Now a researcher and analyst in DC, Chandra credits Harris with boosting her quantitative skills and providing a welcoming and nurturing environment for her as an international student.
Meghana Chandra
Meghana Chandra

A key inspiration for Meghana Chandra, MPP’18, was that her mother, a psychiatrist specializing in women’s health, and her father, a neurologist, elected to work in public hospitals in Bangalore, India. “I wanted to pursue a career that contributed to society in a meaningful way,” she says. Her current job, evaluating health care at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in Washington, DC, fulfills that goal and aligns her legal background with the skills she honed at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

Prior to enrolling at Harris Public Policy, Chandra says she noticed, both as a lawyer and woman living in India, a lack of access to legal information was a big problem. “I wanted to make it really easy for any woman in India, regardless of literacy level, to be able to file a restraining order or an order of protection.”

While at Harris, Chandra took steps to rectify that situation. Through the Social New Venture Challenge (SNVC), she and Mariana Botero, a joint Harris and Booth School of Business student, co-founded Shakti, a startup employing an easy-to-access phone voice response system to empower women in India, with varying levels of literacy, to gain access to legal services in cases of rape, assault, and domestic violence. Shakti tied for second place in the SNVC, winning $15,000, and also won the $10,000 Tata Centre for Development Social Impact Award from the Tata Centre for Development. Shakti was also selected to be presented at the Clinton Global Initiative University—early successes which Chandra says helped to propel Shakti forward.

Chandra also credits being away from home—and outside of her comfort zone—as empowering her to expand her ideas beyond their usual framework: “I don’t know if it’s Harris, or Chicago, or the community that made me feel that I could do something, but coming here and having so much help figuring out my goals, and so many resources to change a situation, was extremely heartwarming.”

One goal Chandra had prior to enrolling was sharpening her math skills, and Harris’ quantitative focus was a big draw for her; she now considers herself an evangelist for the survey research methodology classes. “What I learned in those classes has been extremely useful at NORC, where I collect and analyze the results of numerous surveys.”

The willingness of faculty to go the extra step also left an impression. Chandra recalls brainstorming via Skype with Dr. Thomas Coleman, determining a trading structure for deforestation when she interned abroad in Brazil. And Dr. Kim Wolske, to whom Chandra reported as a research assistant, was “extremely receptive and open to ideas and discussing issues in her classes.”

As for life after graduation, Chandra’s key recommendation for students coming from abroad is to keep options open when exploring employment opportunities. “State and local jobs, for example, have fewer restrictions on visas, and nonprofit sector jobs do not require the awful game of chance that is the visa lottery system the government mandates.” Another benefit of nonprofit employers, she notes, is the balance between work and academic life. “They’ll hire candidates with master’s degrees and support those who choose to continue their education.”

In general, Chandra recommends incoming students be open to trying new things. “When I came from India, I would often look for things that felt familiar. While that’s helpful, it’s also important to push yourself and try new things. Whether it’s using Python for data analysis, or trying different kinds of food, or travelling—put yourself out there.”