At fifth anniversary, SINSI marks success in fostering future policymakers

Marking its fifth anniversary this year, Princeton University's Scholars in the Nation's Service Initiative (SINSI) is living up to its mission of fostering the next generation of public policymakers.

SINSI is designed to encourage, support and prepare students to pursue careers in the U.S. government, focusing on both domestic policy and international affairs issues. Selected scholars pursue a rigorous academic schedule through the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs' master in public affairs (MPA) program and intensive language study, along with professional experience through a summer internship and two-year fellowships.

"SINSI exemplifies Princeton's unofficial motto -- 'Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations,'" said Christina Paxson, dean of the Wilson School. "We are committed to preparing the very best to take on current and future challenges by effecting positive change through creative policy."


Eugene Yi, a 2008 Princeton graduate who has worked for the State Department and the Defense Department as part of his fellowships through the Scholars in the Nation's Service Initiative, participates in a presentation for students at an Islamic studies institute in China's Yunnan Province. (Photo courtesy of Eugene Yi)

Since the initiative's launch in 2006, 30 scholars have worked for the U.S. departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the intelligence community, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the Army and Navy, the National Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, the President's Council of Economic Advisers, the Office of Management and Budget, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and the White House.

"In five short years, SINSI has grown from an idea to a program that integrates academic rigor and practical, professional-level work experience in order to give Princeton's best the tools they need to compete and succeed as the next generation of policymakers," said SINSI director Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador who is now a lecturer at the Wilson School. "Our scholars have been accepted as full members of their agencies' policy teams and have been provided professional and intellectual experiences that are beyond expectations." 

To mark the initiative's anniversary, the Wilson School will host a public lecture by John Berry, director of the federal Office of Personnel Management, whose mission is to "recruit, retain and honor a world-class workforce to serve the American people." The discussion will be held at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13, in Dodds Auditorium in Robertson Hall.

SINSI Bonner

For her SINSI internship, 2008 Princeton graduate Kimberly Bonner (right, with members of the Kaspar family, her hosts in Tanzania) worked in Tanzania with the U.S. Agency for International Development on projects including a campaign to distribute free bed nets to every child under 5 to help diminish the spread of malaria. (Photo courtesy of Kimberly Bonner)

The SINSI program recruits Princeton undergraduates with a broad range of academic backgrounds -- not only Wilson School majors, but students who are pursuing majors and certificates in areas such as astrophysical sciences, engineering, chemistry, molecular biology, English, politics, and Near Eastern, East Asian, and Latin American studies. For two years, SINSI students also were chosen from applicants from other colleges and universities to the Wilson School's MPA program, but the program currently is only open to Princeton students.

Undergraduate scholars spend the summer after their junior year in a SINSI-funded federal government internship, and upon graduation they enter the two-year MPA program. Scholars also may opt for a summer of intensive study in a language relevant to their field of study or career goals. A core element of the program is a two-year SINSI-supported fellowship with the federal government between the first and second year of the MPA program. By providing the scholars with a year of graduate training before they enter their government fellowships, SINSI enables them to secure higher-level positions.

Shaping scholars' futures

Within their assignments with various governmental departments and agencies, SINSI scholars have worked on a broad range of domestic and international issues that have augmented their work in the classroom.

Eugene Yi, a 2008 Princeton graduate who will receive his MPA in 2013, was a Wilson School major and a member of the first SINSI cohort. Yi's internship was divided between the State Department's Bureau of East Asian Affairs and the Defense Department's Office of East Asia. For his fellowship he returned to the Defense Department, where he worked on policy issues and on the Quadrennial Defense Review, a legislatively mandated review of the department's strategy and priorities; and to the State Department, where he worked at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing on domestic issues.

"Through the SINSI program, I enjoyed an incredible range of experiences from serving with uniformed men and women in the halls of the Pentagon to traveling to over 15 Chinese provinces as a reporting officer in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing," Yi said. "I met inspirational people committed to public service who taught me aspects of policymaking and leadership that complemented the analytic skills one learns through the Wilson School curriculum."

Sarah Ray, a Tulane University graduate and a member of the 2009 SINSI class, has focused on urban policy and planning while at the Wilson School, where she will received her MPA in 2013. Through SINSI, she worked in the Office of the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, doing policy work on the nexus of housing, services, education and safety. In that capacity she has been able to work on interagency projects, often in a leadership role. For the White House Domestic Policy Council's Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative -- an interagency pilot effort launched this July to promote economic development in six cities across the country -- Ray will serve as team leader in Memphis, Tenn., for about four months before returning to Washington, D.C., to continue to remotely lead the team effort.

"SINSI gave me a great opportunity to see what work at the federal level is like, and I've met incredible colleagues from all across the government," Ray said. "It's been an ideal situation in terms of figuring out what I'd like to do after I finish at Princeton."

Princeton senior Marlise Jean-Pierre, one of the newest SINSI scholars, interned this summer at the Department of Health and Human Services' Family Violence Prevention and Services Program. An English major who is pursuing certificates in Spanish, American studies and African American studies, Jean-Pierre said, "I wanted to find a way to apply my skills as an English major and my research on representation of trauma and violence in literature to the real world. My internship provided me the opportunity to use my research and my analytic skills to understand the field of domestic violence from a policy standpoint."

