Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Student Spotlight: Zach Harris

This week's student spotlight features Zach Harris, a current Master of Arts student concentrating in Southeast Asia studies. Before coming to Johns Hopkins SAIS, Zach served as a Congressional Staffer and Consultant. Zach decided to go back to graduate school to pivot to a career working more directly in developing countries.

What is some advice you would give to someone considering applying to a program like SAIS?
As a prospective applicant, the best advice I can give you is to apply! More practically speaking, I would start the process now. That is to say you it is never too early to start considering your application to SAIS, or other graduate schools. The SAIS application contains many required items and It never hurts to start compiling or thinking about those early and often. The first item in applying is to prepare for the GRE. The GRE scores are an important part of the application but one you can prepare for. Unlike your undergraduate GPA, the GRE is in your hands and the sooner you prepare, the better score you will receive. Concurrently, I would start to consider who will write your letters of recommendation. You will have to spend time thinking about who you want to write your letter as it is important to chose someone that can speak to you as a person ready to pursue graduate studies. These people are likely quite busy so it is best to give them a heads up. Lastly (that I will discuss), you must write a statement of purpose. Like the GRE, the statement of purpose is a piece of the application you have full control over. I advise you to spend a lot of time crafting a statement that tells a story about why you want to attend SAIS, what SAIS can provide you, and how you can benefit SAIS. You will likely want to have a few friends or family members review your statement of purpose as fresh eyes always helps. The SAIS application, and the applications to many similar graduate program, contains many parts and the earlier you start the process the better off you will be.

When considering graduate school, what was appealing about SAIS?
When considering graduate school, SAIS was at the top of the list for many reasons. I decided to go back to graduate school to help pivot to a career working more directly in developing countries. I also knew I wanted to focus on a region – Southeast Asia – while still gaining technical skills. Through research online and discussions with alumni it became clear quite quickly that SAIS was the best program given my interests. The abundance of economics and finance coursework coupled with a strong Southeast Asia department was compelling. Lastly, every SAIS student, faculty, or alumni I encountered before applying to SAIS was extremely nice and helpful.

What has surprised you the most being at SAIS?
I have been most surprised, and impressed, with the SAIS faculty. Every faculty member I have encountered has been very professional and capable in their field of expertise. But arguably more important, at least more important to me, every professor has been very willing to meet with me to discuss topics related and unrelated to their area of expertise. I have even found professors whom I am not taking classes with receptive to meeting. I am also very surprised at how close you become with your fellow students. I expected to meet new people but was surprised to see how close I have grown to many fellow classmates.

Coolest trip you have taken with your peers?
The coolest trip I have taken while at SAIS was a long weekend to Hong Kong. Myself and three fellow SAISers entered the Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge this past year. Our team was selected as a finalist and we were flown to Hong Kong to present our idea in front of a panel of impact investing practitioners (i.e., judges). The trip lasted four nights and was an amazing experience to interact with leaders in an interesting and fast-growing field. Further, we got to meet amazing graduate students from all over the world that we shared (many) beers with in the streets of Lan Kwai Fong. We explored the hills of Central, Lamma Island, and, of course, we ate great food.

The Morgan Stanley Sustainable Investing Challenge is a pitch competition for graduate students (mostly MBA programs) focused on designing innovative financial vehicles that create sustainable impact without sacrificing financial returns. Our team’s was a fund designed to provide parametric weather-index based insurance employed to shield rice farmers in Thailand from the impacts of client change on farming outputs and revenue flows.