Mark Weingarten, an international policy student participating in the third SIPA and UNICEF class collaboration, offered to lend his opinions on his overall experience. The reason Mark enrolled for the UNICEF class was because he wanted the hands-on experience that came with what Columbia calls a capstone project, which is a client-sponsored class intended to help students address an actual concern under real circumstances. UNICEF is different in that it is more of an academic study than most of the other capstone’s, and having already known of the experience and involvement that an earlier SIPA student Sean Blaschke (now working for UNICEF Innovations) had undergone, it solidified his interest in the class.
The terms of reference changed as the beginning of the class developed, in that the specific deliverables turned out to change as was dictated to be most beneficial both for students and UNICEF. The beginning of the class was the greatest source of struggle for students, according to Mark. While still keeping a positive frame of mind and eager to progress, the frustration was that there didn’t exist a cohesive body of background research for the students to delve into. UNICEF was diligent in answering questions, and in giving insight into what to expect, and students were put in touch with UNICEF’s Uganda and Iraq country representatives. However it wasn’t until students sat down, decided on specific areas to research, and wrote down a list of interview questions that the groups was able to undergo a “turning point… whether or not we actually got to ask every question they at least helped us to crystallize all of our goals and our thoughts.”
The class was structured uniquely in that partway through the group of five split into two, one traveling to Amman, Jordan to learn about the Iraq project, and one group heading to Uganda to learn about the project that was underway there. Mark was a member of the Uganda contingent, and he felt his experience there was very productive and informative. When asked about surprises encountered on his trip, Mark observed that there were many, but one significant example was that his group assumed that the health caretakers, called village help teams, traveled from household to household and distributed medicine. However, valuable first-hand experience taught them that the teams made housecalls only when requested, which changed the way they were conceptualizing the project. The country office laid out a complete itinerary for them, and Mark said that “we were lucky that UNICEF was able to set up these meetings for us, the fact was I don’t think we would have made as efficient a use of our time otherwise.”
The final report went through many alterations, three of which were shown to UNICEF staff Chris Fabian and Panthea Lee, and to Prof. Lindenmeyer. In the beginning the report was more reflective of two separate experiences of Iraq and Uganda, and the feedback given to the students was to combine the two. Recommendations that the report had for Iraq tended to be more qualitative, whereas for Uganda it was more quantitative. The challenge was to find commonalities and a way to make comparisons, which was difficult but in the end Mark acknowledges was a “better way to organize it.” Feedback between UNICEF and Prof. Lindenmeyer differed in that UNICEF was looking more at the “nuts and bolts about how to implement” whereas Prof. Lindenmeyer was more focused on “a high level peacekeeping” mindset. Mark thought that if UNICEF and SIPA met in person only every other week, it would cut down on the travel time for each, and would result in more opportunity to meet only with the professor, which he felt would be a benefit to presenting more polished ideas.
The class presented their report to a SIPA audience, and a week later to a UNICEF audience. For the first presentation, the class found themselves grouped in with other presentations dealing with security. Accordingly, the majority of questions and feedback was about the security of the information system they were advising on. This was not originally the primary focus of their team, and so the comments had some effect on adapting their final report for UNICEF. When presenting to UNICEF, the feedback was more specifically about the indicators that defines what the system would be monitoring. Mark affirmed the significance of presenting to an engaged audience, because the feedback can point out different considerations and inform a broader perspective on the project and improve its scope.
Mark was already interested in focusing in on the field of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) for Development, and so this class was a foundation in building expertise. He says that it led to an independent study with UNICEF, in addition to lending him knowledge in other focuses and perspectives that are integral to understanding the shifting landscape of ICT for education and development. The class played a significant role then in him gaining experience and using that in his subsequent studies and beyond.