Master's Alumni Profiles

Alex Wyman

Center for Latin American Studies
Division of the Social Sciences (AM)

On a six-month stay in Mexico following college, Alex Wyman, AM’06, tutored, learned Spanish, and explored the region—but he came back to the United States with more questions than answers.

“I felt like I was missing some context about everything that was going on around me,” Wyman says. “When I returned to the US, I wanted to make sense of the society I’d been in, but I felt like I needed to know more about Mexican history.”

Wyman acted on his Spanish tutor’s recommendation to apply to the master of arts program at the University of Chicago’s Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS). The yearlong intensive program is designed to give students a sturdy foundation in the cultures, history, politics, and languages of Latin America. Wyman’s experience there now regularly permeates his classroom at Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, where he teaches World History and History of the Americas—both in Spanish.

The merging of disciplines was a strong feature of CLAS, where faculty members from political science, history, music, Romance languages, anthropology, and other departments all contribute to the curriculum. Wyman worked with faculty he considers the best in the field, including Dain Borges, Associate Professor in History.

“Dain taught a section of a three-part survey class—each amazing—and I felt like I could sit all day in his lectures and listen to his stories,” says Wyman. “The chance to interact with experts in the field and learn a little bit of what they know was incredible.”

Another benefit of Wyman’s CLAS experience was the chance to acquire a new and improved set of analytical and academic tools. His writing, proofreading, language proficiency, and ability to accurately portray research improved drastically through the help and engagement of faculty members.

“My writing needed to get to another level for this program. I learned how to be more precise and find the focus of each essay,” Wyman says. “I felt like I hadn’t really written before then.”

At Cristo Rey, where he’s been teaching since 2007, Wyman applies those same tools to help his sophomores and juniors become skilled academic writers and better researchers. “With the growing Latino population and the importance of the Spanish language, CLAS provided me vast opportunity to do what I wanted,” Wyman says.

The United States will be the largest Spanish-speaking country by 2050, a fact that underscores the importance of Wyman’s dual-language research and curricula. “CLAS helped me understand what academic skills are needed at the university level so I can prepare my high school students better for college,” says Wyman. Other CLAS graduates have pursued careers in academia, nonprofit agencies, and state and federal government.

“I’m constantly trying to improve as a teacher,” Wyman said. “CLAS gave me the lasting benefits of thinking clearly and critically, which allowed me to help people more—especially my students.”

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Alexandra Stanley

Center for Latin American Studies
Division of the Social Sciences (AM)

After exploring the world, Alexandra Stanley’s passion for Latin America led her to the University of Chicago’s Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS).

“I’ve always been interested in other cultures and the idea of cultural exchange,” says Stanley, AM’08. She grew up traveling with her family, majored in international relations and Spanish at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and studied abroad in Spain.

Stanley selected to apply to CLAS straight out of her undergraduate program because of its interdisciplinary practice of encouraging students to take classes across the University.

“I took a lot of human rights classes where we looked at topics closely related to my interests,” Stanley says. “I also took a nonprofit management course at the School of Social Service Administration. It was interesting to gain insight from authentic discussions with those students, many of whom had already been working for a while.”

Stanley ended up shifting her focus from an academic career toward one in social welfare and social policy, which became central to her research in Latin American studies. Her master’s thesis focused on volunteer-based Mexican organizations within Chicago and their effects on state-level policies. The University’s location in Chicago was ideal for her close-up research on immigrant activists.

“It was quite a journey,” Stanley says. “I was guided into interviews with members of organizations who passionately organized for free. It was a very interesting and rewarding experience.”

Stanley says that her close relationships with PhD students and faculty contributed to her success. “I really enjoyed the small, close-knit nature of our community,” she says. CLAS is one of the smallest master’s programs on campus, affording students constant opportunities to engage with one another and with faculty. “I loved the ability to just walk into the center and grab anyone’s time. They were very open to master’s students coming in and chatting with them.”

She and her thesis advisor even traveled to Mexico for one week to attend a summit of Latin American migrant organizations, which had a large representation of Chicago-based hometown associations. Stanley, who is fluent in Spanish, was awarded a small grant to help cover travel expenses. Thanks to new collaborations with the University Alumni Association, master’s students across all programs have access to travel grants for study and professional development.

After graduating from CLAS, Stanley put her language skills and social policy interests to use at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. She then worked as a legal advocate for domestic violence victims.

“The skills I picked up during my master’s thesis experience were really helpful in that role. The work I did with immigrants taught me how to be culturally sensitive and interact with people from Latin America,” Stanley says. “It’s not about what you read or where you’ve been, it’s more about creating a positive connection with someone and a level of trust through your verbal and nonverbal communication skills—which were strengthened through my work during CLAS.”

Stanley, who recently relocated to Oakland, California, for her family, is continuing her work with two organizations, Refugee Transitions and Soccer Without Borders. Both allow her to work closely with recent immigrants and refugee children, and to build on her education at UChicago.

“The Center for Latin American Studies attracts a supportive community of scholars and students who want to study, share, and do research at UChicago. They bring with them so much insight and experience, and that exchange is really special.”

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Jennifer Bushaw

Center for Middle Eastern Studies
Division of the Humanities (AM)

A freshman in college at the time of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Jennifer Bushaw, AM’08, found herself compelled to learn more—about the attacks but also about the history and culture of the Middle East.

She applied that interest to her history studies at the University of Michigan and then followed it to the master of arts program at UChicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Through the program’s rigorous and diverse curriculum, Bushaw was able to identify and hone her academic focus.

“I came out of UChicago knowing I wanted to continue a PhD in international security, and I was amazingly well prepared to do so,” says Bushaw, now a doctoral candidate in international relations at American University.

She took courses at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Divinity School, as well as in an intensive Arabic program through the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Like many master’s students in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Bushaw won a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship to support her work at UChicago.

“The language programs at UChicago are better than any language program, anywhere. It’s a total learning experience: translating, speaking, reading, listening,” she says.

UChicago’s diverse community further enriched Bushaw’s studies.

“One of my friends is Muslim and her parents are from India. While learning about Islam, I could ask her what she thought and what she had learned,” Bushaw says. “That was the best part: talking to people in my cohort about their own personal experiences with what we were learning, because that made it real.”

After graduating, Bushaw took a position with a security firm in Chicago before beginning her PhD program. She assisted the company with a financial investigation in Abu Dhabi, compiling the final report in both English and Arabic, and contributing to her team a strong knowledge of the region.

At American, Bushaw is both well prepared and well connected from her time at UChicago.

“I took a class with John Mearsheimer; we read him at American,” she says of UChicago’s codirector of the Program on International Security Policy. “My professor at AU had organized a talk with Daniel Byman. He introduced me saying, ‘She knows Mearsheimer!’

