Tag Archives: The LBJ School of Public Affairs

“So, How Do You Like DC?”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked that question this summer, I’d be one rich intern.  Coworkers, friends, parents, and everyone in between have all asked.  Many have gone further to ask the more daunting question, “Are you going move to DC after graduation?”

Well the short answer to that question is, I really don’t know.  Yes, I have enjoyed my time living and working in DC, but just like any city, there are upsides and downsides to living here. So as a mental exercise for myself and as entertainment for you, I’m going to go through the pro and cons, in my opinion, of living in our nation’s capital.


1. Public Transit: The Metro system in DC is one of the best in the country. During rush hour, trains are running every 2 to 3 minutes, whisking you off to work while you sip coffee and read The Washington Post. There’s no sitting on I-10 waiting for an accident to be cleared up or fighting for a parking space at the office.

2. Policy Wonks: It’s sort of like being at the LBJ School, but scaled-up to city size. Everywhere you turn, you can find someone who wants to discuss politics, policy, or government. It is exciting to know there are so many people as passionate and interested in the same issues that you are. It also makes networking opportunities limitless.

3. Extracurriculars: DC has some fantastic restaurants, bars, professional sports teams, music venues, museums, and theaters and most of them are targeted towards the 20 to 30-something crowd.

So if you’re trying to get home after a late night out or going to meet a friend on a Saturday afternoon, sometimes you can’t help but wish you could hop in your car and drive yourself.

1. Public Transit:  Although the DC Metro will definitely get you to work and back on time (most days), the late evenings and weekends are rife with track work that severely limit and delay the frequency of tra

2. Policy Wonks: Sometimes you just don’t feel like talking about your or someone else’s work. DC never turns off the policy switch and everywhere you go;, from the gym, to happy hour, to a National’s game, people are talking about what they do and how important it is.

3. Tourists: Tourists arrive on massive tour buses and travel in packs wearing the same neon color shirt.  On weekends and holidays, they crowd the Metro, the sidewalk, and the museums. This seriously detracts from Pros #1 and #3 listed above.


Sure I’ve oversimplified a bit here, but you get the idea. Also, although this has been fun, it certainly hasn’t helped me gain any clarity on where I want to live after grad school.  I guess it’s a good thing I still have a year to figure it out.

The End is Near

Overall I have really enjoyed my experience this summer at the KDK-Harman Foundation. Here’s a feel good story to illustrate some of the unexpected good the summer camps do. There was a mother who had contacted one of the summer grantees and asked if her child could come to the camp. The mother explained that her daughter loves science, but her daughter is diagnosed with selective mood disorder. Therefore her daughter doesn’t talk in public. The severe anxiety her daughter experiences in social situations is expressed through her silence. The mother said don’t worry about her and don’t try to make her talk, she is perfectly fine and she’ll do everything asked of her….she just won’t talk. The camp let the little girl into the camp and during the second week the little girl was there the campers went on a field trip. The campers were divided into teams and had to solve a puzzle in the least amount of time. As the seconds ticked down the little girl got so excited and into the competition she shouted, “HURRY!”. Then she immediately looked shocked and didn’t say anything after that. This is a real testament to the camp culture that this little girl who won’t say anything became so relaxed she surprised herself and opened up a little bit.

There are many other stories that I have been told and witnessed that are similar to the one above. Students are finding out that it is possible to be a doctor or an engineer, they’re even figuring out that maybe engineering isn’t for them as a lifelong career, but hey, it was a unexpected good time. They’re also finding out that the struggles and frustration that comes with video game programming robotics, and most importantly, that overcoming the frustration they feel only makes the successes even sweeter.

With only a week and a half left at the KDK-Harman Foundation things have been fast and furious. My main focus has been organizing the shared summer learning workshop, dubbed Meet*Share*Learn (to the Power of STEM) or MSL(STEM) for short. I have been planning this workshop since May, so there actually isn’t much left to do. I have witnessed, firsthand, the efficiency and effectiveness of planning ahead…Hopefully,  I can transfer these new found anti-procrastination skills to my upcoming course in the fall semester. We’ll see….

