After three years working with the Peace Corps in Madagascar, Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy student Jonathan Mason came to Columbia with a strong background in research and writing, but limited experience in quantitative analysis. As he begins his final semester, he reflects that the quantitative and project management skills he has acquired through the program have prepared him to become a more incisive contributor to policy planning.
1. What drew you to the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program (MPA-ESP)?
I knew that I wanted to expand my skillset with graduate school, so the major attraction for me was that the entire program was centered on real-world application, from the subjects covered to the reports and presentations. I liked, too, that all of the courses were meant to provide students with an integrated approach to policy and management, unlike other MPA/MPP programs, which are typically piecemeal course offerings. Also, the one-year timeframe didn’t hurt.
2. What were you doing before you started the program?
School started at the end of May 2013, and I arrived back in the U.S. earlier that month after serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Madagascar for three years. There, I had been working with smallholding cocoa farmers to improve their value chains and provide best practice trainings in crop tree management. I also worked with a cocoa company, helping to manage their field office and overseeing the FairTrade and organic certification compliance of their suppliers.
3. What area of environmental policy and management are you most interested in?
I’m particularly interested in natural resource management, biodiversity conservation, food security, and agricultural market expansion, which isn’t surprising considering my background in international development. The ESP program, though, has also piqued my interest in adapting for climate change in both urban and rural areas.
4. What skills and tools do you hope to acquire through the program?
Coming into ESP I had a strong grasp of researching literature, writing, and editing, so I really wanted to focus on rigorous quantitative analysis and to learn sound concepts for translating technical information in the environmental sciences. I’ve been able to do this through coursework involving data management and spreadsheet modeling, statistics, and the summer focus on Earth systems sciences.
5. What is your favorite class in the MPA-ESP program so far, and why?
I really enjoyed the summer semester, especially Ecology and Climatology, because I didn’t have a science background. I’ve also enjoyed the Workshops because I’ve been able to work with a team to develop an entire program. I suspect that my capstone project this semester will be my favorite, though, because we’ll be drawing on everything we learned over the past semesters to produce a product for our client. My team will be working the locally-based organization Friends of Rockaway to create a framework for engaging the community to develop a resiliency plan for Rockaway peninsula, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
6. How has collaborating with your fellow students in class projects benefitted you professionally and personally?
The ESP program is filled with team projects, which is great because we can accomplish more than if we tackled the problems alone and because group projects are more representative of professional settings. I’ve picked up software skills and learned about how course topics relate to issues abroad, since so many SIPA students are international. I’ve also learned a lot about how to manage projects and lead teams by working with other students.
7. Beyond the classroom, what, if any, extracurricular sustainability-related activities have you engaged in with your fellow Environmental Science and Policy students?
I’ve attended a few lectures and discussions about environmental issues put on both by SIPA and the wider university. I also attended the Vale Columbia Center’s conference on foreign direct investing last year and was able to talk not just with students but professionals from around the world about how to grow economies with shrewd investment policies. Later this semester, my Workshop group plans to volunteer with our client to help rebuild homes out in the Rockaways.
8. How do you intend to utilize your degree from the MPA-ESP program to further your career?
I’m especially interested in designing and managing programs that promote community development using sound environmental policies, such as through conservation projects, adaptation planning, and resource management. The ESP program has helped me become a more incisive critic of and contributor to policy planning, which is essential for any project’s success, and the roles I’ve taken on throughout the year have taught me how to better manage and communicate with my team.
Students in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program enroll in a year-long, 54-credit program offered at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, in partnership with the Earth Institute. Throughout this one-year program, students are immersed in courses that combine Columbia University’s hands-on approach to teaching public policy and administration with pioneering thinking about the environment. During the summer semester, students learn the fundamentals of environmental science, while in the fall and spring semesters, they focus on the policy and economics necessary to becoming successful environmental analysts and managers. Visit our website to learn more about the program.