“It carries a lot of weight. When I tell people I got my master’s degree at UChicago, the typical reaction is, ‘Oh wow.’

“It was a great program to tailor my interests within the Middle East and a great stepping-stone toward a PhD program,” Bushaw says. “Coming to American, I knew exactly what to expect. I felt like I had it down—that I had a huge advantage because of the University of Chicago.”

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Suparna Chaudhry

Committee on International Relations
Division of the Social Sciences (AM)

Having come from India to enroll in the master’s program at the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations (CIR), Suparna Chaudhry, AM’10, was living in one new culture while studying others. “It was the most diverse experience I’d had at that time,” she says.

It was the first of many new experiences. After completing her one-year master’s program, focusing on the Middle East, Chaudhry traveled to Turkey to teach English for a year. Today she focuses on South Asia as a political science PhD candidate at Yale University.

Chaudhry had studied history as an undergraduate before making the move into political science and international relations at UChicago. “What struck me about CIR was that you could take a lot of classes specializing in specific regions—I had always been interested in the Middle East,” she says. She was also attracted to the program because it offered the flexibility to take courses in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

CIR is the nation’s oldest graduate program in international affairs. Its master’s program offers an interdisciplinary curriculum and requires students to produce a master’s thesis of original research.

Chaudhry wrote her thesis on British counterinsurgency policy in Afghanistan and Malaysia. Her faculty advisor, Michael Reese, and her preceptor, Anne Holthoefer, supported her academic pursuits. Preceptors are advanced PhD students who work with CIR students individually and in small groups to help them complete the program’s requirements.

Chaudhry’s peers also had a strong influence. “I learned a lot from people in my cohort because there was so much diversity in experiences,” she says. “I wasn’t used to people talking about their ideas so much—it gives you confidence to really talk about your ideas and critique ideas in public.”

The members of her cohort—six of whom lived in the same apartment building near campus—formed a tight network. “Our cohort was super social, and we would organize things frequently,” she says. She and her classmates threw parties and attended the many social events hosted by CIR. They went downtown often for concerts and to explore the city. “It exceeded my expectations on how happy I would be,” she says.

In the middle of the program, Chaudhry applied to and accepted a position as an English instructor at a Turkish university that began the summer she graduated. She found the position through UChicago’s Career Advancement and received a recommendation from one of her professors in the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. In addition to Career Advancement’s services, CIR also has an internal staff member dedicated to career advising.

Chaudhry then decided to apply for PhD programs in political science due to her interest in international politics. Her advisor and preceptor both looked over her applications and writing samples many times, and she and other members of her cohort who were applying to PhD programs circulated their statements of purpose for feedback. “The application process would have been much harder, but it was made easy by how helpful my CIR colleagues were,” she says.

At Yale, Chaudhry studies nongovernmental organizations, international law, and human rights with a regional focus on South Asia, and she plans to transition into a career either in academia or at a Washington, DC think tank.

Chaudhry remains close with her CIR friends, keeping in frequent touch and visiting those who live on the East Coast. One of them is her roommate, also pursuing a PhD at Yale, in political science. “I hadn’t expected to make such good friends over the course of one year,” she says. “That’s something that I really appreciate about the program; it sticks with me every day.”

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Michael Gerson

Committee on International Relations
Division of the Social Sciences (AM)

Michael Gerson, AM’05, came to the University of Chicago’s Committee on International Relations (CIR) to transition from history to political science. He didn’t know at the time that the one-year master’s program would lead him to multiple careers—including one at the Pentagon.

As a history major at the University of Texas, Gerson became fascinated by the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, and wrote his senior thesis on US nuclear strategy in the 1960s. When he was considering a switch from history to political science and possibly a career in academia, a professor and mentor pointed him toward UChicago—the professor’s alma mater.

After visiting UChicago and meeting program faculty and administrators, Gerson was convinced. “I came away thinking, this is a really serious intellectual environment, ideas matter here, this is a place to do serious work,” he says. “It was an inspiring trip.”

Having now spent six years leading nuclear strategy research for a Department of Defense–funded think tank followed by a recent transition into investment research, he says of the program, “It gave me the skills to compete in the job market in fields as diverse as nuclear strategy and finance.”

CIR’s MA program trains students to become intellectual leaders in all areas of international theory and practice. Gerson pursued his interests in nuclear weapons and strategy, and took classes in the University of Chicago Law School and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy that rounded out his studies and taught him to think from multiple perspectives.

He took classes and worked closely with John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science, who headed Gerson’s thesis committee. “It was a tremendous experience to work with somebody of that reputation and that stature in the field,*rdquo; Gerson says. “He very clearly cares about his students and takes teaching and advising really seriously.”

Gerson was equally impressed with his peers. His diverse cohort of 40 included many international students from such countries as South Korea, Taiwan, Denmark, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. “We spent a lot of time having a couple of beers somewhere, talking about ideas, talking about what we were learning in class or about people’s thesis topics,” Gerson says. “It was a lot of fun and in some ways I learned the most from those conversations.”

After graduating he returned to the University of Texas to help his former professor—who had recommended CIR—establish a research center. Deciding to pursue research outside of the academy, he accepted a position in Washington, DC, at the Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank funded by the Department of Defense. He became a senior analyst, leading all of the center’s studies and analysis on weapons of mass destruction, and advising the US Navy on deterrence and nuclear policy.

Over his six years at the center, Gerson was invited to participate in the development of high-level strategic guidance on US nuclear weapons policy, as well as to spend a year working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as an advisor on strategic planning, nuclear policy, and deterrence. He also kept his hand in the academic world, speaking at conferences and publishing articles in such academic journals as International Security.

Satisfied with his time in government, he recently took a position in New York as a senior research manager for a financial services consulting firm. The work is different, but Gerson approaches it in a similar way. “My time at the University of Chicago sharpened my ability to think critically and to analyze,” he says. “It taught me how to do serious research.”

In addition to keeping in touch with members of his CIR cohort, Gerson continues to make new connections based on his time at UChicago. He interviewed for his current position with a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and discovered that he and a client had attended the University at the same time.

Looking back, Gerson says CIR has impacted his work, whether in business or policy, significantly. “I couldn’t recommend it highly enough,” he says. “It provides you with an analytical skill set that is applicable in multiple ways, in multiple avenues, in multiple careers.”

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Jacqueline Clark

Divinity School
Divinity School (MDiv)

For Jacqueline Clark, MDiv’12, AM’12, religion and social service have always been intertwined. “For me, whether I’m working in a social service setting or a church setting—it’s all ministry,” says Clark, who was recently ordained to the transitional diaconate of the Episcopal Church.