As I have mentioned before the MSL(STEM) workshop is an opportunity for the non-profit organizations to come together and share their achievements and challenges this summer. Many of them are running into similar challenges such as getting students transported to the program and then keeping them engaged with interesting material so that they want to return for every day of camp. I am extremely excited about this workshop because this is the foundation’s opportunity to share our observations and results from our site visit evaluations. I developed the evaluation form and implemented the use of the form at all 11 programs this summer. I just completed my own solo drop-in visits on all 11 grantees. A product of these evaluations is a large matrix encompassing important indicators of successful summer programs. This is it, the findings from the analysis of this matrix is where the foundation can really help the grantees become stronger for next summer. The results from this evaluation tool pilot has been a long and laborious process with many revisions needed for next summer’s implementation. I feel good about this pilot though, and it’s been interesting experience to implement my first evaluation tool.

The icing on the cake for this workshop is the foundation’s recruitment of engineers, medical technologists, doctors, and chemists for the event. We wanted to bring together non-profit organizations and STEM professionals for several reasons.

1) Non-profits can understand the needs of the STEM workforce pipeline.

2) Provide an introduction for possible STEM industry internships for young people.

3) Provide an introduction to corporate funding for NPOs.

I am especially looking forward to this aspect of the workshop because these company representatives are really passionate about STEM education and this could broaden the horizons of the afterschool and summer programming for economically disadvantaged children. In my next (AKA last) post I’ll detail the fun and excitement of the workshop and the final outcomes from my internship.


Payday and Auto Title Loans: The Cycle of Debt, City Ordinances, & Loopholes

Since my last entry, things have kind of slowed down a bit in the School-to-Prison Pipeline area of work at Texas Appleseed so I’ve been helping out on the Payday and Auto Title Loan project. Texas Appleseed is a member of the Texas Fair Lending Alliance along with 70 other organizations that are all working to develop and implement meaningful reform that will end the cycle of debt caused by these types of loans.

Before working on this project, I always drove by these types of businesses, but never knew how they operate. I even lived right across the street from one when I first moved the Austin and was still oblivious to their practices. Payday and Auto Title Loan places are popping up all over Texas and there are about 200 storefronts in the Austin area alone, and around 3,300 in the state.

Payday Loan: a small cash advance with a two-week loan term that carries interest and fees

Auto Title Loan: loan with a typical one-month term that uses car title as collateral and carries interest and fees. If the borrower defaults, the loan company can take the car

These loans are pretty easy to get and they’re quick so they seem appealing, but the majority of these loans carry huge usurious rates, approximately 500%-1,000% APR and also come with excessive fees. It creates a cycle of debt because borrowers are often only able to pay off the high fees month after month, making the minimum payment without ever paying down the principle. Sometimes borrowers even have to take out another loan to pay off the first loan.

The City of Austin implemented a city ordinance in an attempt to end the cycle of debt by requiring the following:

  1. Limit loan size – Payday loans limited  limited to 20% of borrower’s gross monthly income and Auto Title loans limited  to less than 3% of the borrower’s gross annual income or 70% of the vehicles value
  2. Limit the number of installments to 4 and rollovers to 3
  3. Proceeds from each installment or renewal must reduce loan principal by 25%
  4. Register with the city

The past few weeks, I’ve been visiting Payday and Auto Title Loan places throughout Austin to see if they are following the ordinance. I’ve been to about 25 stores myself, and it’s been really eye opening. I have been surprised with the number of customers that visit these stores. At one place, I even had to wait 40 minutes to speak to a worker because they were so crowded at the time!

A lot of the places that I’ve visited have found a way to get around the ordinance by sending borrowers to their other storefronts outside the city limits to make their payments, and they have been very open about it. One woman even told us: “They found a loophole.” Others have openly acknowledged the fact that they are required to follow the ordinance now and explain how it has changed their loan practices (i.e. “we can’t loan you as much as we used to be able to” and/or “you don’t have as long to pay the loan back”).

