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From U.S. Embassy, Beijing, to Twitter: SINSI Scholars praise program for support and flexibility

Established by the Wilson School in 2006, the Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative has sent students across the globe for public policy fellowships in a variety of locales, from the Tanzanian Ministry of Health to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Its alumni network stretches from Washington, D.C., to Doctors Without Borders to Twitter. With its 10th cohort selected this year, SINSI has established a reputation as a prestigious opportunity for undergraduates who want to work in the federal government.

Five scholars are annually offered six-year fellowships, working at a government internship the summer after their junior year and then taking part in the “1-2-1” track. This entails a year of study in the master of public affairs program at the Wilson School, followed by a two-year fellowship in the federal government, and concludes with a final year at the Wilson School to complete the MPA program.

While one might expect a program of SINSI’s duration and complexity to be vulnerable to logistical difficulties, the Scholars interviewed for this article consistently lauded SINSI’s flexibility in adapting to their unique interests. From nailing down prestigious placements to obtaining security clearances, the Scholars said that SINSI ensured that their movement through the U.S. government was smooth sailing.

A supportive start

From the moment they are selected for the program, Scholars are welcomed into a support network and provided a strong advising base.

“Going in, I had very little understanding of what specific offices that catered to my interests were,” said Andrew Kim ’10 GS ’14. “[Ambassador and Wilson School lecturer Barbara Bodine, director of SINSI] really works closely with you to figure out that first placement. After that point, you naturally just find other options.”

Kim is in his final year of the MPA program and has completed placements at the State Department, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Embassy in Burma.

Bodine explained that the initial internship placement is an individualized process in which she recommends several agencies that match a student’s particular interests.

“I don’t sit here in the middle of my spider web and decide what’s going to happen to their lives and spring it on them,” she said.

After the student has found an agency for which he or she would like to work, Bodine then contacts the agency to set up the placement. Students often go through the agency’s own application process if such a program exists, and most of the program’s help comes in the form of navigating logistics in matters like obtaining security clearances.

Annie Khoa ’13 MPA ’17 noted that she was able to obtain her security clearance in a matter of months, rather than the standard time of a year or more.

“I think it would have been much more impossible if [Bodine] had not been there and had her contacts that she could have reached out to and really pushed to have my security clearance,” Khoa said.

Bridging policy and academic interests

While SINSI attracts more than half of its students from the Wilson School — contributing 27 out of the program’s 48 Scholars — a number of students in various other fields enter the program every year, according to the program website.

Kimberly Bonner ’08 MPA ’12 was a molecular biology major during her time as an undergraduate.

“Even though I was majoring in the hard sciences, I was really interested in policy. But I didn’t have a sense of how to make a transition where I could bridge those two interests,” she said.

Bonner had not heard of the SINSI program until her junior year but decided to apply soon after learning of it.

“I’ve always been interested in the intersection of science and policy, and how I could be a good conduit between those two worlds,” she said, adding that the SINSI program seemed the perfect program to accommodate this interest.

Similarly, Hannah Safford ’13 GS ’17 was a chemical engineering major as an undergraduate. She learned about the SINSI program at an orientation for those pursuing Wilson School certificates during her junior fall.

“I’d been trying to balance those two things, the science and the policy, and was just beginning to think about, after I graduated, whether I wanted to focus more on science or more on policy,” Safford said. “When I heard about SINSI, I thought that it might be a good way to keep both those doors open a little bit longer.”

Safford said that she was not very committed to the program when she applied but was happy to hear that she had been accepted.

“It sort of took me by surprise that I ended up enrolling in the program, but I certainly do not regret that decision,” she said.

Both Bonner and Safford cited the program’s flexibility as a unique benefit. Bonner, who wrote her senior thesis on Tanzania’s malaria control program, was able to use the program to land a fellowship organizing the distribution of malaria nets in Tanzania.

“The experience of watching what it’s like to get 9 million bed nets out in a country where maybe 10 percent of people have a birth certificate is a logistical challenge,” Bonner said. “That dose of reality was much needed and will serve me well for the rest of my life — not just these lofty ideas, but seeing what it looks like in practice.”

Safford said that her SINSI experience has been somewhat unique, citing the fact that she is pursuing a Masters of Engineering with an MPA through SINSI. She said that she is grateful that SINSI has been flexible enough to allow her to pursue both of her interests.

“Increasingly, as I move forward in my academic and nonacademic career, I’m finding that I might be able to keep both those doors open indefinitely,” Safford said.

When asked about her career plans, Safford said that she is still uncertain as to whether she wants to remain in the sciences, pursue policy or enter the private sector.

Navigating the government bureaucracy

Once the Scholars arrive at their offices, they assume responsibilities as a fellow of a their chosen agencies, often in international offices from the Agency of International Development in Lima, Peru to the U.S. Embassy in Burma. The Scholars noted that there were challenges to working in a federal agency fresh out of college.

“Sometimes it can be a little confusing to navigate the government bureaucracy,” Megan McPhee ’11 GS ’15 said. McPhee is currently working as the political-military officer at the U.S. Embassy in Mali.

Bodine explained that sometimes miscommunications can arise between Scholars and their agencies.

“It’s a different world, it’s a different culture, and, like any culture, it has vocabulary and practices and rites,” Bodine said.

The Scholars also find that they must learn to work with others with more experience and expertise in their respective fields.

“What makes this program unique is there’s literally no other way that a fresh college grad can be placed into the heart of a policy-making environment,” Kim said. “It’s hard to prepare for this, but one thing you have to understand pretty quickly as a SINSI is navigating this fine line between asserting your value and what you can do and on the other hand being humble and not overly aggressive.”

