Category: Student Perspectives (page 1 of 5)

Writing Your Best Statement of Purpose with Sami Rovins

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

One of the questions I get asked most as an Admissions Graduate Assistant is, “how can I write the best statement of purpose possible?” It’s a tricky question of course, because everyone’s statement of purpose will be different. But there are a few tricks and pieces of advice I can give to help you create your best statement of purpose possible.

Do your best to make sure that you are truly being reflected in what you write. This is your opportunity to showcase who you are! What do you, as an individual, bring to Heller? What can you add to our classrooms and to our community? What will your experiences, interests, and aspirations lead you to do and accomplish at Heller? Try to convey your passion and excitement for the degree you are pursuing. What specifically draws you to apply for this degree? How have your past experiences shaped you and led you to where you are now?

In my statement of purpose, as an example, I wrote about my experience working at Doctors Without Borders headquarters in NYC right after graduating college. This was an essential experience for me and to this day it contributes to my understanding of what I study here at Heller. My experience in this job was influential in both personal and professional ways. I think that writing about experiences that have shaped you in multiple ways is a great way to start your statement of purpose.

I also wrote about my professional and academic interests which I planned to pursue. I described my desire to learn more about women’s reproductive health, particularly in a South Asian context. Although I had not yet studied this topic, including it in my statement of purpose was a way of clearly outlining my goals and plans for my time at Heller. What interests you, even if you’re not already knowledgeable about it?

I also recommend writing about what drew you to apply to be a grad student at Heller specifically. You definitely don’t need to praise Heller, but I encourage you to tell us why you think you’d fit in well here, and what you can contribute to our community. Have you read about any particular courses at Heller that peaked your interest? Or any faculty whose interests mirror your own?

The greatest bit of advice I can give (at the risk of sounding corny) is to be yourself when writing your statement of purpose. This is your opportunity to show us who you are, not who you think we want you to be. We want to read about your interests and aspirations, your goals and plans. Tell us who you really are!

My First Semester: A Look Back with Andrea Tyree

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

With finals season officially at a close, it feels as though I’ve just awoken from an enlightening, yet hectic, dream. My first thought was: “Wow, my apartment is a mess.” But after a thorough spring cleaning (in the middle of a literal snowstorm), I was able to genuinely reflect on my first semester at Heller and remember some key lessons learned.

Like most students, I was worried about starting graduate school in the midst of a pandemic. Because classes were completely online, I chose not to move to the Waltham area and instead, remained in West Virginia for the semester (and if you’ve ever looked at the rent in the greater Waltham area, you’d get why). Yet I worried how connected I would be to everyone.

I also worried about the workload. The idea of taking four classes didn’t seem too overwhelming, but I had been out of school for about three years—just enough time to forget what it felt like to write a 10- to 20-page paper. Other graduate students warned me that I’d need the extra hours available during the week to keep up with the workload. Was I up to the challenge?

Three and half months later I can confidently say (pending final grades) that I was, thanks to some incredible support from my classmates and professors!

Whether you find a place right in the center of Waltham or 500 miles away, you’ll find that your classmates are there for you. My MPP cohort is spread out from one coast to the other and yet we communicate nearly every day. I mean, being in a classroom is nice, but have you ever shared real-time reactions and memes with your 20-40 classmates about what’s happening in class? It can truly turn some of the slowest guest speaker lecture days into one of your favorite classes.

Pro tip: Download Slack before graduate school and use the Newly Admitted Heller Facebook page to build your cohort’s Slack channel! You’ll thank me later, trust me.

On a serious note, being able to communicate with my classmates outside of monitored spaces was a godsend when I was lost in a lecture or missed a class. The kind of people who attend Heller are the kind who are willing to go above and beyond to help their classmates. We’re truly all in this together (cue HSM earworm) and I’m constantly amazed by the things that I learn from my classmates.

The workload wasn’t the easiest adjustment, yet it didn’t take long to find a study routine that worked for me. Remember: If it works for you, stick with, don’t compare it to others. Imposter syndrome is real and will have you feeling like you’re not doing enough real quick. Don’t let it get you!