There have also been several places that openly encourage you to take out the max amount that you’re able to, even if you don’t need to borrow that much money. Some also explain that you can keep the loan out as long as you want, provided you make the minimum payment, which is just the interest and fees. I can definitely see how people are easily trapped in this cycle of debt after visiting a number of businesses.

Other places though, are following the ordinance , and we even stumbled upon a few that are very upfront and encourage people to pay the loans off as soon as they can, urge them to take only the amount they need, and explain honestly that the loan can become extremely hard to pay back over time. So there have been some bright spots in my visits.

I think that it’s an issue that everyone needs to be aware of. As a student, I could easily see myself unknowingly getting involved and taking out one of these loans and being hit with the reality of it later down the road. Overall, this is not something I expected to work on this summer, but it’s been extremely revealing. It is an issue that I will continue to follow and remain interested in after I leave Texas Appleseed this summer and I’m grateful that I’ve been exposed to it.

Gender and Agriculture with IPA-Z*

It’s been a little over five weeks since I moved to Lusaka to start my internship with Innovations for Poverty Action’s Zambia Office (IPA-Z), and those five weeks have been fantastic. I’ve seen hippos and crocs, crossed one of the world’s seven wonders off my list, and become conditioned to respond to ‘mzungu’ as if it were my god-given name. All that has been awesome, but the focus of this post is going to be my work at IPA.

First, a (very) short introduction to IPA. IPA is a non-profit research organization that evaluates the effectiveness of different development interventions, using randomized control trials as their primary tool. They then work with partner and government organizations to scale up interventions that have proven successful.

The IPA-Z Office

The IPA-Z Office

This is the Zambia office. It’s in a house about 20 minutes (busride/walk combo) from my apartment, and has a staff of about 10 full-timers. The entire office has been in constant chaos since baseline surveying began in late May for their Girls Negotiation project. In short, the project takes eight-grade girls and involves them in an after-school program that teaches them negotiation skills through the same methods used in the Harvard business school curriculum. The idea is to see if this kind of program significantly improves the girls’ abilities to negotiate for their futures, both in terms of continued education and personal health.

Surveyors Catherine and Martha handing out permissions slips for the Girls Negotiation Project

Surveyors Catherine and Martha handing out permissions slips for the Girls Negotiation Project

The office has a few other ongoing projects, including an Agroforestry project, a community health project, and my (solo) project, titled ambiguously “Gender and Agriculture”.

“Gender and Ag”—as it’s affectionately called—has been through a lot. It’s a project that, having not panned out in its original form, has been gutted and reworked over the course of the last year. It’s now an exploratory project, with the deliverable being a database of data pertaining to agricultural and cultural (especially gender-related) practices throughout Zambia, and a final report. Last week I finished with the data collection, and after it is sufficiently .do-ed, I’ll write a report showing all the fantastically interesting correlations with maps and graphs and other wonderful visuals.

Despite working tirelessly, I’ve had plenty of time to get out of the office. Over a recent four day weekend I had the opportunity to see Victoria Falls, go on safari in Chobe National Park, and discuss development challenges with the Prime Minister Stanley of Mukuni Village. For those interested, the major challenges he mentioned were poor road quality (impacting on both education and healthcare access) and water availability—the village only has four taps, which currently provide water to its 8,000 inhabitants.

*All views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of IPA as an organization.

Top: me at Victoria Falls; Bottom Left: Elephants at Chobe National Park; Bottom Right: Mukuni Village

Top: me at Victoria Falls; Bottom Left: Elephants at Chobe National Park; Bottom Right: Mukuni Village


Without doubt, my internship experience has been a roller coaster ride up until now – exciting, dramatic and rewarding.

Two months in, I finally have the time (and internet) to recount some of the experiences so far. Back in April, when I managed to secure an internship at Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) Ghana, my greatest concern was getting the visa in time. While that proved to be a valid concern (I got my visa one day before the flight), the bigger challenge was to find myself a new project . Initially I was selected for an exciting agricultural project that aimed to employ information, technological and financial interventions to bolster the agricultural profitability of farmers in Northern Ghana. However, two weeks before my flight, I was told that this project was facing implementation delays and was told to look at other projects within IPA Ghana.

