The Writing Program and Mentor Program are just two examples of opportunities at Harris.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a hybrid remote and in-person experience, Harris wraparound services are stronger than ever.

Sometimes magic happens outside the classroom, making all the difference in a student’s experience and success. That’s why the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy long has emphasized its suite of “wraparound’’ programs.

The Mentor Program, for example, a brainchild of Irving Harris himself, is a premier program in the school’s student services portfolio. It has matured along with the school, expanding from a boutique offering only for second-year students to an outcomes-focused experiential program available to all.

The Writing Program, too, has grown exponentially. Students still get help with classroom memo assignments but the objective has broadened considerably – teaching students how to turn data into stories in order to more effectively explain and build consensus around policy proposals.

Kate Shannon Biddle is the dean of students and oversees the Harris Student Affairs team.

These wraparound programs are more vital than ever as the 2020-21 academic year launches amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, said Kate Shannon Biddle, Dean of Students.

Beyond the inherent enrichment each provides, the wraparound programs are touchpoints to help ensure that remote students, especially those in their first year, make the quick and lasting connections to Harris for which the school has become known.

Harris’ Academic and Student Affairs team is laser-focused on student experience, using a student centered approach to ensure that students achieve their goals. In fact, five of the 12 nominees for the university-wide 2020 Marlene F. Richman Award for Excellence and Dedication in Service to Students were from Harris (Eman Alsamara, Brandon Kurzweg, Jen Lombardo, Hanna Seferos, and Alyssa Szynal) – the most finalists from one department ever.  

“This truly speaks to our team’s incredible dedication to students and the skill that they bring to their work,’’ Biddle said.

For Autumn Quarter, the Harris team is working to ensure the wraparound programs work as well for students studying from afar as for those on campus.

“We want to ensure the same outcomes in this new environment as when we were all gathering in person at Keller,’’ Biddle said.

Lauren Manning, MPP’20, worked as the Writing Program’s head TA during Spring Quarter when COVID-19 forced a sudden pivot to remote classes and co-curricular activity.

TAs adjusted their schedules, offering times around the clock so that students in China, for example, could conveniently connect for coaching sessions and workshops. Zoom tools such as screen sharing and white boards “allowed us to engage in ways that felt super collaborative,’’ said Manning, now working as a consultant with the World Bank’s Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit.

As Manning sees it, skills imparted remotely become even more valuable in a work world that is likely changed permanently in fundamental ways.

“We are living in a new normal,’’ Manning said. “The way we communicate information, especially complex data, is going to be increasingly important assuming we are in this situation for a long time.’’

David Chrisinger, associate director, is an accomplished writer and runs the Harris Writing Program.

David Chrisinger, Associate Director of Academic and Student Affairs, leads the Writing Program. He and Manning worked together to dramatically expand it. The program offered 200 coaching sessions during the 2018-19 academic year and 600 in just a quarter during Winter 2019-20.

Manning saw a “powerful shift’’ in the past two years “to a point where more and more students at Harris recognize the importance of the marriage between strong valid information and the way that you translate it.’’

Manning earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and sociology at Northwestern University. She chose Harris because she lacked the quantitative skills necessary for impactful policy work: “I wanted the ability to understand if the data we have is telling us something meaningful, and then to share it with an external audience in a way that makes sense to them.’’

She was the perfect partner for Chrisinger, who sees the Writing Program as much about clear thinking as good writing.

“We’re not copy editors. We’re not fixing the grammar,’’ Chrisinger said. “We help students identify approaches and clarify the thinking behind the writing.’’

In one-on-one sessions and workshops, students learn to ask the right questions in order to frame their policies: What deficiency will this address? What should be happening and why isn’t it happening? What is the root cause?

People-first language is an important tenet of the Writing Program.

“Crime in Chicago isn’t merely about numbers of shootings, spikes, dips and arrests,’’ Chrisinger said. “It’s a more complicated picture of the people affected. Writing about people is not only respectful and appropriate, but it makes it easier for readers to understand.’’

This year Chrisinger is launching a series of programs addressing best practices for policy writing by region. Inductive policy writing reigns in China, for instance, while in the U.S. deductive writing (as in, don’t bury the lead) is the norm. In Peru, much more background information is expected. 

Chrisinger previously worked as communications specialist in the U.S. Government Accountability Office and taught public policy writing at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is working on a second edition of his book Public Policy Writing That Matters, published in 2017 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

Writing programs at policy schools often are viewed as “rudimentary,’’ he said, designed solely to support students whose native language is not English or native English speakers who are just poor writers.

Chrisinger designed the Harris Writing Program to do much more – teaching students to tell stories about people rooted in data, to use clear and muscular language and structure, and to persuade.  There is a workshop on how to write op-eds and another titled “Poetry as Practice for Policy Writing,’’ exposing students to the impact of “haunting’’ words used in powerful poetry.

The Harris Mentor Program takes a similar holistic approach.

Anderw Dawson, assistant dean of students for operations and special projects, oversees the Mentor Program.

In previous iterations, the Mentor Program matched second-year students with Harris alumni, often in the same field.  Irving Harris knew that students would benefit from exposure to the real world, the alumni’s wisdom and experience, and possibly the alumni’s connections.

It grew each year in success and popularity – to such degree, in fact, that the Academic and Student Affairs team knew they needed to figure out how to scale the program to match the school’s growth, said Andrew Dawson, Assistant Dean of Students for Operations and Special Projects, who directs the Mentor Program.

The program has transformed completely. While there were 40 mentors five years ago, each assigned to a second-year student, today there are more than 225 alumni participating as mentors. Some are assigned to second-year students – now matched through an algorithmic bidding system – while others speak on panels or meet with small groups to discuss professional development issues. 

The big win, Dawson said, is that now all Harris students have access to the rich network of working policy professionals.

Brandon Kurzweg, Assistant Dean of Students, Student Life, develops programming while maintaining a focus on outcomes. From the perspective of both mentors and students, he asks constantly, “What are we supposed to be getting out of this? What’s our goal here?’’

There are countless examples of Harris mentors helping mentees find jobs. “And that’s great, but we can’t guarantee that,’’ Kurzweg said.

 “We view all of our mentors as seasoned policy practitioners who have good information to share, whether they’re in education or economics.’’

Brandon Kurzweg, assistant dean of students for student life, is focused on programming that provides real outcomes for the student population.

Six or so carefully curated panels throughout the year address areas such as professional development or challenges around policy implementation – taking a passion from idea to working policy. Getting buy-in, making concessions.

“In the real world you sometimes have to be willing to change things up,’’ Kurzweg said, and discussing that with professionals on the front line is valuable.

A series called Policy on the Table creates more intimate conversations among 10 students and four or five mentors.  These are less scripted and often lead to deeper dives in which students talk about what’s really on their minds, Kurzweg said.

Like with other wraparound initiatives, Dawson and Kurzweg are working to optimize the Harris Mentor Program in virtual form for the Fall Quarter. The program is viewed as an important avenue for the engagement for students not able to be on campus.

A real benefit, though, is the broader pool of mentors who can participate in panels, small-group discussions and one-on-one matches.  Suddenly, geography is no limit.