| By Mehroz Baig |
We are a bit like the endangered species of SIPA, making up only 75 out of approximately 900 students. We are those who are technically second years taking first year classes, or the ones who can never bust out with three-letter acronyms to introductions—MIA/ISP or MPA/EPD—and instead have to resort to sentence-long explanations of where we belong. In case it wasn’t clear, I’m talking about dual degree students.
SIPA has 12 dual degree programs with other schools on campus and each one comes with its own set of requirements—how long a student will be at SIPA, how their time is structured, and how integrated the curriculum is. As a Journalism/SIPA dual degree student, I’ve found a complete lack of integration between the schools except for the fact that I attended both—for all administrative purposes, last year, I was only a J-School student. That meant that the registrar thought I was graduating last May and the housing office thought that I was vacating my apartment in May—talk about a surprise when I got a notice of vacancy last April, asking me to confirm that I was in fact never coming back. After a few back-and-forth phone calls with the housing office, I was luckily able to fix the problem.
But the bigger problem remains: each school operates within its own system—a separate registrar, financial aid office, and admission and housing procedures. Julia Oakley, a MIA/Social Work dual degree student, spent last year at the School of Social Work and is now at SIPA. “I think next year is going to be the hardest [with admin issues],” she said. Her third year will be split—she’ll be registered at SIPA one semester and SW the next. That means lot of paperwork, red tape and multiple offices doing the same thing. However, her year will be split only administratively. The SW degree requires a field placement, which will last all year and will require Julia to work at least 21 hours a week in addition to taking classes at both schools.
Erum Jaffer is the dual degree representative for SIPASA and is currently doing her split SIPA/SW year. “I have 12-14 hour days,” she says. “It’s not easy when you have to do group work,” she adds, and that’s certainly understandable considering how group-oriented SIPA is, especially with core requirements, which are usually the courses dual degree students take at SIPA. But this isn’t a complaint about how much work we might have to do—after all, we chose to do dual degree programs and hopefully we all knew, at least to some extent, what we were signing ourselves up for. What is difficult is the chaos that results from the lack of a cohesive administrative strategy for dual degree students.
Not only will registration be split for Julia, so will her financial aid: the semester she is at SW, she’ll get their financial aid; when she’s at SIPA, she will get SIPA financial aid. That means that while she can use her work-study award at SW towards her field placement, she cannot do the same while at SIPA. Additionally, although Julia can apply for SIPA assistantships, since she will only be at SIPA for one semester, chances of getting an assistantship decrease. Erum points out that dual degree students are very disadvantaged with financial aid at SIPA because “[the process] is geared towards two-year MIA/MPA students.” However, there’s certainly nothing to stop dual degree students from applying for SIPA assistantships—I did last year, but what I found was that since I hadn’t been in residence at SIPA, there were many positions for which I was simply not qualified. Would you want me as your Econ TA without actually having taken the class? I think not.
Leah Gunn-Barrett, the dual degree dean at OSA says, “the onus is on you as a student and on us to remind you to start coming to SIPA—talk to some of the professors and get to know them. A lot comes down to personal relationships,” she adds, “and students have an obligation to form those relationships.” While that is certainly true, it is hard to replace actually taking a class with a professor by simply coming to a few events. “Last year I went to some SIPA events or OSA and felt like a complete outsider,” Julia confessed. And I understand that feeling—last year, I came by OSA a few times and felt a bit out of place—SIPA wasn’t my school, not then.
Career advising is another aspect where there aren’t any offices specifically for dual degree students. Often, career services within each school don’t necessarily know how to advise students doing dual programs. At the J-School, I could only count on getting career advice about journalism. At SIPA, I’ve found help on the human rights front—what I want is to combine the two but so far, I haven’t found anyone who can tangibly help me with that because at the end of the day, translating my dual degree to a career for me doesn’t simply mean doing PR work for a human rights organization. Cindy Lowe feels similarly about combining her SIPA/SW academic background. “I do really feel torn,” she says. “It’s great to have the opportunity to explore everything but I am really torn between my passion of working with individuals and working to change policy that could have a broader impact.” Erum agrees. “I think that’s a challenge for a lot of students—I know dual degree students who have two business cards and that’s not the point of a dual degree.” Let’s hope not.
That’s not to say that the school isn’t paying attention: simply having a dual degree dean is a big deal, considering that in some schools, being the dual degree dean is a side job of another administrator, who may or may not be able to help students navigate through administrative processes. Dean Barrett began her job recently, in late June of last year, and has focused on not only addressing current issues among dual degrees, but also enhancing communication and marketing the programs. She says she wants to make the dual degree experience “as pleasant as possible and I don’t hosted networking events with other schools so that dual degree students can meet one another, is organizing a faculty speaker series on interdisciplinary topics, and is responsible solely for dual degree students, which means that we now have an advocate within OSA. I’m happy to report that I do, in fact, feel the love. On the student front, SIPASA just added a dual degree representative position to their board, which provides an outlet for dual degrees to become more involved with the student community. It’s hard to only be at SIPA for one year and easy to not feel like a part of the SIPA community, especially when dual degrees aren’t required to specialize in a concentration—the academic camaraderie is a great way for SIPA students to form a community and dual degrees don’t necessarily get to be a part of that. But the tide is turning: the active involvement from OSA and SIPASA means that these issues are being heard and dual degree students have a mechanism for getting involved. We’re not asking to be coddled through our graduate experience—but we’re excited to be bridging topics, disciplines, and separate schools on campus. As more and more students take part in the dual degree experience, the administrative systems will need to become more fluid than they are now. We’re simply pointing that out because as jobs become more interdisciplinary, so will academics, and in that trend, dual degrees may become less of an exception at SIPA.
Mehroz Baig is a second-year dual-degree student at SIPA and Columbia Journalism School. This article first appeared in the February 16th, 2012 issue of Communiqué.