Leading from Experience
It took less than two months at the Public Policy and International Affairs Program (PPIA) Junior Summer Institute (JSI) at the Woodrow Wilson School in 1995 for Gilbert Collins, MPA ‘99 – then a rising undergraduate senior at Harvard University – to change his career focus.
“I was a political science and government major, and I thought I wanted to go to law school,” Collins said. “My interests completely changed after attending the Junior Summer Institute program at the Wilson School.”
Now, Collins, director of graduate student life and director of JSI at the Wilson School, is giving back to the program that influenced him early in his career. Since he joined the Wilson School in February 2014, Collins has been worked fervently to prepare for two JSI classes. Lucky for him, he has firsthand experience with the program.
“As a student, the program exposed me to the nuts and bolts of policy making from both an analytical and a substantive standpoint,” Collins said. “Before the program, I knew very little about the field of policy studies. But afterward, I knew I wanted to attend a public policy school and pursue a career in public policy.”
For nearly 30 years, JSI has provided rising undergraduate seniors from across the globe with the skills necessary to become public policy leaders and educators. The program equips seniors with skills that are core to policy analysis: microeconomics, statistics, writing, public speaking and organization and time management. The seniors follow a rigorous curriculum during their seven weeks together and attend presentations by top policy leaders that give them a bird’s eye view into the field.
As a student, it was this line-up of speakers that really struck Collins.
“The visiting lecturers’ quality and experience and the ways in which they were dedicated to trying to make positive change, in whatever field they were working, was inspiring,” he said. “They lived and breathed their field and served as an example to me.”
Beyond the speakers, the JSI program equipped Collins with the necessary skills to approach and think about policy. He learned how to look at policy issues from statistical and economic points of view, analyze the impacts of different policy choices, consider the qualitative perspectives, think about competing interests and reach solutions that benefit all parties.
After graduating with a Master’s in Public Affairs degree from the Wilson School, Collins embarked on a nearly 15-year career in public policy and international affairs in the U.S. Federal Government, coordinating humanitarian assistance at USAID in Washington, D.C., and then directing Peace Corps development programs in both Botswana and Namibia.
But based on his experience at JSI and the speakers who provided him inspiration, Collins ultimately wanted to use his experience to encourage students to pursue their own passions in the realm of public policy.
“JSI gave me so much,” Collins said. “From my experience as a JSI participant, to my MPA studies, and now to directing the JSI program, I’m so thankful to have come full circle at the Wilson School.”
Collins said since the JSI program changed his intended career path, one of his goals is to inform and educate students about policy schools, the public policy field and the types of careers that could be open to somebody that pursues advanced public policy studies.
“I’d like to show students that at one point, I was in their shoes, and I didn’t know much about public policy, either,” he said. “Partly from my personal narrative, I want to get them excited about the possibilities of the policy field.
“All of the students aren’t necessarily going to want to pursue international relations like I did – some might want to study, for example, education policy or urban planning or health policy – but this program is all about giving students a snapshot of what the policy field has to offer.”