María Ballesteros participated in the 2018 Data and Policy Summer Scholar Program (DPSS) during her final year at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in political science in fall 2018, María has returned to UChicago Harris Public Policy as a full-time Research Assistant. In fall 2020, she started her PhD in Government at Harvard University. We spoke with María about her DPSS experience.

What brought you to study public policy?

I was first drawn to public policy when I realized just how big a part it plays in our everyday lives. Every aspect of civilized human interaction is guided by policy in some way or other - our schools, our roads, where we live and who our neighbors are - and yet most people seldom give it any thought. After one too many political discussions at the dinner table, where everyone had complaints but nobody really understood why I decided to figure it out for myself.

After getting a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science, and participating in the Data and Summer Policy Summer program, I now have a much better idea of why policies are drafted and what their intents maybe, but I think I’ve mostly realized how much more there still is to learn. I’ll continue to study public policy in the hopes of contributing to the search for those answers that will make people’s lives a little bit better.

Why did you choose to participate in the Data and Policy Summer Scholar Program?

I chose to participate in DPSS because I’d heard about Harris’ many achievements before, and I was considering Harris for graduate school. Coming for the summer was the perfect opportunity to get to know the campus, the city, and what Harris students and Faculty were all about!

Also, I was very excited to expand my background in data science in relation to policymaking. I’ve always been very interested in how much numbers can tell us about our daily lives. I was drawn to the program’s R section and was excited to learn R specifically for the analysis of public policy.

What was one of the most memorable experiences for you during the program?

I have to say that the best part was making so many wonderful friends amongst both the program’s students and faculty. Getting to work with so many exceptional people from all around the world with very different academic backgrounds made the summer unforgettable. We had very different strengths and varying levels of expertise in regards to what was being taught in the program, but we worked together well, which allowed each and every one of us to learn and grow as much as possible.

How did DPSS prepare you to pursue your professional goals?  

My idea of what my future would look like changed drastically during the summer. Before I came to Harris, I was considering maybe getting a master’s degree in public policy and getting a job in the public sector. I’d never participated in academic research before and had no idea what it looked like. Working on the Capstone Project with Professor Wright showed me just how enthralling research can be, and I soon discovered a passion for answering questions about our world that are seemingly unanswerable.

I am now working at Harris as a Research Assistant to Professor Wright. Together, we work on studying conflict in Afghanistan, in the hopes of better understanding wars and how to end them. This fall I will apply to Ph.D. programs in Political Science, which had it not been for my time at Harris last summer I never would’ve considered that path.

What other insights do you wish to share?

One of the better parts of the program was spending the summer in the beautiful city of Chicago. Exploring the city through the program’s Friday excursions gave us a good idea of what the city was really like, which then gave us the courage to go out and explore it on our own. Being at a top university located in an incredible city, only a few minutes away from the lively downtown is a rare experience – worth doing!