Fellowships Equal Careers in Fighting Poverty

When our three new undergraduates arrived last January to start their Public Policy Fellowships at the Center for Poverty Research, they had no idea what they were getting into, and only a vague sense of what they would accomplish by summer. All they had was potential and an interest in poverty policy.

“When I applied for the fellowship,” says Alex Matsiras, a managerial economics major, “I was taking a class about poverty in the world so I thought it’d be interesting.”

The fellowship is definitely that. The center has different opportunities for undergraduates — most of whom are social science majors — and those opportunities all focus on training.

Part of the center’s mission is to train the next generation of poverty scholars, and this includes UC Davis undergraduates. Like our research assistantships, the Public Policy Fellowship is heavy on training, but the experience also provides a chance for students to make an impact on policy affecting people living in poverty.

Three fellowships offered

Matsiras was one of 21 students who applied for three spots in the fellowship program last year. He and two others were chosen for the positions.

Also chosen was Christina Nguyen, a community and regional development major, who says she was also very interested in poverty issues but only knew about them what she learned in class.

The third fellow was Beyza Seflek, another community and regional development major, who had already completed her major’s internship requirement and originally planned to work with a professor as a research assistant. 

“I applied on a whim,” she says “I didn’t expect to get called back.”

Researching upcoming poverty legislation

When I recently asked this group about the hardest part of their fellowship, I thought they would talk about the legislative research. These students did the bulk of finding upcoming poverty legislation across the 50 states to help us target our policy-brief distributions. We always warn that this part of the job can be tedious.

Instead, all three said the biggest challenge was completing their independent projects, which are at the core of the fellowship.

We ask our students to develop and execute a major research or Web marketing project over their two quarters with us. That’s in addition to legislative research and any other smaller projects we throw their way. It’s important to have experiences they can put on a résumé and use to build themselves up professionally.

“We always find out early what professional skills and experience they want to develop,” says Lupe Sanchez, the center’s manager. “When they start looking for a job, we want them to have a better shot.” Sanchez hosted a summer workshop for undergraduate researchers on applying for jobs and interviewing.

Doing the project from start to finish

For her project, Nguyen wanted to help professionals who work directly with poor communities. She saw a gap between the research we do here at the university and those who are on the front lines of alleviating poverty. She developed an email campaign that reached more than 300 lawyers, social workers, therapists, teachers and advocates to tell them about a selection of the center’s policy briefs that relate directly to their work.

“I really enjoyed being able to execute my own project from start to finish,” Nguyen says. “Having the opportunity to do that for the center was amazing. It was a very supportive environment to do the best that you can.”

Matsiras and Seflek developed an infographic and Web marketing plan to go with it. Infographics take complex data and add a visual design element to make the issues they represent more interactive and easier to understand.

The hardest part for Matsiras was the week leading up to presenting their completed projects to the center’s directors and staff. “We really had to make sure that everything looked good,” he says. “In the end, it turned out really nice.”

Prof impressed with student work

The center’s director, Ann Stevens, an economics professor who is currently interim dean of the Graduate School of Management, was so impressed with both their projects that she hired the three as a team to work with her as research assistants over the summer.

Their project this time was to develop new infographics on poverty. We contracted local designer Robyn Waxman to host a crash course in infographic design.

Exposing students to the research process

“In social science, we don't have actual labs where undergraduates can work and literally see the scientific process taking place,” says Stevens. “But it is just as critical for students in the social sciences to be exposed firsthand to the research process.”

Through the summer research program, students learned how to collect and analyze data and to conduct background research.

“In this case,” Stevens says, “they helped bring key project findings and facts to life.”

Working closely over the summer with Stevens was “inspiring,” says Seflek. “Usually when you are the intern, you are on the low end of it, but she really listened to our ideas.”

Applying what they learned to focus on a career

“The fellowship opened my eyes about how big the problem was,” says Matsiras. Even so, he might not pursue a career related to poverty. Instead he hopes to go to grad school for information systems, where he would use some of the skills he developed at the center.

Nguyen is already using her experience in a new job. A June 2014 graduate, she recently secured her first full-time job at the Santa Clara nonprofit Project Sentinel, which works with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to investigate fair housing concerns. Part of her job will be to help with marketing and outreach strategy, building on work she did at the center.

Seflek says she learned to be a little less skeptical about government programs —“Just being less ‘Stick it to the man,’ and more, ‘Let’s see what policies there are and see how we can work to create a better situation for disadvantaged communities.’”

Working for the American Institutes for Research

After her summer position, Seflek graduated from UC Davis. She interviewed for jobs at a huge variety of companies and accepted a position as an education program research assistant in Washington, D.C., at the American Institutes for Research.

“I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for my experience at the Poverty Center, I would not have had the skills for this position,” she says.

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