This fall, a small group of Sanford students had a rare opportunity to ask leader and Duke alumnus David Rubenstein questions during a Zoom call hosted by Dean Judith Kelley.
For some Master of Public Policy (MPP) students, this opportunity was extra meaningful because Rubenstein provided funding for their studies through the David M. Rubenstein Public Service Fellowship Fund. The endowment was established by Rubenstein in 2013 to provide full fellowships to selected MPP students who have demonstrated a commitment to public service.
“I greatly enjoyed, and benefited from, my Duke education—which was made possible by a scholarship. I would like others to also obtain the value of a Duke education, and the fellowships are designed for that purpose,” said Rubenstein, who is a 1970 magna cum laude graduate of Duke University.
Rubenstein is co-founder and co-chairman of The Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest and most successful private investment firms, and the host of The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations on Bloomberg TV and PBS. He is the author of The American Story: Conversations with Master Historians and How to Lead: Wisdom from the World's Greatest CEOs, Founders, and Game Changers, both published by Simon & Schuster in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Cynthia Joseph MPP ’21 was among several David M. Rubenstein Public Service Fellows on the call with Rubenstein this fall.
“During the virtual meeting, we were able to ask him questions directly; that was impactful,” Joseph said. “I learned a lot in the meeting with him; he talked a lot about the importance of figuring out what was important in life.”
Making a mark in education and development
Joseph developed her passion for public policy as a child in Haiti.
“As a child, I noticed issues such as inequality in education. In Haiti, most primary schools are private. Most people live on less than $2 a day, so they can’t afford to send their children to school, or might not be able to afford uniforms or school supplies. A lot of students didn’t have access to education in Haiti and that led to social inequality,” she said. “I was thinking about ways to increase access to education. Later on, I realized through public policy I could help make changes that impact people’s lives.”
Prior to joining the MPP program at Duke, she taught in Taiwan as a Fulbright fellow, and worked in Benin on education policy through Princeton in Africa. She knew the MPP would strengthen her skills for her career dreams in international development. She learned about her fellowship last fall in a letter.
“I was so excited to get the news. Before that, I was very stressed about financing my studies; I was really concerned. I felt so relieved,” Joseph said. “As a first-generation student, this fellowship has been crucial. I don’t have the stress of figuring out how to finance my studies.”
Because of the support, Joseph said she has been able to focus on her thesis and activities at Duke.
“I can focus on activities outside of Sanford. One example is Sanford Board Leadership Initiative (SBLI). I worked with a local nonprofit, Crayons for Calculators. I learned about nonprofit management and education issues in North Carolina, including school supplies for public school teachers. You realize teachers are paying for supplies out of their own pockets, and teacher salaries are already low. I was amazed how much it meant to teachers,” she said.
Joseph also has started her own nonprofit in Florida, where she received her bachelor’s degree. The nonprofit Just Succeed Inc. provides scholarships to graduating high school seniors of Caribbean descent, along with mentorship throughout college. Joseph said the fellowship support has allowed her to spend time on her nonprofit that she wouldn’t have if she was working to finance her studies.
Health policy focus to improve lives
Jasmine Masand MPP ’21 is also a Rubenstein fellowship recipient. She arrived at Duke from Boston. Until 2019, she had always lived in New England.
“I was working for a policy research organization when I decided to pursue graduate school. It felt important for me to move somewhere for graduate school that was demographically and culturally different from where I had always lived, and I have really enjoyed getting involved in the community here. Over the summer, I did some support work for the Durham Recovery and Renewal Task Force, and this fall I worked as a precinct official in Durham County during the 2020 elections,” Masand said.
As an MPP candidate at Duke, she is busy writing policy memos, Zooming into class or walking her Dachshund mix Wally on Campus Drive. Masand is pursuing an MPP with a concentration in Health Policy, and is also a Margolis Scholar in Health Policy & Management. She was recently selected as a Presidential Management Fellows finalist, and plans to work for the federal government after graduation. She said the fellowship has helped her pursue her career dreams.
“I have always had a strong interest in public service and working for federal or state government. The fellowship, along with support from Duke Margolis, has enabled me to focus completely on exploring different post-graduate opportunities to work on health policy in the government,” she said. “Addressing inequity through public policy matters to me because there is evidence that changes in health policy -- expanding Medicaid, reducing consumer drug prices, boosting preventive care -- can make a real, measurable difference in someone's well-being, and can also open up life opportunities for them as a result.”