After graduating from college at the University of Notre Dame, volunteering in the Episcopal Service Corps as a foster care caseworker in Harlem, and working for a Catholic lobby for social justice based in Washington, DC, Clark sought a master of divinity program that would prepare her to further her work in social service. A UChicago alumnus and colleague in DC told her, “At the Divinity School, you relearn how to think.” To Clark, that was an exciting prospect. “I was both terrified and thought it would be a really good thing,” she says.

The majority of students in the MDiv program complete their work in three years. Clark took a bit of a different tack by pursuing one of many dual degree programs offered at UChicago and in the Divinity School. The joint MDiv/AM with the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA) can be completed in four years—one year less than if both degrees were pursued separately. Students build a strong academic foundation in religious studies, policy development, and social science theory, and receive training and practical experience in both ministry and social work.

Clark quickly became close with her Divinity School cohort, which bonded during an intensive language course that preceded their first quarter. The group attended class and studied together, even having “Greek-overs“—late-night study sessions—before exams.

Throughout the program, she took courses with her MDiv cohort and also with MA and PhD students, all approaching the material from diverse perspectives that were recombined in interesting ways. “You’re really challenged to bring it intellectually,” Clark says. “It was a little intimidating, but by the end of the program it forced me to become confident in my own voice.”

For Clark’s one-year field internship, Cynthia Lindner, director of ministry studies in the Divinity School, helped her find a placement at All Saints Episcopal Church on the North Side of Chicago. “That’s where I really fell in love with ministry in the context of the church,” Clark says.

Clark had such a positive experience that she continued on at the church as a seminarian through her time at UChicago. After graduating, she founded and led CROSSwalk, an annual four-mile procession through Chicago to raise awareness of youth and gun violence. The event drew 1,500 participants and more than 50 partner organizations in its first year and was a springboard for ongoing antiviolence efforts.

“It was an incredible experience of people coming together and facing something we so often want to look away from, because it’s hard to know what we can do in the face of something so big, complicated, and painful,” Clark says.

The SSA courses she took on such topics as community organizing and grief and loss prepared Clark to coordinate the large-scale movement and relate to participants who had been directly affected by violence. The Divinity School was an official partner of the initiative, and her former classmates were essential in getting their own churches and communities involved.

“I have incredible colleagues in ministry through my classmates in the program—people who are in my tradition and people who are outside of it. And I’m really grateful to continue to have those relationships,” Clark says.

Clark directed CROSSwalk through its second year before relocating with her fiancé to Boston, where she will be the assistant rector at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Sudbury, Massachusetts. She will also volunteer with that diocese’s “B-PEACE” antiviolence initiative. “I think the best social justice work is always grounded in the needs and concerns of a community. I want to keep inviting communities to think about who they are and what they want to do in the world,” she says.

Going forward, she says her UChicago colleagues and education will continue to inform her career in ministry. “I feel like the map that it has given me and the community that it has given me are absolutely invaluable,” Clark says.

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Vijay Shah

Divinity School
Divinity School (AM)

Vijay Shah’s first day in the master of arts program at the University of Chicago Divinity School lasted all night.

Shah, AM’11, had missed an email from the instructor of his three-week, summer intensive Introductory Koiné Greek class requesting that all students study the Greek alphabet in advance. He watched confounded as his peers read Greek on their first day of class and afterward told his instructor that he would drop the class because he was behind.

The instructor replied, “‘Well, you could drop the class or you could just stay up all night and learn the alphabet,’” Shah recalls. “I wasn’t going to back down from my first challenge in my first class of graduate school, so I took a couple of days and caught up with everybody,” he says. “It felt good because it set me up for the rest of the two years—holding myself to a high standard and showing up with all of my work done.”

A history major with teaching certification at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Shah had spent two years studying at Tattwajnana Vidhyapeeth, a residential philosophical institution in India, and another year teaching history to high school students in Chicago before matriculating at the University of Chicago. It was his experience studying Indian and Western philosophy and literature in Mumbai that inspired him to pursue a graduate degree with a focus on Eastern religions.

“I wanted to be—at least in my own clarity—an authority on Indian scriptures, philosophy, religion, and culture,” Shah says. “A lot of people told me, ‘Do a master’s first and see if you really like that environment. Then you can go on and do a PhD.’”

When Shah began the master of arts program, which centers on the academic study of religion, he was impressed by the rigor of the program, the expertise of his professors, and the passion of his peers.

“The students at UChicago are so interesting and so inspiring,” Shah says. He met others studying Sanskrit and the Bhagavad Gita, a foundational Hindu text, which led him to appreciate and seek out primary sources. “They would say, ‘I was reading this book, and I looked at the references. I started reading those books and looked at their references, and it led me to the Gita. So I wanted to read the Gita in Sanskrit.’”

Shah took philosophy and religion classes in the Divinity School, studied multiple languages in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, and continued to pursue course work in the Department of Comparative Human Development. “You’re studying philosophy and theories and ideas, and then over here you’re studying, ‘Why do charter schools work? Why don’t they work?’ It’s about taking advantage of all the opportunities at UChicago.”

Though many of his peers went on to enter doctoral programs, Shah’s experience in the master of arts program convinced him that he wanted to return to education. After the program he returned to his former teaching position in the Chicago Public Schools and brought a new perspective to the classroom. “I had a lot of resources and knowledge. I knew what a paper at an elite institution looked like, so I could gear my students’ learning toward what would help them succeed in college. That experience was huge,” he says.

Additionally, he continued to take advantage of the UChicago career network. Through openings he found on the Divinity School and SALC email lists, he took a summer position leading high school students to India with the National Geographic Society and a part-time position teaching Hindi at Loyola University Chicago.

Ready to embark on the next step of his career in education, Shah recently accepted an offer to help found a new network of schools. As a lead teacher, he will help build the curricula, hire teachers, and select locations for the schools.

Shah says his education at the Divinity School has given him content knowledge that his colleagues and students respect. On a personal level, it has given him a source of peace and positivity. “It has helped my understanding of people and different faiths,” he says. “Ultimately the better you know and can connect to people, the more successful you’ll be in life.”

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Fay Zhao

Financial Math
Division of the Physical Sciences (SM)

In 1980s China, it was rare for a girl to receive encouragement in math, but Fay Zhao’s mother, a professor of accounting and finance, had always regretted not having a stronger quantitative background and wanted one for her daughter.

“She encouraged me to pursue the quantitative direction,” says Zhao, SM’04, vice president at BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management firm, located in Princeton, New Jersey. “I always knew I wanted to work in finance.”

Zhao received her bachelor’s degree in mathematics with finance from the University of Leeds, and a master’s in management and regulation of risk from the London School of Economics. But there was a missing variable in her education, and she found the solution in UChicago’s Financial Mathematics Program.