Jean-Pierre, who is also an Adel Mahmoud Global Health Scholar, will research the mental health conditions of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans as part of her senior thesis work. She hopes to increase accessibility of mental health care to survivors of major disasters and to victims of sex trafficking.

Influencing foreign policy

As a 2008 SINSI scholar, Alexander Correa -- a University of Miami graduate who will receive his MPA in 2012 -- has worked with the U.S. Treasury Department, the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador, the Inter-American Development Bank and, most recently, in Mumbai, India, with the World Bank's International Finance Corporation. In that role, he helped to develop a new strategy for advising India's financial sector on how best to assist various local enterprises with funding.

In his internship and fellowship programs, Correa has witnessed firsthand the central role economic policy plays in international relations. He was able to use the skills he gained with SINSI to contribute to two Treasury Department projects: the Microfinance Growth Fund for the Western Hemisphere, a $100 million public/private credit lending organization called for by President Barack Obama at the Fifth Summit of the Americas in 2009, and the G-20's Small and Medium Enterprise Finance Challenge, a global request for proposals -- launched at the 2010 G-20 Toronto Summit -- to improve access to credit for growing businesses in developing countries.

"SINSI accelerated my career to heights I never would have fathomed possible at the age of 23," Correa said. "The program's generous support and dedicated administrators provided me with the independence, sage advice and network necessary to secure competitive placements that matched my skills."

For Rashad Badr, a 2010 Princeton graduate who majored in the Wilson School who will receive his MPA in 2014, SINSI has provided the opportunity to work with policymakers at the State Department in the fields of diplomacy and counterterrorism. His internship was with the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait, where he was given firsthand access to American diplomacy in the Middle East, as well as responsibility in both public and political affairs. He has pursued his fellowship with the State Department's Directorate of Operations in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, where he has been involved in monitoring and analyzing current and emerging terrorist threats.

"SINSI has provided me the opportunity to learn from the best instructors in the field of policy research at the Wilson School," Badr said. "The MPA program has been extremely helpful in instilling a knowledge of political and economic theory, quantitative analysis and its application in public policy, and subject- matter expertise that was tailored to my interests. This combination of academic and professional experience is the program's greatest value and provides all its fellows with the knowledge and expertise necessary to excel in the field of public service."

Changing scholars' expectations

For scholars such as Kimberly Bonner, the breadth of opportunities available through SINSI has led to new academic and career perspectives.

After graduating from Princeton in 2008 as a molecular biology major, Bonner served her SINSI fellowship through the U.S. Agency for International Development working in the Tanzanian government's National Malaria Control Program, which had been the subject of her senior thesis.

"Prior to my SINSI fellowship, I had great enthusiasm, but no experience in working in the developing world," she said. "Despite this lack of experience, my senior thesis made several policy recommendations that would have represented a large shift in Tanzania's malaria policy."

Working in Tanzania, Bonner assisted in the implementation of a grant where she distributed malaria bed nets to children under 5. This experience, she said, enabled her to learn about implementation challenges in developing countries and how to identify components of successful ventures between those countries' governments and donor partners. 

Bonner's on-the-ground training also made her re-examine her undergraduate academic research. "After several months working within Tanzania's government, I realized the ideas in my senior thesis were not realistic, but I noticed other policy changes that could have been made and wrote a proposal for one of them prior to departing the office," she said. "Thanks to my experience as a SINSI fellow, I have learned not only about the specifics of the Tanzanian government, but also about questioning my own underlying assumptions and seeking to understand what policies are needed, feasible and sustainable. I expect that these skills will benefit me as a policymaker in the years to come."

SINSI participant Rachel Van Tuyl wanted to directly enter into graduate school following her undergraduate studies at Auburn University to learn everything she could about international relations "before I embarked on my quest to change to world as a naïve but well-intentioned public servant."

Entering the SINSI scholarship program "put a detour in my plans that I would not have fully appreciated as an undergraduate student, but for which I am grateful for in hindsight."

Van Tuyl's 2008-10 SINSI fellowship was as a political-military foreign affairs specialist with the U.S. Department of the Army, focusing on its bilateral relationships with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Romania, Slovakia and Turkey.

"Working in the federal government provided me with the knowledge that cannot be taught in a classroom, an acute sense of what the military refers to as 'situational awareness' -- the cultivation of which has made me a more capable public servant and a stronger future student at the Wilson School," said Van Tuyl, who will receive her MPA in 2012.

Bodine, the SINSI director, said the experiences gained through the initiative are invaluable for future decision-makers in today's increasingly interconnected world.

"If there is one lesson from 9/11, the global financial crisis and the ongoing debate over climate change, it is that we are inexorably tied to the rest of the world, and it to us," Bodine said. "The common thread running through each of these experiences is that the line between domestic policy and foreign policy and between the public and private sectors has blurred out of distinction. What is also clear is that the challenges we as a people and we as a government face require those who bring to the table creative and workable solutions. The mission of SINSI is exactly that -- exceptional students, dedication to public service, and practical, professional-level work experience all in preparation for careers serving this nation and the world as the next generation of policymakers."