Learn more about the 2017 Harris Alumni Fellowship recipients, Ashton Lee and Maryiam Saifuddin (AB’14).

Each year, at least one incoming student is awarded a Harris Alumni Fellowship. The Fellowship was launched in 2012 by the Harris Alumni Council in an effort to show support for exceptional students with a significant annual scholarship. Thanks to the support of Harris’ many donors, in 2017 Harris was able to honor two students with the Fellowship.

Both of this year's Harris Alumni Fellowship recipients, Ashton Lee and Maryiam Saifuddin (AB’14), express the hallmark ambition of all Harris students to make a positive impact on the world by learning to use evidence to develop sound policies. 

Why did you choose to attend Harris and what do you hope it will lead to?

Ashton Lee (AL): Harris has a worldwide reputation of being an institution that is as challenging as it is rewarding, and that is exactly the combination I was looking for. More than anything, I hope my time at Harris will prepare me to make an impact when I leave Hyde Park. After graduating, it is my intention to use the advanced knowledge and skills I gain to continue my professional career in federal or state government, working to pinpoint and analyze problems and then develop effective solutions.

Maryiam Saifuddin (MS): I chose Harris because of its quantitative rigor. I worked at the Houston Food Bank prior to coming to Harris and there, I came to value the difficulty of resource allocation, especially when discussing complex social issues like food insecurity. Non-profits have a desire to leverage data to make better decisions but are not always equipped to do so.

When I began applying for grad school, I had been striving to find ways to make the food bank’s interventions more effective and efficient. I worked with smart people, incredibly adept at analyzing and summarizing complex data. I saw what they could do for our work and I wanted the skills to solve big problems.

Harris will give me a broader context for understanding the role of government in spurring the formulation and growth of programmatic interventions. Ultimately, I want to be able to turn impact analyses into sound policy.

Please describe any special internships, teaching activities, publications, or presentations you may have worked on so far that you feel are particularly noteworthy.

AL: I was appointed to the Harris Student Government Social Committee along with one other first year student. I also work on campus as a Graduate Admissions Assistant in the UChicago Grad office where I welcome visitors, answer phones and emails, speak with prospective graduate students, and assist with research projects.

Before moving to Chicago and attending Harris, I spent two years working as Assistant to Governor Nikki Haley, where I gained valuable insight into the inner workings of state government, observing the arts of negotiation and diplomacy and the benefits of purposeful, hard work. I enjoyed the highest of highs, playing a role in recruiting new industry to our state, working with those in the South Carolina Department of Commerce as well as industry executives. I was also witness to the lowest of lows, tragedies like the Mother Emmanuel shootings in June 2015 and the devastating floods that overwhelmed our state during the fall of 2015. These experiences have changed me both professionally and personally, and I will carry their lessons with me for the rest of my life.

MS: I was an AmeriCorps VISTA for a year, as a part of the Feeding Texas Client Empowerment Corps. After my time as an AmeriCorps VISTA, the Houston Food Bank hired me to tackle program development and manage their VISTA program. During my time at the Houston Food Bank, I presented my team’s work to diverse audiences, including the inaugural Wisconsin HOPE Lab Real College National Convening (Addressing Undergraduate Food Insecurity), the Practical Playbook National Meeting (Bringing Public Health and Primary Care Together), and the YMCA Global Centers for Excellence Conference.

Currently, I work at COFI (Community Organizing and Family Issues) as their Policy and Strategy Intern, using data visualization tools to inform decisions about city-and statewide community organizing expansion. At Harris, I was selected to be Director of Finance for Minorities in Public Policy.

How has receiving the Harris Alumni Fellowship impacted your experience at Harris Public Policy?

AL: First and foremost, if not for the Harris Alumni Fellowship and the gift that comes with it, I would not have been able to attend Harris at all. I will be forever grateful for the generosity from the donors that gave me this opportunity.

MS: Receiving the Harris Alumni Fellowship made coming to Harris possible for me. After graduating, I plan to go back to the public and non-profit sector. As a first-generation college graduate, I have benefited from social policies aimed at redressing socioeconomic inequality and inequity and I believe that policy development is the most impactful method of developing human capital. Programs enacted through thoughtful policies ensure a citizen’s success is not predicated on socioeconomic status, geography, or family history. The Harris Alumni Fellowship allows me to think past the grad school debt that would have colored my career choice in the future and commit to the social policy projects that I am passionate about. The Fellowship reaffirmed for me Harris’ commitment to its students.

When did you realize Harris was the right place for you?

AL: I realized Harris was the right place for me during the Prospective and Admitted Student days. The professionalism and welcoming nature of the Harris students and staff made me feel that this was the kind of place I could see myself being a part of for the next two years and beyond.  

MS: I visited Harris during Admitted Students weekend. During lunch, I sat with a few other admitted students and over sandwiches one of the students explained Mearsheimer's views on regional hegemony (as opposed to global hegemony). That was what I had been looking for in a school (not Mearsheimer, but individuals with varied and deep interests). I knew that I wanted to have those kinds of conversations on a regular basis. I wanted to be surrounded by peers who were incredibly intelligent, compassionate, and passionate – and I have not been disappointed once. The Harris student population is incredibly diverse in work experience, cultural backgrounds, and worldviews. I knew that I could get a degree from anywhere—I could have watched Yale Open Source Course videos or other MOOCs to learn about morality in politics or game theory—but Harris was going to be the opportunity to learn from my peers over breakfast at Valois or a Merlin themed board game or a late-night study session. That’s pretty invaluable.

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