warns that people must “take the hate seriously, the feelings [Trump] speaks to seriously.”

These feelings, expressed in some of Trump’s public statements, raise concerns for many who are at SIPA on student visas. “I want to stay,” says Ms. Mueller-Dormann, “but it’s not up to me to make the decision. It’s a regulatory matter and the rules will get tighter.”

“It’s always there in the back of your mind,” says 28-year-old Sruti Narayanan, an International Security Policy student originally from India, but living and working in both the United Arab Emirates and Qatar for several years before coming to SIPA. Speaking about a potential ‘normalization’ of xenophobia, Ms. Narayanan said, “it’s already happening. Of course . . . there’s going to be a higher frequency.”

These concerns, voiced by some of his classmates, are “hard to hear,” says Mr. Ponsell, who thinks that greater empathy and dialogue are needed to move beyond what many feel is a highly divisive time. “I hope people are respectful,” he said, and receptive to listening to those with viewpoints that are different from their own.

This willingness to listen, Mr. Ponsell implied, must be demonstrated on both sides. “I hope that SIPA will broaden its dialogue,” he said, and that Trump’s election will prompt the School to bring in speakers and professors who “don’t necessarily fit the liberal mold.”

Mr. Ponsell is not the only student at SIPA who feels that more space must be created for those whose views dissent from this mold. Some students are enthusiastic about Trump’s election, and look forward to the opportunity to work in his administration.

Yet when approached, these individuals declined to speak on the record, explaining that they were uncomfortable going public with their views amid the outpouring of anti-Trump sentiment throughout SIPA in the days and weeks following his victory.

“Hopefully SIPA will focus on bringing people together,” said Mr. Ponsell.

Office of Career Services addresses students’ professional concerns

The School’s Office of Career Services (OCS), for its part, is focused on addressing students’ professional concerns in light of the election. Anticipating a strong response to the electoral outcome, the entire OCS staff sat down the day after the election to brainstorm strategies for alleviating uneasiness.

After the session, Executive Director Meg Heenehan says OCS contacted DC-based SIPA alumni and invited them to visit and provide guidance on applying to positions in the midst of an administration transition. While the majority of alumni were happy to help, Ms. Heenehan says, some told her they were “still in mourning” and needed time to process.

SIPA was founded during a time of great change, in the aftermath of World War II, and has for 70 years educated individuals who have gone on to become heads of state, diplomats, journalists, business leaders, and practitioners in their respective fields.

There is a sense among many at SIPA that international and public affairs are again experiencing a period of transfiguration. “[Brexit and Trump’s election] have changed everything,” said Ms. Haisell. “They’re not easy things to come to terms with.”

Though while some are still rattled, most students at SIPA remain resolute, eager to echo Ms. Sarfati’s sentiment that no matter the political trends or electoral outcomes, “we still have to stand up for the values that we believe are right.”

 

 

 

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