“My undergraduate program focused on the basic courses in mathematics. In order to get into finance with a quantitative focus, I needed graduate-level math and exposure to the financial industry and market,” Zhao says. “UChicago’s FinMath Program gave me that extra leg up.”

The Financial Mathematics Program provides a comprehensive, cutting-edge education to future financial industry leaders. The yearlong program is structured around an intensive, integrated curriculum that explores the relationship between theoretical and applied mathematics and the evolving world of finance. Program alumni have continued on to companies such as J.P. Morgan, UBS, and Goldman Sachs.

“The quantitative methods we learn are very valuable,” Zhao says. “You can learn finance or programming from working in the industry, but you can only get this kind of quantitative background from an academic program like the one at UChicago.”

Zhao took a class taught by program founder Niels Nygaard and worked closely with him to gain a practical understanding of the material. She enjoyed working with and getting to know her classmates, who came from all backgrounds—geographical and mathematical.

“It’s a very diverse group of students. Some came from physics or programming backgrounds and there were a lot of people from all over the world—Singapore, Malaysia, China, and then we had friends who hadn’t even left the Midwest,” Zhao says. “We studied, programmed, and ate together.”

At BlackRock, Zhao is a vice president in the risk and quantitative analysis group, where she manages investment risk for the company and oversees the management of investor portfolios.

“I do quantitative research in macroeconomics, market sentiments, and factors—all very much related to what I learned from the FinMath program at UChicago,” Zhao says.

“I would not be where I am now if not for that degree,” she says. “Every time people look at my résumé and see the UChicago FinMath Program, it’s a definite plus. UChicago is the best school for anyone who wants to work in the quantitative finance field.”

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Justine Nagan

Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH)
Division of the Humanities (AM)

As a recent college graduate volunteering at the Wisconsin Film Festival, Justine Nagan, AM ’04, was struck by the socially-minded documentaries of an award-winning Chicago production company. “I saw two Kartemquin films—Refrigerator Mothers and Stevie, two of their heaviest but most beloved films—and I was just blown away.” But given Kartemquin’s overwhelming success with the inner-city basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, the organization seemed virtually impenetrable to the aspiring filmmaker.

Just over ten years later, Nagan now leads Kartemquin Films as its executive director, and she credits the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) with helping her break into the organization. “I would not have this job without my MAPH experience,” she says. “It made me want to do bigger things, with broader impact, and it cemented my love of film.”

A college film and journalism major, Nagan first worked in production and post-production, creating promotional spots on public television and then editing political and non-profit fundraising videos for a small media firm. After three years of professional experience, she wanted both a deeper knowledge of media and audience theory and a more outward-facing career in the film industry. She began researching graduate schools and soon matriculated at UChicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, an intensive, one-year program of interdisciplinary study.

A week into the program, Nagan encountered Kartemquin again when she met one of their associates, UChicago professor and filmmaker Judy Hoffman. Nagan asked her to coffee and began volunteering at the film organization she now runs. “We had amazing access to the faculty,” Nagan says. “Without that connection, maybe I would have found my own way eventually, but the serendipitous relationship definitely accelerated me on this path.”

For Nagan, MAPH led to not only professional, but also to academic and personal growth. She and her cohort became immersed in the academic environment of the University of Chicago through MAPH’s Colloquium, a two-week introductory boot camp in humanistic inquiry. Nagan pursued a track of Cinema and Media Studies and wrote her thesis on Scandinavian silent films. “Going through that program, and almost literally feeling your brain expand while you’re in class, made me want to do more challenging work and really push myself. It also reinforced what my strengths were,” she says.

Through shared academic challenges and events such as regular Friday social hours on campus, Nagan forged close connections with her classmates. “I have professional colleagues and personal friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life, both directly from my cohort and through other courses at the University,” she says. Her classmate Brendan Kredell, an instructor at the University of Calgary, recently featured Kartemquin Films in the opening event he designed for the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ annual conference, a major gathering of cinema experts. “It was amazing and wouldn’t have happened in that way without our relationship,” Nagan says of the showpiece event.

Nagan, in turn, has kept close ties with the University of Chicago. In addition to living in Hyde Park and walking her young son around campus, she often speaks at University events and panel discussions. Founded by three University of Chicago alumni, Kartemquin Films continues the connection by hiring UChicago students as interns. Additionally, Nagan and Kartemquin co-taught a class with Nagan’s original faculty mentor, Judy Hoffman.

By pushing herself to take on more challenges, Nagan continues to carry the University of Chicago experience with her—and to recommend it to mid-career professionals looking to build their careers. “It’s a great, innovative, very valuable program. I don’t think there’s another one like it,” she says.

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Raff Donelson

Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH)
Division of the Humanities (AM)

At the University of Chicago, Raff Donelson, AM’10, affirmed his desire to pursue a career in academia. He used the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) to explore new avenues of inquiry, and after graduation he gained admission to a joint JD and doctoral program in philosophy at Northwestern University, where he is currently in his third year.

Like many students in the program, Donelson found MAPH to be an important step in his development as an academic. He studied philosophy, political science, and French as an undergraduate at Williams College. His advisors there suggested that UChicago would be an ideal place for him to further his study of Anglo-American and continental philosophy.

In MAPH’s core course, Foundations of Interpretive Theory, Donelson read Freud and Marx alongside creative and critical work by Jamaica Kincaid and UChicago’s own Lauren Berlant, among others. MAPH’s only required course, it is designed less as a survey than as a deep engagement with one or two enduring questions at the heart of humanistic inquiry. “It gave me a broader education than I otherwise would have had,” Donelson says. “I had not read Freud, for instance, beforehand. I thought people who study literature, not philosophy, read Freud. I grew because of that experience.”

Beyond that, Donelson says his experience at UChicago introduced him to life as an academic at a research university. “Learning about how the academy works, learning about how the field of philosophy works within that, is what I liked most about MAPH,” he says. An understanding about the practice of philosophy as a discipline served to reinforce his goals, while giving him the perspective necessary to attain them. “It gave me a new insight into what it was that I actually wanted to be doing.”

It was MAPH’s flexible curriculum that allowed Donelson to give a shape to his project, allowing him to take classes in both the Division of the Humanities and the University of Chicago Law School. The program helped clarify his intellectual interests, while providing the flexibility to pursue them in a rigorous and focused manner. As a result, he realized in retrospect that some of the PhD programs he had considered after college wouldn’t have been right for him. In the course of his academic work, and in consultation with UChicago faculty and peers, he identified the joint program at Northwestern as the best fit for his next step.

At Northwestern, he teaches and researches the nature of action and the relationship between law and ethics. “UChicago was really helpful in steering me into these questions and this line of research,” he says.