Beyond the basic requirements, the Scholars have the freedom to choose where and for how long they stay in each fellowship. Some have chosen to adopt a rotational structure among various locations and departments with a common policy theme, while others have devoted their fellowship years entirely to one organization.

Shannon Brink ’09 MPA ’13 knew that she wanted to work in the U.S. Agency for International Development in Lima, Peru for her entire fellowship. She explained that she was given a great deal of responsibility and developed valuable expertise in her job, which will help her in her job as an economic officer for the Foreign Service, which she will begin this month.

“I have a really good sense of what the challenges of working in the foreign service are,” Brink said. “I also know that I’ll be able to hit the ground running because of this experience I got through SINSI.”

For those who decide to move between agencies, the Scholars found that the process was a fluid, natural transition with the SINSI title as a valuable asset.

“[My second placement] sort of just fell on my lap, just because of the inter-agency process. You bump into people. They know you’re a SINSI; they know what that means, so they tried to pull me in,” Kim said. “SINSI’s a thing now. When you go into many offices of the government, they know what SINSI is, so they won’t see it as just another intern. They know it’s a different deal, and they know what we’ve done.”

In fact, many agencies have expressed overwhelming support for the SINSI program as its Scholars make their way into different agencies.

“The question my last boss asked me at the end of my rotation was, ‘So, how many more SINSIs are there, and how do we get one?’ ” McPhee noted.

The benefits of SINSI lie not just in the connections to government but also to one another. As the number of SINSI Scholars and alumni grows, so does the sense of community and partnership both within cohorts and between years.

“A sense of cohort cohesion, I think, develops very quickly and there is — I have to say, this is one of the things I think is an amazing strength of SINSI — the incredible intergenerational community,” Bodine said.

She said that starting with the first welcome reception for newly announced SINSI Scholars, there exists a community of past and present Scholars willing to offer advice and support.

“The beauty of having a growing network of students who have gone through SINSI is that we have a really good sense of what offices and what people are really good to work with, so I think it just gets better and better because that network is expanding,” Brink said.

Brink herself is an example of that interconnectivity, as she had recommended that Elias Sanchez-Eppler ’11 GS ’15 work at the Lima embassy after she completed her two years there. He is currently working with the State Department in Washington, D.C.

“I doubt I will have a cooler and more fun time than the one I had [in Lima] in a long, long time,” Sanchez-Eppler said.

After SINSI: “a CV that will open doors for you”

Following the two-year fellowship, the Scholars return to the Wilson School to complete their final year in the MPA program. The first two cohorts completed their fellowships immediately post-graduation and before starting the MPA program. The 1-2-1 structure was implemented in 2008 to give Scholars a year’s worth of basic skills to work in their placements and help them maintain connections within the government to facilitate post-graduate plans, according to Bodine.

Bodine noted that although there is no official hiring process through SINSI, if an agency is interested in hiring a SINSI Scholar, she will act as an intermediary to help facilitate the hiring through the government’s official employment system. Several Scholars noted how eager their agencies were to take SINSI scholars.

“All the offices that I’ve been in are so happy to have a SINSI. It’s such a great program; you’re basically free labor to them,” McPhee noted.

Agencies have even expressed interest in supporting future generations of SINSI Scholars and hiring them for official employment.

“I remember when I was leaving the embassy in Lima with USAID, they kept saying, ‘How can we hire you? We want to hire you; can you do like an online masters program so we can keep you here?’” Brink said.

Thomas Tasche ’13 GS ’17 said one of the greatest benefits of the program is that it allows its students to enter the world of government much more easily than other students.

“By sending you out on Princeton-sponsored internships and fellowships, it lets you build a CV that will open doors for you down the road, while the masters program gives you the qualification needed to take some of the more meaningful jobs in the public sector,” he said.

Tasche said that even though the program encourages its students to take jobs in public service, “the Woodrow Wilson School and SINSI take a really wide view of what public service means.”

For example, Eugene Yi ’08 MPA ’13 spent his SINSI fellowship years working for various organizations, such as the Department of Defense in China and Korea and the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he was a political officer.

“I loved it so much that I extended my fellowship and deferred the program to do more,” Yi said.

Yi’s fellowships centered on cybersecurity, and he said that “it really inspired me to pursue that particular issue much more in depth, so when I came back to grad school, I started learning how to code.”

This led him to his current job at Twitter, where he works on public policy and internet freedom issues in Asia.

“It’s a neat example of how my experiences at SINSI really got me to shape my job right now,” Yi said.

Looking back, Yi said that he “had an amazing time with the program, in terms of the experiences that it afforded me and the types of people I got to work with.” He added, “I didn’t quite know what to expect because I was in the first class of SINSI. But it was a risk that paid off and had major benefits for me.”

Although most of the Scholars interviewed expressed interest in working for the public sector in the future, it is not always their immediate post-graduate option.

“That’s a harder part of the program because the U.S. government right now is, as you may have noticed, having some financial issues,” Bodine said.

Part of that hiring difficulty is due to the government sequester that has limited the budget of many federal agencies, especially for hiring new employees. The sequester has also decreased funding for research at the University.

According to Bodine, of the two cohorts that have graduated, seven Scholars work in the government, one is at law school, two are in a joint MPA/JD program, two work with international NGOs, three work at government consulting firms and two work in the private sector.

The third group of SINSI Scholars will graduate this year, and the number, quality and diversity of applicants has been steadily increasing, Bodine said.

“The cohort we just selected is our 10th cohort, which is kind of a milestone that we hadn’t even recognized. That’s a lot of people,” Bodine said.

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