After two weeks of interviews, I opted to join the Teachers Community Assistant Initiative (TCAI) project. As this was a very last minute decision (I was literally boarding the plane at JFK as I confirmed my participation) I did not know what I would be doing exactly. Luckily for me, in retrospect, things have turned out to extremely well.

Landing in Accra, I was not only engulfed by humidity, but also had to fight off street hawkers and deny around 20 taxi drivers from driving me to the domestic terminal, which was approximately 30 seconds away. I was also struck by nostalgia as the sea breeze, the loud noises, the traffic, the bustle, the heat, all reminded me of Karachi, and I was quick to retrieve my bargaining skills and bargain down my excess luggage charge. Fifteen minutes after landing in Accra, I found myself boarding a flight to Kumasi, accompanied by another colleague from LBJ. We were going there to check up on Exponential Education, a remedial education organization that she has been running in Ghana for the past two years. As the organization had started expanding and attracting traction, I had volunteered to consult with them – helping develop a proper organizational structure, implement better financial and reporting systems and design an M&E framework.

After landing in Kumasi we went straight to the school where one of their programs was being run. I was awestruck at the similarity between schools in Ghana and Pakistan. Apart from the colorful uniforms and machetes in schoolbags, everything from the teaching methods to the paint on the buildings looked the same – remnants of the British colonial era. Later on , during my fieldwork with TCAI, I would learn that much of the both countries also share many of the same education challenges – low learning levels, rote memorization and teacher absenteeism. In one of those schools, we participated in a graduation ceremony for the children who just completed an Exponential Education program. These kids were presented with certificates, special honors and scholarships and once the ceremony was over, they all rushed to shake our hands and warmly welcomed us into their community. Also, within one day I had a managed to attract few marriage proposals by female teachers in our host school.

Soon after drawing up expansion plans for Exponential Education and conducting meetings with prospective partners, I started my internship with IPA. I quickly brought myself up to speed and learned that the TCAI project was designed to provide evidence on which remedial education interventions are the most effective and cost efficient when it comes to improving learning outcomes and informing national level education reform. Surprisingly, Ghana spends a whopping 23 percent of its budget on education and has high school enrollment rates. However the quality of education is woefully low with less than 50 percent of grade 3 children having minimum competency in reading, writing and basic arithmetic. In order to address this issue, lessons from randomized controlled trials performed in India (for remedial education) and Kenya (for class splits according to ability levels) were pooled to develop the TCAI project. Over the past two years, IPA has run four different interventions across 450 schools and 42 districts, examining their effectiveness over on a nationally representative sample of approximately 40,000 pupils. The project has been a collaboration between IPA, Ghana Education Service (GES), the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) and other government agencies and is now at its closing stages.

Joining one day before the endline survey commenced, I was thrust right into the middle of everything . For my first task I was asked to devise a data monitoring and reporting system for TCAI which incidentally happened to be IPA Ghana’s largest project. In the initial weeks, I not only had to quickly update my vocabulary (both in basic Twi and organization-speak) but also learn to navigate through myriad databases and .do files and develop relationships with the very large evaluation team. Once the system was in place, the next task was to conduct one-on-one sessions with the surveyor teams and update them on their performance and data quality. Conducting fieldwork is one thing, but traversing half the country while being thrown around inside a 4×4 while trying to run stata on your laptop  is a whole different experience. We travelled on average over 6 hours a day, visiting remote schools in the lush green bush of the Volta region and the misty mountains of the Ashanti region and monitoring the surveyors, meeting students, teachers, district officials and sharing fufu and jollof rice with the teams. Everywhere we went, I heard chants of “Obruni (white man) how are you? Im fine, thank you” which makes me think that they all memorize this as a song at school. Loud Ghanaian “hip-life” dance music has also been omnipresent, like an extended soundtrack.