He remains connected to UChicago, returning to campus often for law and philosophy workshops hosted by the Law School. He also attends weekly MAPH social hours in the fall, which are open to students, alumni, and faculty alike. Those activities, along with annual events like the MAPH Halloween party and prom, were an important part of his student experience. “MAPH does a really good job of creating community,” he says. “You really feel like you get to know the people in the program, outside of the classroom.”

Now occupying the role of the advisors he once consulted as an undergraduate, Donelson encourages students with interdisciplinary ambitions to pursue the Master of Arts Program in the Humanities at UChicago. “In MAPH, the sky is the limit with how much you can do. That’s really useful, because the work you do in other fields can really complement your primary work, especially in the humanities.”

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Radha Ramachandran

Master of Science Program in the Physical Sciences Division
Division of the Physical Sciences (SM)

Radha Ramachandran, SM’09, hadn’t yet finished her bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, but she already knew she was ready for a change in perspective.

“I wanted to move to pure science,” Ramachandran says. “Physics is not so different from engineering, but it’s a way of looking at the same problems at a more fundamental level.”

She chose the University of Chicago’s Master of Science Program in the Physical Sciences Division to bridge the gap between her engineering degree and the PhD she aimed to pursue. “UChicago was one of the only places that offered a distinct, intensive master’s program in physics,” says Ramachandran, who is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics at UChicago.

Prior to applying for the master’s degree, Ramachandran visited campus and met with the dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences to discuss her interest in the program. He answered her questions and advised her to take the GRE as soon as possible, since she was sure she wanted to pursue the degree.

The Master of Science Program in the Physical Sciences Division is a one-year, interdisciplinary program for students who are undecided about pursuing a PhD, who want to strengthen their background before applying to PhD programs, or whose careers could benefit from a year of rigorous scientific research at the graduate level. Offering courses in multiple departments and research tracks, the program provides students a broad education while allowing them to identify a research specialization.

“I’d done basic research but hadn’t formally taken physics courses during college. UChicago’s master’s program was very flexible, so I could tailor it according to what I wanted to do next. I ended up taking all the first-year courses that PhD students take,” Ramachandran says.

In those classes, Ramachandran was able to get a taste of PhD work and collaborate with peers who helped advance her understanding of the material.

“It was very interesting taking courses with PhD students. I could gauge for myself where I stood against people who do get into these programs,” Ramachandran says. “I would meet with the PhD students in my classes, and we’d all do problem sets together. It really helped me in thinking through the problems.”

Ramachandran applied to the physics PhD program as a master’s student and continued her studies directly after earning her first graduate degree. With her first-year requirements out of the way through the master’s program, she could focus on her research earlier than many of her peers.

She continued the fruitful research collaboration she had begun with her master’s thesis advisor, Sidney Nagel, studying fluid dynamics as they relate to petroleum excavation.

“The nature of the research has changed with more and more experiments. It’s a linear path from the project I started to what I’m doing now, but the focus on the problem has changed,” she says.

At UChicago Ramachandran’s perspective is expanding, not only through her research but also in her career outlook.

“I was really focused on being an academic, but I’m starting to explore other options as well,” Ramachandran says. “My department brings back alumni from my program with many different kinds of jobs. It’s nice to have that exposure; it has opened me up to many possibilities.”

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Andrew Romero–Wolf

Master of Science Program in the Physical Sciences Division
Division of the Physical Sciences (SM)

In astrophysics parlance, one might say Andrew Romero–Wolf’s career has gone supernova. As a principal investigator at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), he studies radio detection of ultra-high-energy particles for NASA. But when he graduated with his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago a little more than a decade ago, Romero-Wolf, AB’02, SM’05, wasn’t convinced that he would continue in scientific research. That was before Antarctica.

After College, Romero-Wolf worked on the research team of UChicago Professor Dietrich Müller for over a year. He and the team focused on TRACER (Transition Radiation Array for Cosmic Energetic Radiation), the world’s largest instrument for cosmic ray observations above the atmosphere, for two years. Müller encouraged Romero-Wolf to enroll in the Master of Science Program in the Physical Sciences Division while working on the project, which included a 10-week trip to McMurdo Station, the largest research community in Antarctica.

“Physics is a powerful thing. What I got out of that experience was learning to work with detectors: understanding how they work, how they’re calibrated, learning the data analysis techniques,” says Romero-Wolf. “That all carried over to my next projects. The way I ended up at JPL had a lot to do with Antarctica.”

Romero-Wolf and his team worked as both colleagues and friends. His doctoral counterparts were a big influence on him, particularly in their curiosity and approach to analyzing problems. His stint as a master’s student working among more seasoned scientists was not uncommon by UChicago standards, he says.

“At UChicago, people let you be your own person and decide your own approach to things: what courses you take, how you go about your research. They assume you’re a smart person from the onset,” Romero-Wolf says. “Professor Müller guided me when I first started in his team. After about six months, he said, ‘We don’t need to tell you what to do. You do what you think is important to this experiment.’”

The Master of Science Program in the Physical Sciences Division is a one-year, interdisciplinary program that gives students a strong foundation in physical science and helps them develop a research specialization before pursuing further graduate studies or scientific careers.

Romero-Wolf tailored his master’s program to take astrophysics courses outside of his department, which laid the foundation for his PhD in physics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He applied his work on TRACER to the master’s project required of every student in the program. “My master’s thesis was the first research document that I wrote and I learned a lot from it. That was good preparation for my dissertation,” he says.

Throughout the program, Romero-Wolf valued UChicago’s emphasis on critical analysis and open inquiry.

“I was never afraid to question the professor if I didn’t understand or if I thought he or she was wrong,” Romero-Wolf says. “It really taught me to come up with my own ideas and be able to defend them.”

Now well established in the field, Romero-Wolf traces his career back to his first forays into physics at the University of Chicago. “It’s a world-class institution and it attracts very able, talented, and smart people,” he says. “All the people I worked with there had a big influence on me.”

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Tommaso Pavone

Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS)
Division of the Social Sciences (AM)

If Tommaso Pavone, AM’12, had attended law school, he might never have become a PhD student in political science. His year in the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences made the difference.

As a top student at the University of Michigan majoring in public policy, Pavone was accepted directly into the University of Michigan Law School during his senior year. He was still considering PhD programs, however, and applied to them broadly.

“I applied to top 10 political science PhD programs knowing I had a fallback option, without ever considering whether law school would be the right fit for me or thinking about faculty fit or research interests,” Pavone says.

While he didn’t gain acceptance to the PhD programs, Pavone discovered UChicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), a one-year program that offers students both core course training in social science theory and the opportunity to design their own curriculum.

“MAPSS is an intensive, individualized, research-oriented program that’s well suited for someone like me, who wanted to test drive the PhD path,” says Pavone, now a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics at Princeton University. “In my MAPSS year, I became convinced that an academic research career was for me and a law school education wasn’t going to correspond with those interests.”

