Happiness Doesn’t Have Just One Address

As a native Californian, Syracuse has provided me with many new experiences since I arrived in July. I was born and raised in Southern California where it is summer about 8 months out of the year.We have palm trees and cacti in our backyards, with snow caped mountains just 30 minutes away. I had never been in weather below 20 degrees before I visited Syracuse in April and I had to ask my roommates for help when buying winter gear. During this time, I have found that it can be calming to shovel snow and scrap ice off of car windows; I even enjoy it sometimes. Weather might seem like a silly concern, but it can be very difficult for some people to acclimate to when it is such a drastic change. I was concerned about the lack of sun Syracuse gets during the winter months and if it would have an effect on my attitude and behavior. Luckily, I have been surviving the snowy days and I try to enjoy the beautiful snow while I can! I love California and I hope to go back after graduation, but first I have to make it through the upcoming winter months.

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What is a Californian to do during the first snowfall? Instagram it, of course!

The weather is not the only new experience for me this year. My undergraduate university was only 15 minutes away from my house, so in order to save my family and myself some money, I decided to commute to school all four years. There were challenging times being an off campus student, but looking back at it now, I wouldn’t change a thing. With that being said, this year has been the first time in my life where I have lived on my own. Not only was it the first time being on my own, I also decided I would move across the entire country! There were multiple times leading up to my move to Syracuse, and even during the first few months here, where I seriously questioned what in the world I was thinking. I love my family; I love hanging out with them and I enjoy our weekly gatherings. I wasn’t ready to leave the pets in my family or my new baby cousins that I already loved so much. I had to constantly remind myself that I’m so fortunate to even have this opportunity to get an amazing education and to learn from some of the brightest minds in the field of Public Administration. I couldn’t let my fear of being on my own get in the way of this.

Six months into the program and I am still not 100% used to being this far from my entire family. I text my mom and dad every day, my sister has been my “best friend” on Snapchat since the day I came back from winter break, and sometimes my family will FaceTime me just so I can see my dog! I haven’t let my busy schedule and different time zone completely get in the way of communicating with my family.  Although this level of communication may seem a bit excessive, it has really helped me cope with moving so far away from home. In my experience, I have found that it is important to talk to your loved ones, but it is equally important to live in the moment and enjoy the short time we have at Maxwell and in Syracuse.

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I was so glad that my mom and sister helped me move to Syracuse!

 

I would be lying if I said this transition was easy. Fortunately, I have two wonderful roommates that have made this experience better than I could have ever imagined. Not only did they help me survive economics and statistics, they have also helped create a home for me in Syracuse. When I first moved here, I called my house “the place I’m living for a year”; I refused to call it home because quite frankly, it did not feel like home. It wasn’t the home I grew up in for 17 years, it wasn’t my room with all my memories displayed on the shelves, and it wasn’t the bed that had a special blanket laid on top for my dog. When I went back to California for winter break, I found myself calling Syracuse my “other home”. This may seem like nothing, but it sure did mean a lot to me. The last six months have taught me that “home” is what you make it. Of course my real home will always be in Highland, California, but Syracuse has given me a special kind of home. I have friends that I adore here and a house that has its quirks but still gives me a sense of comfort every day after school. That house on Broad Street is more than just the place I’m living for a year; it is the place where many memories have been made and it will be a part of one of the most significant years of my life. Whether it is in the desert of California or the tundra of New York, it is important to remember that happiness doesn’t have just one address!

 

26 Weeks Down, 26 Weeks Up

26 weeks ago, my first day of the MPA program was on July 5, 2016; in 26 more weeks, I will graduate on June 30, 2017. The halfway mark of this graduate program seems like an ample opportunity to sit back and reflect on my time so far.

I Am a Truman Scholar

Through a combination of hard work and sheer good luck, I was awarded the 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholarship. Being a Truman Scholar has made it possible for me to embark on a career in public service thanks to the network, guidance, and support the Truman Foundation provides.

 

Inside the Maxwell School hangs a Truman Scholarship Honor Institution plaque.
Inside the Maxwell School hangs a Truman Scholarship Honor Institution plaque.

Thanks to a summer program hosted by the Truman Foundation, I met Christine Omolino – the Director of Admission and Financial Aid for Public Administration and International Affairs at the Maxwell School. Christine made me aware of the benefits of pursuing my MPA degree at Syracuse. Being able to talk with Christine made me feel comfortable committing one-year of my life to a graduate program dedicated to molding public service leaders.

2015 Truman Scholars reunion at a Truman Foundation event in New York City.
2015 Truman Scholars reunion at a Truman Foundation event in New York City.