But if you feel like you’re struggling more than you should, be honest with yourself and others. Talk to your classmates to check if you’re doing too much. Are you skimming most of the five 30-page reading assignments, or are you deep reading all of them? Are you finding 50 sources for a 10 page paper or a reasonable 20? We’ve all been there! I definitely have…but being honest and speaking about it with my classmates and professors prevented endless future headaches. Heller professors want to build you up, not break you down. Don’t be afraid to meet with a professor one-on-one to talk about where you’re at. I promise they (at least MPP professors) won’t bite.

Looking back, this semester wasn’t too bad (though I may be wearing some rose-colored glasses). But I know I couldn’t have gotten through it without my cohort. To the applicants and newly-admitted students, find the people who will have your back during this experience. Trust me, it’s not as hard as it sounds!

Writing the Perfect Statement of Purpose with Andrea Tyree

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Disclaimer: My advice cannot guarantee your entrance into Heller. I’m only an MPP student who has seen the values of The Heller School up close. I’ll show you what I think made my essay a success, now knowing Heller a bit better. This essay reflects my own views as a student and is no way the official guidance of The Heller School.

So, you’re applying to graduate schools and have to convince each school why you’re the ideal applicant. Easy, right? Who doesn’t love talking about themselves?

Me. I don’t. (Which is ironic considering I’m always blogging…)

Luckily, grad school apps are less about “What makes you special?” and more about “What makes what you want to do special?” And if you’re applying to a graduate program, you probably have a good reason for it. So here’s my advice on how to make that reason shine:


  1. Ground Yourself: What brought you here?

What inspired you to go for this degree? Did a professional experience show you the cracks in the system and make you realize that a graduate degree could help you mend those cracks? Or were you so inspired by your undergraduate studies that you want to continue your learning and fine-tune your expertise in order to make a greater impact? Or maybe it was a personal interaction that opened your eyes to all that could be accomplished with a graduate degree? Either way, help the reviewers understand why you want this degree.

For example: I spoke about the two communities that molded me: East Timor (where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer) and the Black community in West Virginia (my home). I expounded on some of the lessons I learned living and working in both of these communities and tied it a sector of policy that I hoped to research. I even included some policy research questions such as: “How does the use of excessive force by the police, and the policies that license it, inhibit the socioeconomic progress of Black Americans?”

  1. Be Honest: What do you know and what don’t you know?

We all come to graduate school with our own expertise. Even if you don’t think you’re an expert in anything, trust me, you know more about certain subjects than most of your peers! Believe that and use it. Show the review committee what you know by stating some facts (or, even better, stats). But no one knows everything about everything. And the review committee will certainly call your bluff if you claim that. So save yourself the trouble and admit to the concepts that you still want to learn more about. You could highlight a particular skill or subject, or you could post a research question to which you’d like to find the answer.

For example: I compared the poverty and disparities facing East Timor and West Virginia: 41% of Timorese live below the country’s poverty line, while 19% of all West Virginians and 31% of Black West Virginians live below the US poverty line. West Virginia only has a Black population of 3.6% yet we’re living in a poverty rate that is comparable to a country that is still trying to rebuild after decades of occupation. How is this so? Could it be a result of power dynamics in both regions?

  1. Say My Name, Say My Name: Who do you want to work with?

Graduate school is not just about the degree or the research you’ve completed; it’s about the connections you make and the things you learn from those around you outside of class. Apply for a program with a list of faculty in mind from whom you want to learn. Research professors from within and outside of your program in order to find the people with expertise most relevant to your interests. Naming faculty within your statement will show the reviewers that you’ve done your homework and that you’re ready to be in this program.

Pro Tip: Reach out to those faculty members before school starts. Heck, you could even reach out to them before you apply; chances are, they’ll answer! Faculty members aren’t usually the ones making admissions decisions, but if you’re interested in their research or you think they brought up a salient point in a recent interview, ask them about it! Being able to throw that conversation into an application shows great initiative. It worked for me, it can work for you too.