Taking advantage of the access MAPSS offers to multiple academic divisions and the University of Chicago Law School, Pavone discovered an interest in public law and the social effects of legal institutions, predominantly in Europe. “It developed naturally as I took political science and law school classes and started to see how I could bring those different subjects together,” Pavone says.

Pavone was born in Italy and raised there until his family moved to Michigan when he was 12. His European heritage helped influence his research focus, as did his exposure to peers and faculty in diverse areas of study. “I met a postdoc who worked at the intersection of politics and law in the European Union, and that combination seemed like a perfect match for my interests,” he says.

While in MAPSS, Pavone lived on campus at International House, a program center and residence hall for students from the US and around the world. He became close with fellow I-House residents and with his peers in MAPSS, often taking his education beyond the classroom. “When you make friends from other social science disciplines, you talk about things in different ways; we had very enlightening conversations,” Pavone says.

After graduating from the master’s program, Pavone once again applied to doctoral programs and this time was accepted to seven of them.

“We were exposed to all the different perspectives of the social sciences and saw how they intersected. Because of this mind-opening experience, I gained intellectual breadth, which helped me develop a research interest and focus that I didn’t have when I first applied to PhD programs,” he says.

Heading into his first year at Princeton, Pavone says becoming a PhD student was worth the wait—and made richer by his time at UChicago: “My MAPSS experience was the best intellectual year of my life.”

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Rob Hanna

Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS)
Division of the Social Sciences (AM)

Growing up, Rob Hanna, AM’12, never envisioned a future in education policy. To be sure, education had been an important part of his life. His mother was an elementary school teacher, and Hanna himself had taught for two years at his former high school. But his passions were leading him elsewhere.

He thought he was going to become a doctor, inspired by the work of humanitarians like Paul Farmer. His undergraduate degree in physics was not enough, though, to apply to medical school, so he took more classes to fulfill his premed requirements.

After that school year, Hanna volunteered at an independent social journalism organization and worked temporary jobs while still considering a career in medicine.

An interview with a Boston charter school principal for an article changed his trajectory.

“My interview with him was so interesting and transformative,” says Hanna, who soon connected with Ronald Ferguson, a faculty member at Harvard, to research education in the United States. His first project was helping Ferguson study district leadership and school improvement. “Once I jumped into it, I liked the work so much that medicine didn’t seem as interesting anymore. It was a huge risk, but it made sense to change careers and abandon the medical track. I just followed my passion.”

Now a senior education policy analyst for the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, Hanna initially applied to the University of Chicago for a PhD in sociology to deepen his new research interests. In the process, he learned about the University’s Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS).

“MAPSS is a great way to explore whether or not you want to pursue higher studies, and with a degree from UChicago, you can’t go wrong,” Hanna says. “One thing I’ll never forget is when John MacAloon, MAPSS director, said, ‘The master’s degree is the coin of the realm for many professions.’”

MAPSS is a yearlong program unique for its individualized paths of study and interdisciplinary nature. Students tailor their UChicago experience to fit their research interests across all disciplines and departments. Hanna took advantage of the MAPSS structure by taking classes at the Law School and the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, and interviewing recent graduates of the Urban Education Institute’s Urban Teacher Education Program (UChicago UTEP) for his master’s paper.

“I made some great education connections at UChicago,” he says. “A number of people whose work I would read often, like Steve Raudenbush and Melissa Roderick, were UChicago faculty.” As a MAPSS student, Hanna had the opportunity to work with Raudenbush, compiling research for a book the professor was writing with two colleagues. “Working with Steve was a great experience and really moved my career forward.”

Last fall, Hanna joined the Center for American Progress, an independent, nonpartisan public policy research organization.

As a senior education policy analyst, his responsibilities include writing papers, studying education systems, and collecting data. He regularly sees his MAPSS experience and the opportunity to work with Raudenbush and other UChicago faculty influence his work.

“The theoretical frameworks we learned about in Perspectives in Social Science Analysis, the core course, are actual ways that I now think about the world,” Hanna says. “Thinking in a more thoughtful, solid, and grounded way about new issues was an important skill I picked up at MAPSS.”

While many MAPSS graduates pursue PhDs, Hanna found that the program was a great way to explore research passions, build a strong network, and launch his career.

“I was very profession-oriented and I pretty much knew after a few months in MAPSS that I was going to be doing education research in the real world,” Hanna says. “My classes were only part of what I wanted to get out of the experience—I wanted to grow so that I could get the job I wanted. MAPSS is a great place to learn and grow as an intellectual.”

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Eric Janofsky

Statistics
Division of the Physical Sciences (SM)

Before testing the waters of graduate school, Eric Janofsky was wading through data about fish.

An alumnus of the University of Chicago’s undergraduate College, Eric Janofsky, AB’09, left Chicago for San Diego to work as a statistical analyst at the National Marine Fisheries Service for a year. He had developed a love of research and data while working alongside professors as an undergrad, and the job in San Diego led him to start thinking about graduate school.

Seeing the value of a graduate degree but unsure whether he wanted to pursue a PhD, Janofsky applied to UChicago’s master of science program in statistics.

“The UChicago master’s program was ideal because I could take elective classes along with harder PhD courses. I had a lot of freedom to decide what I liked,” says Janofsky, who ended up using the program to affirm his desire for further study. He’s now a PhD student in the Department of Statistics, having completed the master’s coursework and transitioned directly into the doctorate program. “I went into my master’s program thinking, if I could take a bunch of the PhD classes and do well, that would signal I was prepared. Meanwhile, electives like risk management in the financial math sequence exposed me to more real-world statistics.”

At UChicago, master’s students in statistics study theoretical and applied statistics in preparation for both doctoral studies and professional roles.

Janofsky’s peers and faculty helped influence his decision. As a master’s student, he teamed up with PhD students for group projects in the applied statistics sequence—and at department-sponsored activities like the physical sciences softball league. The relationships he built gave him insight into what to expect from PhD life. Professors in the department also met with him independently to review his performance and discuss his interests. They encouraged him to apply for the PhD program.

Beyond preparing him for further study, the master’s program gave Janofsky a multifaceted foundation in statistics. “I like that I had the opportunity to expose myself to a lot of different ideas and fields,” he says. “I took classes related to finance, medicine, and computer science. I got broad exposure to data and statistics problems in a lot of different disciplines,” he says.

Now Janofsky focuses on the area of statistical machine learning, developing new methodologies for analyzing big data sets.

“There’s been a huge explosion in data collecting,” Janofsky says. The problem is figuring out how to using these data. “There are issues that come up when you try to analyze enormous data sets,” he adds. “But there has been a renaissance in using them. People are starting to ask questions they used to think would be too difficult to answer. The frontier is being pushed out.”