Looking back, I am incredibly thankful for the Truman Foundation. My fellow Truman Scholars constantly amaze me and serve as a reminder that we have a responsibility to carry our lives with the same values of courage, integrity, and humility embodied by President Truman.

I am a Maxwellian

26 weeks goes by fast. I don’t remember every lecture nor do I remember every luncheon I have attended. What I remember is the friends and skills I have made over the first half of my MPA program.

Thanks to Professor Julia Carboni’s nonprofit management course, I know how to create a business plan for a nonprofit. More than any other class, the weekly exercises and the final project forced me to focus on myself as a writer, teammate, and public speaker. Through the detail-oriented feedback I received from the case memos and peer evaluations, I believe I made significant strides towards my goal to be great at all three roles.

My nonprofit management group celebrating the success of our Mobile Market business plan presentation.
My nonprofit management group celebrating the success of our “Mobile Market” business plan presentation.

Thanks to Professor John Palmer’s course, I know how the “sausage” that is the federal budget gets made. I know the difference between Medicare and Social Security Trust Funds. But more important to me is being able to communicate these issues to my friends and family.

Thanks to Professor Jesse Lecy’s course, I know that I love talking about data science with other data scientists. Thanks to online platforms like GitHub, I can share my code with the world and learn from others. Whether it is learning how to make a dashboard load faster or designing a dynamic histogram, I am amazed at the openness of the data science community.

My data-driven management group smiling after finishing our NYC Citi Bike dashboard.
My data-driven management group smiling after finishing our NYC Citi Bike dashboard.

It’s Been a Great Year

I can say the degree in six months will be a great accomplishment. Yet, the superior accomplishment is knowing my MPA degree has trained me to be a better leader and teammate. As a much needed aside, thank you, 2016. You were the year that finally delivered a Chicago Cubs’ first World Series Championship in 108 years. It was well celebrated here at the Maxwell School with President Lincoln and I.

President Lincoln bearing the Chicago Cubs hat the night they won the World Series.
President Lincoln bearing the Chicago Cubs hat the night they won the World Series.

690 Miles

690 miles is the distance between Chicago and Syracuse, a 13-hour stretch I grew familiar with as I took the train home for Thanksgiving. I missed the sight of the skyline, the sound of old friends laughing, and the taste of Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza.

View of the Chicago skyline from the Amtrak train window.
View of the Chicago skyline from the Amtrak train window.

Despite the joy of the past, the unexpected happened: I missed my friends at Maxwell. When the train rolled back into Syracuse, it was not the past that comforted me but the present.

Without hesitation, a fellow MPA classmate volunteered to pick me up when I asked him for a ride. The whole car ride was filled with laughter because – without even having to say anything – we both wore looks of exhaustion.

We were exhausted from the fact that the upcoming statistics final exam will be tough; multiple group projects are due next week; and those term papers and memos will not write themselves.

Through it all, we laughed due to the unexpected relief of not having to explain why those things matter. We knew that our futures depended on us mastering these courses. This was something he and I took for granted when we were away with family and friends back at home.

The MPA: A Shared Experience

The MPA at the Maxwell School is a shared experienced – a reality that I cherish. Perhaps the best example of the shared experience comes from learning R: a programming language for statistical analysis and graphics.

Think of it like Excel. Now eliminate the grid and the tiny formula bar at the top that shows your calculations. Replace it with a blank slate that allows you to analyze data and export your analysis via PDF, an online dashboard, or reproducible code you can share with others for help.

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Screenshot of what R looks like to many users inside the RStudio environment.

Transitioning from point-and-click to a blank slate is rough. I’ve never had this much freedom in producing graphics or an ability to easily show the steps taken in an analysis. It isn’t easy but I know with time I’ll hone this skill.

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Side-by-side comparison of a 2013 New York Times’s interactive graphic (left) and my attempt to recreate it in R (right).

In two weeks, my classmates and I will present a dashboard visualizing a January 2015 dataset regarding the New York City bike-sharing system. Earlier today, we met for an hour half exploring the dataset together, creating individual GitHub accounts, and planning when to meet again as we set out on building dynamic visualizations with an interactive map.

Conversations about widgets, colors, and merging datasets is the epitome of being nerdy. But I know if I stay the course, such statistics and visuals will be a vital tool in advocating for evidence-based policy in the future. Sharing this experience with other beginners makes this learning curve a whole lot easier to overcome.

Looking Ahead to Spring 2017

As I prepare to repeat that 13-hour train ride once again, I will be leaving Syracuse with much hope for the future. I knew in June 2017 I would be leaving The Maxwell School with an MPA degree; I didn’t know I’d be leaving with friends who I could laugh with or commiserate with over the right way to calculate a t-statistic.