Good luck with your application! And remember, if you truly believe that you’re right for Heller (and I’m sure you are), make that shine through your whole statement!

Reflecting on the Fall Semester with Sami Rovins

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

As the Fall semester begins to wind down, I’m beginning to reflect on my greatest accomplishments over the past few months. Some of these accomplishments are big, others are much smaller. Sometimes I get caught up in how tough everything seems to be, on the assignments I didn’t do too well on, or how much work I have left to do in the next few weeks. That’s why I think it’s important, especially when things are stressful and difficult, to think about my successes at Heller so far.

I feel proud that even while I was up to my eyeballs in work for the Global Health Policy & Management program, I managed to begin work on my Capstone paper and presentation for the program I did last year, Conflict Resolution & Coexistence. I feel proud that I have been able to carefully balance both of these large responsibilities. I am writing my Capstone on the need for comprehensive, culturally-competent sex education for women and girls in India. I have been able to utilize some of the new skills and knowledge I’ve gained in the MS program and apply it to my COEX capstone. For instance, I can now better understand a large survey of teens’ knowledge of reproductive health. I now know what a regression is and how to interpret it within studies about sexual health. Being able to marry the skills of COEX and MS has been a big accomplishment for me this semester.

I also take pride in researching and writing a 16-page paper for one of my classes, Democracy & Development, over the course of one week. We were given a broad assignment of researching any topic that related to the class and I chose to write about the influence of various radical women on the politics and philosophy of Malcolm X. I also consider this a big accomplishment because I was juggling my other four final exams and projects at the very same time. In the end, I consider my paper to be a well-researched and well-written success!

My last accomplishment revolves around my ability to maintain important relationships while simultaneously managing finals. In all the madness of finals, it can be easy to forget friends, family, and loved ones. But I know I couldn’t possibly have completed this semester without the help of the people closest to me. I made an effort to make some time to meet friends for a socially distanced visit, to watch a film with my roommate, and to FaceTime with my parents. Reaching out to them for support makes such a difference and I consider it a huge accomplishment to maintain these connections despite the craziness of finals season.

FINALS!: It’s Crunch Time for Doug Nevins

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Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

As another semester draws to a close, Heller students find ourselves in the midst of another finals period. Returning from Thanksgiving break to a marathon session of exams and other assignments is a bit of a rude awakening, but luckily the end is in sight!

In my first year as an MPP student, my midterms and finals mostly consisted of research-based papers and policy briefs. Getting back into the swing of academic research and writing was a challenge after years of being out of school, but ultimately I felt like I was reviving skills I had used frequently in college. Having been an English major, I wrote a lot of essays in college! Exams, not so much. Now, as a first-year MBA dual degree student, I have found myself confronting both papers and exams, both take home and “in-person” (over Zoom). This is a new challenge entirely and has required me to rediscover study skills long neglected since high school. Flashcards? Check. Moments of frustration about a persistently confusing concept? Check.

The best thing about studying for exams at Heller is that everyone is in the same boat and that studying need not be a solitary activity. As much as I have sometimes found that the most productive use of time is to rewatch lecture videos, review textbooks, and drill accounting and econ problems on my own, in general, I have found it even more beneficial to hop on Zoom with a friend or two and go over course content together. This would be my number one recommendation for future Heller students. No matter how well you think you understand a concept, you’ll feel more confident once you’re able to explain it to someone else. I often find that when I study with friends, our collective intelligence (I recommend the Leadership and Organizational Behavior course if you’re interested in this concept!) far exceeds our individual knowledge of the material.

This same principle holds true for writing papers. Part of the appeal of studying public policy for me was the prospect of discussing topics with curious, knowledgeable, and critical peers. This has definitely been the case at Heller, where I know that my MPP classmates will offer insightful comments and feedback on my ideas for research papers and projects. I’m actually looking forward to the last few assignments I have, once I’ve completed my more quantitative finals because I’ll have the opportunity to dig into a policy area of interest.