Janofsky and his UChicago colleagues are helping to push the boundaries of that frontier. He is a member of the machine learning reading group, where faculty and scholars meet weekly to discuss their work in seminar style. The group brings together people from the Statistics and Computer Science Departments, UChicago’s Computation Institute, and the Toyota Technological Institute at Chicago, an affiliated institution that is located on campus.

“I think the interdisciplinary nature of research here is really important. Often you can be pigeonholed in your own perspective on things. Having someone from outside make critiques or suggestions on a problem can be really helpful,” he says.

While he will stay in academia for the near term, Janofsky is still looking forward to applying his skills professionally.

“I definitely want to keep doing research in some capacity,” he says. “There are so many opportunities out there. There are a lot of exciting data-related problems to work on, and I definitely want to continue doing that.”

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Shan Abraham

Statistics
Division of the Physical Sciences (SM)

Growing up in Abu Dhabi and completing his undergraduate studies in India, Shan Abraham, SM’13, faced a culture shift coming to Chicago for the master of science program in statistics—but not the kind you might expect.

“UChicago embodied a totally different style of learning—the entire notion of being inquisitive, questioning every small detail, challenging conventional norms. I really enjoyed the learning process here,” he says.

Abraham continues to ask big questions as a statistical analyst at TransUnion in Chicago, where he builds credit-based risk models in the insurance division.

“I work in an industry that has existed for a very long time. It’s very easy for us to keep doing things the same way we’ve always been doing them,” he says. “I definitely see my small team strive to be nontraditional and innovative. We work on cutting-edge tools, technologies and statistical methodologies to solve our business problems. New modeling ideas find a space here to be nurtured.”

UChicago’s master’s program in statistics combines the liberal arts education that shaped Abraham’s critical thinking skills with a comprehensive quantitative education in theoretical and applied statistics.

Once on campus, Abraham turned to the Office of International Affairs to ensure that his experience as an international student in Chicago went smoothly. The staff there provided him with individualized support, smoothed out issues with his visa, and partnered with Career Advancement to help him land his first US-based job.

“The Office of International Affairs was very helpful,” Abraham says. “My go-to contact would patiently answer all of my questions. He was very kind and supportive.”

Now that he’s successfully earned his degree and embarked on his career, Abraham offers advice and guidance to prospective UChicago students. He shares his experiences with applicants to the statistics program on how to prepare and what to expect when they arrive at UChicago.

“In India, most universities focus on a specific field of study,” he says. “My undergraduate university focused primarily on engineering. I really like that UChicago offers a myriad of different programs here. You can pick and choose courses and events of interests across disciplines.”

For Abraham, that meant as a student in the sciences he could express his artistic side by attending concerts at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and playing the piano at Calvert House. It also meant he could become acquainted with a city he now calls home.

“Chicago is a fabulous city; I love its vibrancy,” he says. “I had known I wanted to go to a top university in a major city. When I got accepted to UChicago, it was a no-brainer that I’d come, and I’m so glad I did.”

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Sara Black

Visual Arts
Division of the Humanities (MFA)

Growing up on a dairy farm in northern Wisconsin, Sara Black developed passions for both the environment and art. Having received a BFA in painting and sculpture at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, she went on to get a second bachelor’s in environmental studies and visual art from the Evergreen State College in Washington.

As a graduate student at UChicago, Black was able to synthesize these passions into a single master of fine arts degree. Now assistant professor of visual art at Antioch College, she suggests that it was UChicago’s interdisciplinary approach that made this integration possible. “MFA students were not just permitted, but encouraged to take courses outside of the arts. As an artist whose work draws heavily from such disciplines as anthropology, environmental studies, and cultural studies, this was of huge advantage for me,” she says. While in the MFA program, Black studied with professors of anthropology, art history, and environmental studies, exploring themes of value and material culture in her work.

She found support for her pursuits in the tight-knit student and faculty community of the Department of Visual Arts. “I was challenged in the best way,” Black says. “My faculty mentors were clearly invested in the development of my work and pushed me very hard. Though the experience of graduate school was incredibly challenging, I grew enormously as an artist in those two years.”

Black drew heavily from influences both on and off campus, and collaborated closely with the burgeoning community of artists who call Chicago home.

“Being in Chicago was of great benefit to my work as well,” she says. “I was fortunate to find a community of artists whose socially engaged art practices ranged in methodology from theater to activism and urban planning to visual art. I found an artistic home in the Chicago art and activism community.”

Black participated in a number of projects, partnerships, and prestigious exhibitions in Chicago, both during and after her program. She and fellow DOVA student John Preus, MFA’05, cofounded Material Exchange, an artist group whose work explored the relationship of human beings to materials and objects. Using discarded materials as a source, Material Exchange created sculptures and installations, and led student design workshops. Its projects have been exhibited at UChicago’s Smart Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Hyde Park Art Center, and Experimental Station.

Meanwhile, Black established herself as an arts educator. After receiving her MFA, she stayed on at UChicago as a teaching fellow for an academic year, which led to a visiting lecturer role at Northwestern University and an adjunct assistant professor position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

“I have always been interested in teaching, and I’m grateful to UChicago for providing me with the opportunity to gain necessary experience,” Black says. “It was an important stepping-stone.”

Beyond that, she says, her UChicago MFA provided her with the necessary credentials to teach in higher education. “Nearly all institutions of higher education require visual arts faculty to hold a master of fine arts degree,” Black says.

As she works on building a new arts program and developing curricula from the ground up at Antioch, Black reflects fondly on her time at UChicago.

“The access to the University and its academic program is invaluable. And it’s located in a beautiful neighborhood, in a wonderful city,” she says. “I had a great experience.”

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Anthony Elms

Visual Arts
Division of the Humanities (MFA)

Well before he was selected as a curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial, Anthony Elms studied with one of the world’s great scholars and theorists of visual art.

“Prior to attending the University of Chicago, I had been reading essays by W. J. T. Mitchell, and was engaged with his writing,” Elms says of the UChicago English and art history professor. Elms soon had the opportunity to study with Mitchell while pursuing an MFA in the Department of Visual Arts, a program that bridges the practice of art with a number of other areas of study, giving students access to artists and scholars across a range of fields.

“It was shocking that he asked my opinion on things and that I could actually have a conversation with the person I came to UChicago to study with,” he says.

Elms arrived at the Department of Visual Arts (known on campus as DOVA) shortly after completing his BFA at Michigan State University. At UChicago, he found that the MFA program’s mutual emphasis on theory and practice resulted in a collaborative environment, where he was challenged to push his art in unanticipated directions.