Masand said the online conversation this fall with Rubenstein was helpful to her. “Hearing him talk about his career path really helped me think through my own next steps,” she said.
Public service mindset
Rhea Ninan, MPP ’22, graduated from the University of Michigan in 2018 with a degree in Public Policy and a minor in Spanish. After college, she worked as a policy analyst for a research firm that evaluates energy efficiency and low-income energy bill-payment assistance programs.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to make a career out of helping others. When I learned about the field of public policy, I knew that it was the right fit for me,” Ninan said. “I’m pursuing public policy because, if done well, it’s an opportunity to effect positive change on a large scale.”
She learned she received the David M. Rubenstein Public Service Fellowship via email when she received her acceptance to Sanford’s MPP program.
“I was thrilled, because I knew this fellowship would make a huge difference in financing my degree,” Ninan said. “The biggest benefit of this fellowship is that it has granted me freedom to pursue the career path that I want to follow, without fear of debt. I’m really grateful.”
Her academic and professional experiences at Duke have helped her narrow her public service interests to the evaluation and implementation of effective public assistance programs.
“Long term, I’d like to be developing, implementing and evaluating policies that are improving people’s lives, particularly the lives of those who are most vulnerable and marginalized. I’m hoping that the job I get after graduation will bring me a step closer to that goal, by giving me more opportunities to work with and learn from various public sector agencies,” Ninan said.
Evidence and empathy for change
Originally from Paintsville, Ky., Lucas Stewart MPP ’21 said growing up in a rural small town influenced his policy interests.
“Before coming to Duke, I worked for three years as a health policy analyst at Vanderbilt University, where my work focused on infant and maternal health and Medicare-Medicaid dual-eligible beneficiaries. I'm interested in addressing issues at the intersection of maternal and child health and mental health policy, particularly the intergenerational connections between adverse childhood experiences, substance use disorder and poverty,” Stewart said.
Stewart said policy matters – and for him public policy combines evidence and empathy to create positive change in the world. After graduation, Stewart plans to work in a state-level health policy position with the aim of improving opportunities and outcomes for vulnerable children and families, especially those facing addiction issues.
“I can't say it better than my former Sanford colleague, Meril Pothen MPP ’20, who said, ‘Policy is the academic and professional manifestation of giving a damn!’ The Sanford School and my fantastic Sanford family have given me the motivation and opportunity to make a real-world impact,” he said.
He learned about the fellowship through his acceptance letter, and said that the fellowship has allowed him to take more classes and pursue additional volunteer activities in the community because of the financial freedom.
“I was extremely excited and delighted by the generous financial aid and opportunity to attend a stellar public policy program,” Stewart said. “Receiving the fellowship has lightened my financial burden and allowed me to focus on my policy work and professional development. This focus will enable me to be a more effective policy practitioner.”
Stewart said if he met Rubenstein in person, he would “thank Mr. Rubenstein for his generosity and exemplary leadership. His donations have inspired me to help others and give back to the wonderful Duke community and my Sanford family. I hope one day I will also be able to help students achieve their personal and professional goals in the same way.”
Passion for policy and love of nature
Kelly Shen MPP ’22 grew up on the East Coast, with her passion for environmental policy forming at an early age.
“I was always fascinated by the relationships that shape the world around us, particularly between humans and nature. I spent a lot of time wading in streams, searching for insects and crawling around culverts in order to understand the science underlying these interactions. More recently, this has translated into a desire to utilize science to make decisions about how we allocate, use and value our natural resources. For me, this meant diving into public policy,” Shen said.
Shen worked for several years for the State of Wisconsin, falling in love with the Great Lakes and deepening her commitment to public service.
“The challenging, intricate decisions I saw at the state level inspired me to return to graduate school in order to hone my skills for navigating these decisions in a thoughtful, holistic manner,” Shen said.
When she received her acceptance to the MPP program, she also learned about the fellowship. She couldn’t believe the news when she got the letter.
“David Rubenstein is a well-known name, especially around Duke. His humility, wisdom, and commitment to philanthropy are very admirable and leave me forever grateful,” Shen said. “The fellowship has allowed me to keep digging into tough problems and the complex systems underneath them. From conflicts over land use to an aging water infrastructure to unsustainable disaster insurance policies, the conversations and classes at Sanford have questioned my values, provided new perspectives, and challenged me to grow both personally and professionally.”
After graduation, Shen would like to return to public service.
“I want to elevate community voices within government, especially those who have been historically left out of the conversation, and create governmental systems that sustainably and equitably balance human and ecological needs,” she said.