The finals period is no picnic, but the supportive culture at Heller makes it manageable. Faculty care about our learning and growth, and assignments are intended not to trip us up but to help us confirm that we understand course concepts and can apply them. As weird as it is to be taking exams again, I know this process will help me feel more confident upon leaving Heller that I’ve gained new knowledge and skills. Plus, we have a long, well-earned winter break at the end of the finals period! Good luck to my fellow students – we’re in the home stretch!

Heller Reading List: Andrea Tyree Shares Her Favorite Readings

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Recently, an old friend visited my apartment and, as I was showing him around, he noticed something peculiar. I have a stack of books on my desk, some I’ve read in preparation for coming to Heller and some for specific classes. Most of my class readings are online (invest in blue-light blocking glasses, folks) but there have been a couple I’ve purchased or borrowed (thanks Mom!) outright to really annotate. This particular stack included How to Be Antiracist, The New Jim Crow, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and Hillbilly Elegy.

Noticing this stack, my friend stopped and laughed out loud: “One of these things does not belong.” He wondered why in the world Hillbilly Elegy was included in a stack of social justice literature? Why would professors at Heller, a quite progressive institution, have us read such a biased and inaccurate portrayal of the Appalachian region? (P.S. The new Netflix film is worse.)

“Because,” I beamed with pride, “we tore it apart in my Assets and Social Policy class.” I picked up the book and showed him the countless tabs I had placed throughout the book where I found faults in the author’s storyline and argument.

Now I know I’ve already written about my Assets and Social Policy course, but this course has some of the most enlightening and engaging readings. From learning about the cultural wealth and capital that communities of color have built as a result of systemic oppression (“Whose Culture Has Capital?”) to examining the role of gender-based violence on women’s assets and wealth (“The Role of Sexual Violence in Creating and Maintaining Economic Insecurity Among Asset-Poor Women of Color”), I’ve gained knowledge in this course that I’ll carry with me throughout my life.

Yet my favorite lesson focused on rural poverty—a form of poverty not often acknowledged in social and racial justice conversations—centering on an analysis of Hillbilly Elegy. I warned my classmates ahead of time, “Y’all, as a native West Virginia, I have to represent the thousands of us who cannot stand this book. I’m about to go in on J.D. Vance (the author).”

And go in I did.

Our professor, Jess, created space for a thoughtful and critical conversation on the narrative of poverty within this book. We analyzed how the author placed the responsibility of poverty on Appalachian communities, identifying it as a character flaw rather than the result of generations of systemic oppression, resource drain, and lack of external investment in these communities. We addressed our personal and societal biases against rural, impoverished America and discussed ways to invest in it.

It was one of the first classes where I truly felt seen and heard. I’m grateful that my peers were able to analyze and critique a novel that feeds into the negative narrative about rural America and, specifically, Appalachia. And I’m proud of how I stood strong for my community. It’s moments like those that remind me of why I chose Heller and excite me for what’s to come.

Exploring the Boston Area with Sami

Woman in glasses smiling at the camera

Sami Rovins COEX/MS ’21

Waltham and the greater Boston area as a whole are such fun, vibrant, and exciting places to be a graduate student. There is always something to do, something new to experience, eat, or see! It’s not easy to narrow down a list of recommendations, but here, in no particular order, are my top five:

  1. Walden Pond is a historic, wooded area that’s a perfect place to spend an afternoon in the Spring or Summer. The lake has plenty of room to swim, get a tan, relax with friends, and enjoy the trails in the surrounding woods. For history nerds like me, there is lots of information about Henry David Thoreau, who famously lived and wrote there. You’ll even be able to visit a model of his house. Walden Pond is only about a 25-minute drive from Waltham, and it is the perfect escape from the business of grad school.
  2. If you’re a fan of Indian food, you’ll love Punjabi Dhaba. It’s a casual spot to eat in Cambridge that is usually overflowing with happy customers. It can be tough to choose what to order off of their long and varied menu! Personally, I’m a very big fan of their Paneer Chili Masala. Combine that with a samosa and a mango lassi, you won’t leave disappointed.
  3. The Isabella Stuart Gardener Museum is my favorite art museum in all of Boston. Having once been Ms. Gardener’s personal art collection, it’s a unique and unusual space filled with art from many different places and times. Be sure to keep your eyes out for a few large frames with no art inside of them: after a robbery (the paintings were never recovered), the museum chose not to replace the stolen work with anything else.
  4. Take a walk along the Charles River and enjoy one of the more scenic spaces in Waltham. There is a long and lovely trail along the water that provides a beautiful walk through Waltham. It’s another great way to escape the stress of a busy day, and a great opportunity to get to know the town of Waltham in more detail. You can also explore the Charles by renting a kayak and navigating through the water.
  5. Enjoy a dance party, see a show, or do karaoke at The Middle East. A funky club and bar in Cambridge, The Middle East is the perfect place to unwind after classes end on a Friday or over the weekend. Once you’re there, you’ll discover new music, make new friends, and enjoy delicious Middle Eastern food. My favorite is getting nostalgic at their 90’s throwback dance party.

There’s so much to see and do around Boston and Waltham, it’s hard to pick just five recommendations! Once you’re here, you’ll have ample opportunity to get to know the area and discover what’s most exciting to you.

A Letter to My Future Self (to read upon graduation): Andrea Tyree

A young woman leans against a tree, smiling.

Andrea Tyree, MPP’22

Dear Future Andrea,

Well, it looks like we did it! We are finally graduating with a Master’s in Public Policy from The Heller School. Congratulations!

I’m not surprised. Well, I’m a little surprised. Let’s be honest, neither of us thought we’d make it through Econometrics or Economic Theory unscathed. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about our final capstone. But we made it, and I’m sure you’ve learned some incredible lessons along the way. I’m only two months in at this point, but I’ve already uncovered some surprising insights on police brutality and other forms of oppression through my research. I’ve also learned that it is both useful and encouraged to speak up to leadership when you and others believe that something isn’t right. I hope that you have expanded upon these lessons and they have led you to opportunities that I can only imagine.

I wish you were here now to answer some of my questions. Do we ever return to courses in person? How does the political climate affect our emotional and mental health? How does it affect the direction of our classes? Has the struggle of attending graduate school during one of the most politically and socially tumultuous times brought our cohort closer together? What future opportunities should I keep my eye out for? Where does my path lie after graduate school?

That last question is truly the most important. Where is this degree taking me? Will I continue my research by entering a PhD program, in hopes of one day becoming an expert on police reform? Or will I return to the world of nonprofits and grassroots organizing, taking what I’ve learned to help turn the needs of a community into policy? What if I took that one step further and worked as a lobbyist helping to create the policy that will impact communities? Or maybe I’ll spend some time in a local government department, gaining tangible experience in the sector of policy implementation? It’s possible that I could end up on any of these paths.

I have a feeling I know which one you ended up choosing, but I’m dying to know if I’m right! Sigh. You would probably tell me to relax and enjoy the ride. Smell the roses. Take in the scenery. All that junk.

Alright, I hear you. I’ll work on enjoying every last moment of this experience. At the same time, I’ll focus on taking every opportunity to learn as much as possible about the issues I’m most passionate about. The beautiful thing about an MPP degree is the ability to apply every lesson to your particular field, to truly build your expertise. I’ll continue to do that while you celebrate. And one day soon, I’ll catch up to you.

Enjoy your graduation, future Andrea. I’m sure you’ve earned it.

Election Week Fretting

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

By the time this blog post is published, we will (likely) know the outcome of the US presidential election (editor’s note: still waiting!). For political buffs like me, and of course for the millions or billions of people who will be directly impacted by the electoral outcome, this has been an anxiety-inducing few months! At Heller, we learn how to use data effectively, but also are taught to be skeptical of how data is presented and aware of the potential for error. This is a lesson that many people took to heart after polls failed to predict the stunning outcome of the 2016 election. Our inability to fully trust the information we have about how people will vote only increases our uncertainty.