“I liked that there was a very inquisitive process, and everyone was involved in getting to the meat of where you were coming from without throwing their tastes at you,” Elms says. “As I became more and more interested in artist writings and text in general, UChicago was a perfect medium between my bookishness and my desire to paint.”

Now an associate curator and publications coordinator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, Elms oversees the publications that accompany every exhibition. He also edits artists’ publications for WhiteWalls, distributed through the University of Chicago Press. This is all in addition to his ongoing arts practice. The MFA has proven to be an asset in his field, and Elms recognizes the importance of being able to use the critical thinking that came with his UChicago degree.

“I appreciate that I have the skills to understand and approach artistic theory and also art making in my toolbox,” he says. “Going to UChicago meant I wanted to be a reading- and writing-heavy artist, and it was a matter of those naturally combining as I moved forward, doing the things I enjoyed.”

The opportunity to engage in the arts at UChicago extended outside the classroom. Elms worked as a preparator at the Renaissance Society, the contemporary art museum at the University.

After receiving his degree, Elms remained in Chicago, a city with a reputation for robust support of the arts. He participated in a number of artist-run organizations and worked as a preparator in various galleries, while also writing and editing for arts publications. He also taught at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he served as associate director of Gallery 400 for six years.

“I ended up getting to where I am now because of the Chicago artist-run organizations that hired artists to write and curate,” Elms says. “I knew early on that I wanted to be in a city to study. I wanted to be in a city where I could go out, find things that I liked, and incorporate what I saw, heard, and experienced back into my work.”

Elms will apply that method on a national scale as one of three curators for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, a trend-setting exhibit of contemporary art. He and his co-curators will maintain their own distinct approaches in putting together this show in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Marcel Breuer building—one of Elms’s favorite locations for art viewing. “We’ve all been allowed to follow our individual paths and desires,” he says.

Prior to his Whitney selection, Elms returned to UChicago as a UChicago Arts 2012 distinguished alumnus. He spoke with students, conducted studio visits, and lectured about material he was working on for White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart, his recent ICA exhibition. Through the Open Practice Committee, DOVA invites guest artists to campus throughout each academic year, hosting both alumni and other distinguished guests.

“It was great to have people I respect—like Susanne Ghez, Robert Peters, and Karen Reimer to name a few—taking things in and giving me feedback again, this time on a bigger stage with more risks involved,” Elms says about his visit. “Being able to air ideas and know that you’re in a place where people won’t just nod, but will ask difficult questions in return—that’s something I will always appreciate about UChicago.”

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Elizabeth Kneebone

Public Policy
Chicago Harris (MPP)

Elizabeth Kneebone, MPP’03, is likely to be coming soon to a city near you. For the next year or so, she will be traveling from one end of the United States to the other, visiting more than a dozen cities.

Her journey is occasioned by the publication of her new book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, which she cowrote with her Brookings Institution colleague Alan Berube, but it will be more than a typical book tour.

“In addition to participating in public forums to discuss the book and its recommendations, Alan and I will also meet with policymakers, funders, and other stakeholders to engage in discussions about how to deal more effectively with the rapidly changing landscape of poverty in America,” says Kneebone, who is a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC.

The book’s startling findings about the rapid growth and broad extent of poverty in the suburbs have garnered attention from media throughout the country. Among other things, Kneebone and Berube report that within the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions, the poor population in suburbs increased by 64 percent between 2000 and 2011, compared with a growth rate of 29 percent in central cities. While urban poverty rates still remain higher than suburban rates, there are now more poor Americans living in suburbs—16.4 million—than in cities—13.4 million.

“Despite the stereotypical view of suburbs as middle-class, affluent, Leave-It-to-Beaver type places, suburbs have grown increasingly more diverse, both demographically and economically,” Kneebone observes. “But as a society we have been slow to see the growing economic hardship in suburbs and slow at coming up with effective ways to address it.” In addition to her book’s delineation of the extent, nature, and sources of suburban poverty, it extensively discusses near-term and longer-term policy options.

Kneebone has been closely studying metropolitan patterns and issues since she joined Brookings in 2006, but she can trace the path that brought her to Brookings and her book back to her final year of college. A history major, she was working on a senior thesis that involved reading recently declassified cables among American officials regarding the student and worker uprisings in Paris in 1968.

“I began to wonder what policy considerations lay behind the cables,” she recalls, “and I became very interested in how policy gets formulated, how it gets communicated, and how it informs action. And I began to think that I might want to be involved in those kinds of decisions myself.”

Setting aside the idea that she would go to graduate school to become a college history professor, she decided instead to learn more about the ins and outs of policymaking at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.

“Chicago Harris turned out to be just what I had hoped for and just what I needed,” she says. “I needed to strengthen my quantitative skills and my grounding in data analysis, and I wanted to build a skill set that would help me evaluate and formulate constructive policy action. It was all there for me and more—engaged faculty, diverse experiences, and a great mix of students with different backgrounds and interests, many of whom have become lifelong friends.”

After graduating, she worked at IFF (formerly the Illinois Facilities Fund), where she examined statewide patterns of supply and demand for such services as early childhood care and education.

“IFF didn’t just identify problems through research, it had resources to do something about those problems, through its loan fund and its real estate development arm,” she says. “Research had an impact—we’d do a study and it would lead to action. That was a really rewarding process to be a part of.”

Although her research domain at IFF was statewide, Kneebone focused a lot on the suburbs around Chicago, since that was where many of the greatest mismatches between demand and supply were found. It was there that she first began noticing the extent of suburban poverty. At Brookings, she authored and coauthored a number of reports highlighting that phenomenon.

Almost half of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America is devoted to a discussion of policy considerations.

“Given the size of the need and the strain on resources, we need to help metropolitan leaders and organizations find ways to do more than one thing in more than one place at the same time, and there are a number of short-term steps that policymakers, practitioners, and funders could take to help pave the way for those types of solutions,” Kneebone says.

Informed by innovative examples in regions across the country, Kneebone points to the three core principles that underpin the book’s recommendations: “First, we need to support organizations and approaches that work at a sufficiently large scale to reach more communities and provide a broad range of services. Second, effective collaboration and integration across programs and jurisdictions are key to overcoming the challenges of a fragmented system. And third, in a time when resources are stretched or shrinking, we need to focus on models that deploy public and private dollars in strategic ways with a strong focus on achieving identified outcomes.”

For longer-term systemic change, the book also lays out a proposal for a Metropolitan Opportunity Challenge, a competitive federal initiative for states and metro areas that would help regional leaders and organizations harness multiple programs strategically to increase access to economic opportunity regionwide.

If you want to join in this vital discussion, check Kneebone’s cross-country itinerary at confrontingsuburbanpoverty.org and stop by when she’s in your area.

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Claire Schu

School of Social Service Administration
Division of the Social Sciences (AM)