My experiences in the field (still ongoing) have without doubt provided me with some much needed context and appreciation for my work here. Since then, I have been working on tracking the projects performance, auditing data quality and am now working with the principal investigators to conduct basic analysis of the learning outcomes. Two months on, I am still surprised and excited by the level of responsibility I am given and am always amazed by how the team tackles the daunting challenges that come with administering a nationwide evaluation. I have already learned a lot – from specific technical skills to techniques on eating Ghanaian soup with my fingers. Apart from the work at IPA, I am partnering with the team at exponential education to launch a for-profit enterprise that will provide SAT tutoring and career counseling to Ghanians at competitive prices, with part of the profits going into making exponential education more sustainable! There are exciting times ahead!

STEM-ing the Summer Learning Loss

So far this summer I have been constantly surprised how excited kids are getting about health, fitness, engineering, computer programming, and even math of all subjects. Over the past two weeks it’s been pretty exciting at the foundation. There’s two parts of my internship I wanted to share.

STEM Fun: Part One

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference here in Austin. The conference focused on how to create a highly skilled and robust workforce for the variety of STEM careers. Attendees were from all different backgrounds from teachers to technology corporations to non-profits to school district administrators. I learned so much from the panel discussions at the conference. Here are several highlights (among many) I learned from the conference:

  • STEM jobs are projected to grow 17% by 2018 and 71% of new STEM jobs will be in computing.
  • The MIND Research Institute teaches kids math solely through games without using any words making math accessible to all students, even ones with learning disabilities. Students’ test scores have significantly increased for thousands of students through this program.
  • There is a movement to completely stop lecturing to children and “flip the classroom”. A “Flipped Classroom” emphasizes project-based learning for kids.
  • UTeach, the STEM teacher training program within UT Austin is a nationally recognized program that has become a model for other schools across the nation. UTeach has trained thousands of STEM subject teachers.

You can learn more about the conference here: http://usnewsstemsolutions.com/

Also, here’s an interesting article about the pathway to training in STEM careers http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2013/06/19/the-not-so-simple-roadmap-to-solving-stem-problems

Side note: If you look to the left of the robot in the main picture above the article you’ll see me! I am the girl in the black cardigan and dark hair staring at the robot. That robot was really cool because that model is used in Afghanistan to defuse bombs, so soldiers don’t have to risk their lives to do so.

STEM Fun: Part Two

The second fun part of my internship is getting to visit all the summer camps the foundation’s grantees provide. The programs have some really great curricula planned like designing and programming video games, programming and building robots, and designing a city from top to bottom. Kids are actually designing cities where they include the proper zoning for their city, infrastructure, taxes, creating revenue streams, and designing power plants. East Austin College Prep Academy Summer STEM Institute had Astronaut Jose Hernandez come speak to the class. Hernandez’s experiences really resonated with this population of kids because he grew up as a farmer, frequently moving from town to town with his family. He applied to be an astronaut for NASA 12 times before he was finally accepted. The kids were really inspired by his perseverance and learned about the great success that comes with hard work. During another week at the same camp a reptile farm was brought in and the kids got to hold all different types of snakes and lizards. Changing Expectations took their campers to the Google Austin Campus and Applied Materials.

As we visit the different programs the foundation’s grantees provide for kids we’ve observed some common themes. One of the recurring challenges for these STEM summer camp programs is getting kids to come to camp in the first place. Getting kids to the camps is difficult for a variety of reasons.

1)      The summer time is a time where many families are busy moving to another apartment complex or house.

2)      Many kids are going to Mexico to visit their families for the summer.

3)      Transportation is difficult for parents when they are working multiple jobs or do not own their own car.

4)      Parents do not value summer learning. They do not think it’s important for their children to go to these camps.

5)      Kids have to go to summer school instead in order for them to go on to the next grade.

…and the list goes on from there. So you can see that for a variety of reasons many that are out of the control of the grantees getting kids to camp is hard. It’s not impossible though. Foundation Communities builds affordable housing apartment complexes and then attaches children’s’ learning centers to them. The learning centers are open and brimming with afterschool and summer programming for kids of all ages. Attendance is not a problem and the parents value their kids being at the camps. In fact, testing scores have gone up for kids in the learning centers because of the  academically rigorous programs that the kids have access to.

