Shambhavi Mohan, MSCAPP'18

Shambhavi Mohan, MSCAPP’18, hopes to one day return to her native India to work on international development, focusing on renewable energy.

“In the long term I always want to go back,” Mohan said. Right now, though, she’s in Seattle working for Amazon as a data scientist. Her role combines technology and public policy as she works on projects related to labor market issues.

Having the option either to explore private-sector opportunities in the United States or to head home to dig into public policy issues is due, she said, to her degree from the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Harris, Mohan said, provided the skills that will enable her to maximize her impact.

Shriya Sethi

Through degree programs in Chicago or fellowships and faculty and alumni research in South Asia — including projects facilitated by Harris’ International Innovation Corps (IIC) at UChicago’s Center in Delhi — Harris aims to foster positive social change and impact while serving as a launchpad for the region’s future leaders.

“It’s synergy,” said Shriya Sethi, IIC’s country director in India.

IIC, whose programs include a yearlong fellowship with hands-on policy work in Indian government agencies, has two missions, she explained. “One is that we want to impact policy and work closely with the government to build up more sustainable solutions and really have them think about the data. And the second is that we want to develop future leaders in the development sector.”  

Steven Walker, MPP'18

IIC fellows often go on to attend Harris, she said, or arrive after completing a Harris degree as Steven Walker, MPP’18, did. Walker spent one year working with the Rajasthan state government on education reforms and stayed on for a second year to work with the national government on a forthcoming gender equality index for all of India. Other fellows have been involved in initiatives ranging from universal healthcare programs to creating an artificial-intelligence strategy for India. 

“When people from the West, the U.S. specifically, think of coming to South Asia, they think of it as ‘international development’ without an understanding of what that means,” Walker said. “But the fact that IIC is working on 21st-century issues like developing an AI policy for India is really forward thinking.” 

Those efforts are going on alongside of Harris faculty members’ “impactful work” in the region, such as the environmental issues being explored by Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), said Assistant Professor Anjali Adukia.

Adukia also noted a research project in Delhi schools to determine the potential benefits of having air purifiers in classrooms, which is led by Harris Associate Professor Koichiro Ito and Assistant Professor Amir Jina,

And, the University’s Tata Centre for Development (TCD) in Delhi, meanwhile, is making an impact on some of India’s biggest policy and development issues by combining research with outreach and partnership.

Adukia’s own research is primarily focused on understanding the factors that influence educational decisions and the potential role of government agencies and non-profits to improve child outcomes in developing countries. That includes how a lack of basic needs such as sanitation facilities at a school can have a meaningful impact for students and teachers.  

Harris, she said, cares “a lot about bridging that gap between what has been learned from research and what actually happens on the ground in policy and practice. As an example, IIC is actively placing students who have been trained as critical consumers of research in government agencies to help them make decisions based off of rigorous evidence. These opportunities are not only valued by the government agencies but also by our students.”

It was his experience working with the Pakistan government that spurred Faisal A. Baig, MPP’15, to head to Chicago to study public policy, ultimately landing him, after graduation from Harris, in Washington, D.C., where he is now a public sector specialist with the World Bank.

Baig, who led the policy research team at the Punjab Board of Investment and Trade, wanted to experience public policy at the global level. But such opportunities are rare in Pakistan.

“For me,” he said, “Harris was a very, very rational choice. It’s a school that has an immense reputation for having a rigorous program, which taught me specific skills that improved the toolkit that I have and made me a better fit for working in international development at a scale only possible in institutions like the World Bank.”  Those opportunities include working for the World Bank’s South Asian Chief Economist’s Office and now with the Governance Global Practice.

Assistant Professor Anjali Adukia

The university’s esteemed reputation is another important factor for many South Asian students, for whom a Harris degree can be a family investment. If families are “going to be spending this money and sending [their child] so far away,” they want to be reassured about the quality of the institution and the potential return on their investment, Adukia said.

Also helping to reassure families and students is the “rich South Asian community across the university,” Adukia added.

Sid Ramakrishna, MPP’19, who grew up in India and the United States, said there is “a pretty broad South Asian community both in terms of the diaspora, which included individuals as myself, and international students.

“There was definitely a unique cultural unifier. It brought people together,” said Ramakrishna, who works at the New York State Division of the Budget, where he manages the capital budget for the New York State Department of Transportation.

Speakers and events, including celebrations for Diwali, are planned by groups, including The UChicago South Asian Students Association.

“If you wanted to be in touch with South Asia,” he said, “if you wanted to be in touch with the culture, you have an option and it really comes from the student body.”

Beyond any extracurricular benefits, though, it is the education that Harris provides that has the biggest pull for most students.

“I wanted to do something at the intersection of data science and public policy,” Mohan said, “and Harris was one of the very few schools that offered an integrated course in data science and public policy. And, obviously, Harris is a very good public policy school.”

Once people learn about the opportunities at Harris and the kind of data-based training they get here they are “very excited frankly,” Adukia said.  

Her own work in South Asia as well as having lived in India while working for nonprofits before entering academia, brings Adukia into frequent contact with Harris’ South Asian students.

“They’re such strong, thoughtful students who are eager and passionate and brilliant. It’s a privilege to get to work with them,” she said. “I’m very excited to see what these students end up doing in life.”