However, I want to write this post not about the election itself, but about the experience of being a part of the Heller community throughout the primaries and general election. Being a part of an MPP cohort and a student body full of knowledgeable, thoughtful, and politically engaged individuals made following this election a unique and unexpectedly rewarding experience. My classmates and professors pushed me to be more self-critical about my own political preferences and assumptions and consider substantive policy differences between candidates rather than simply following the horserace. Through conversations during class, brown-bag lunches with faculty, lectures, and other events, we had the chance to analyze the election and candidates in the context of political theory and history. For someone like me, who tends to favor big, universal policy interventions rather than targeted, means-tested ones, I was challenged to think through the logistics of major policy change and consider the costs and benefits involved.

Being part of the MPP cohort has made a somewhat stressful election cycle fun, at least some of the time. During the Democratic primary debates last fall, the MPP student association reserved lecture halls and bought snacks to host watch parties for anyone in the Heller community. Discussions about the candidates’ performances and platforms began on car rides home from campus after the debates and continued the next morning when everyone gathered in the Zinner Forum before class. As Heller shifted to remote instruction, political discussions continued through text threads and Zoom happy hours, as well as periodic “tea with the director” cohort meetings on Zoom. Faculty like Professor Bob Kuttner set aside time at the beginning of each class to discuss the race in the context of the pandemic and economic crisis. While of course the stakes of this election are far from academic or theoretical, the policy disagreements revealed during the primary and general election provide rich material for analysis in public policy classes. I feel supported intellectually and personally by my Heller peers during a difficult political period for our country, and I know that the outcome of this election, whatever it may be, will only inspire Heller students to re-commit to using their knowledge and policy skills to advance social justice and equity.

Virtual Internships During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Man in plaid shirt smiling at camera

Doug Nevins BA ’11, MPP ’21

A key feature of the MPP program at Heller is a summer internship between the first and second year. This was one of the selling points for me – the chance to take on a totally new professional challenge and learn in a hands-on way as a complement to my coursework. As Heller has strong connections with non-profit organizations, think tanks, government agencies, and research centers, I was excited by the prospect of finding an engaging summer opportunity.

The career center at Heller plans lots of great events to help students connect with alumni, organizations offering jobs or internships, and fellowship programs. I attended many such info sessions last fall, and in the spring I visited Washington, DC and New York City for Heller career treks. I was hoping to spend the summer in one of these cities, and I applied mostly to non-profit advocacy and research organizations.

As fate would have it, my summer looked very different than that. I had not pinned down an internship plan when the semester ended, and many internship programs had been canceled or moved online. It was challenging for many Heller students to transition to remote classes in the spring and to feel like we might miss out on opportunities we expected to have over the summer.

That said, remote internships were still an option, and I was lucky enough to be connected with a Heller alum in a city workforce development office through the help of one of my professors. I’ve been working part-time since July on a project looking at the transition of adult workforce training programs to remote service, a project which involves interviewing program staff, researching the sector overall, and assisting with presentations and reports to stakeholders. This has been an excellent opportunity to practice skills that I learned in Heller classes, such as conducting a literature review, editing an interview guide, and coding interview transcripts. I’ve become more knowledgeable and passionate, about workforce education, particularly around issues of inclusion and access. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated underlying inequities in resources and access to services, and it feels meaningful to work on immediate policy challenges at the local level. I’ve definitely developed a greater interest in city-level government and policy, and have a much better feel for the policy and non-profit spaces in the Boston area than I did previously.

As challenging as graduate school during COVID can be, working on policy issues where they directly impact people and communities was exactly what I hoped to do when I applied to Heller. I am grateful to the MPP program and to my internship host agency for supporting me, and I hope that my work will make a real difference!

 

 

 

 

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