A positive theme that is pervasive in all camps is the stories the teachers and parents tell of their kids coming home and telling anyone and everyone about everything they learned in camp. Despite the variety of activities in the camps, every camp sees this happening. The kids go home and teach their parents what they learned all evening long, and then they wake up early, excited to go back to camp. Spanish-speaking kids go home and tell their parents about building bridges or computer programming all in fluent English. Parents are calling the school to ask if they can come on the field trips or just come and sit in class. Parents tell of their kids wanting to be astronauts, lawyers, and engineers because of the experiences in camp this summer.

The teachers tell us about all of the “firsts” the kids are experiencing this summer. Most of the students have never designed a bridge, built a robot, been exposed to computer programming, or seen a real fossil. By the end of one of the camps students had designed multiple video games and could tell me, in great detail, all about how the solar power plant of their city operated.

So the overall takeaway for me over the last two weeks is that we need more people working in STEM fields, and contrary to traditional thinking the disciplines such as math, civil engineering, robotics, and ecology can be designed to be really interesting and really fun. A lot of kids living in areas of high rates of poverty can love these topics and be good at them if they are given the opportunity to experience it.

I thought I would end with one last story that, to me, embodies just how much students are expanding beyond their everyday world. One girl that I met told me about her experiences seeing all of the snakes brought in with the reptile farm. I asked her what she thought was the coolest part of the reptile farm. She told me, “I thought there was only one type of snake. I didn’t know there were so many different kinds of snakes out there.”

Summer Learning to the Power of STEM

This summer I am interning at KDK-Harman Foundation, a private family foundation that aims to fund out-of-school-time (OST) science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs for at-risk kids in grades K-12. As the summer intern I have been responsible for creating evaluation metrics to measure the effectiveness of each summer STEM program. This is not an easy thing to do because a) OST STEM programs are a relatively new thing to provide for students and b) there are not clear evaluation metrics established for out-of-school programs much less STEM programs throughout the entire nation.

So to step back a bit, why does this matter in the first place? Why STEM OST programs?

STEM OST programs increase the interest in STEM topics, increase the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school AND go on to college, and increase the likelihood that students will move on to a STEM career.

According to a recent study highlighted in the Austin American Statesman (you can go to the article here: http://tinyurl.com/m9o5c2m) last month the STEM industries and companies in Central Texas will only be able to fill about 25% of the available STEM jobs. There are huge numbers of STEM jobs going unfilled even today. Only about 75% of all Texas high school graduates showed college readiness in math in 2012. This percentage is lower for economically disadvantaged students (63% showed college readiness).  STEM careers are one of the fastest growing areas of employment across the United States and by preparing young people now we can ensure a strong economy in the future.

Thus far I have visited 4 different STEM programs around the city of Austin and kids are doing everything from designing video games to building bridges to designing airplane wings to programming and building robots.  The programs work hard to provide a free summer camp that includes buses to transport the kids, engaging the parents and letting them know why this is important for their children, and provide free lunch and breakfast every day of the camp for every student.

The kids love what they’re doing and there are endless stories of the kids going home and teaching their parents something new about robots or bridges or aerospace engineering or medicine and the list goes on and on. The parents have even gotten excited to the point that they asked the camps if they can also come on the field trips. And these field trips are really cool. This summer kids get to visit the Google Austin campus, an airplane hangar, Tech Shop, and Applied Materials among many other destinations. One program has the kids touring around to look at all the different types of bridges around town so they can come back to school and design their own bridge.

The next step for me is to compile our evaluations of these programs and give the programs some feedback on how they did: what they could do better and what they did really well based on our indicators. We also want to use this data to learn how we would like to shape our summer STEM program incubator/accelerator.

The summer looks exciting: fifteen more site visits are on the calendar and the U.S. News and World Report STEM Solutions Conference is held in Austin this summer.  More on these events in the next post.