Julie Cooper MPP 2014
HOMETOWN: New York, New York
Undergraduate Degree: B.A. in International Studies from the University of Chicago
Current Employer: Policy and Real Estate Analyst at Development Strategies, Inc. (St. Louis)
From your undergraduate experience with the University of Chicago, was it natural that you applied to Harris, or were you looking at other public policy schools?
I actually took some time off between undergrad and grad school. I worked for five years for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, and I was looking to go into a career in foreign policy. I had applied to a number of grad schools that were more in the international relations/foreign policy space. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do something a little bit broader— I didn’t want to just focus on foreign affairs. I was pretty familiar with the Harris School because I had some class space in undergraduate there. I knew it would be a good program because I knew the university and the caliber of academics there. I knew they were doing some really interesting stuff—they were just getting the Energy Policy Institute off the ground when I started there. It came to me as a great opportunity for the next phase in my career.
What was your MPP focus? You have interest in urban development and energy efficiency— what grounded your Harris experience?
I definitely started out thinking I would be more focused in energy policy. I had a fellowship with the Energy Policy Institute when I started. As I went through that experience, I started to do research on the energy efficiency programs, particularly targeted at low-income housing or families—helping to make their living spaces more energy efficient. I just realized that energy policy itself wasn’t what my interest was in. My interest was in community development and urban development, and energy was a piece of that, but I was looking for something a little broader about cities and communities. So I shifted a little in my second year and was more grounded in looking at urban issues—for example, I did the Municipal Finance Certificate Program; I took a class on housing policy and transportation policy. That really did become the focus of my studies there. It took me the first year to really figure that out, but since the first year is more focused on the core, that gave me the chance to figure out where I fell in the policy world.
How did your experience at Harris lead you to your current career path?
What our company does is grounded in working with our clients—whether they’re developers, cities, institutions—helping them to utilize their assets to have the best outcomes for their organizations. There’s a couple ways that Harris helped me. When I started out with this job, I was kind of doing more data analysis— collecting demographic information, socioeconomic information to understand “what are the trends in this community? What are the particular needs?” More focused on housing than anything, but the data analysis field that I got out of Harris—particularly in the econ and stats classes—just made me very comfortable in working with data and numbers. I’ll understand what the story is and what conclusions we can start to draw from these numbers. As I’ve transitioned to project management and strategic planning, I think one of the things that always comes back to me from what I learned at Harris is always looking at all sides of an issue, and thinking about what are some unintended consequences of particular strategies that an entity might undertake. And always thinking about who are the different players that might be impacted, and thinking about the levers—what are the levers that we can press to make a difference? I think a lot of that came out of what I learned at Harris—really thinking about all sides of an issue, and being mindful that nothing is what it seems on the surface. That’s had a big influence on how I approach my job now. I see how much my employer appreciates that—I can do critical thinking around data; it’s an important skill when you go out into the professional world.
What were some non coursework-related activities or events that were influential during your time at Harris?
I was involved with the Harris Energy Association— it was an HSO [Harris Student Organization]. It was an opportunity for students interested in energy policy issues to get together; they used to have an event called Energy On Tap, where they’d get together at the pub and would have a topic to talk about over beers. What we did was bring in an expert to have an informal conversation with over pizza and beer, and give us an opportunity to hear about what was going on in the real world of energy policy. We did an event with a congressman from South Carolina, and he was at the Institute of Politics one of the quarters, and we got in touch with him and he came over to the Harris School to have a casual conversation about his experience, what he was doing as an advocate for different efficiency programs and alternative energy funding. The HSOs helped you to see the real-world application of policy work and be up-to-date with what was going on in the real world. The benefit of going to the University of Chicago can’t be overstated. The breadth of courses you can take, professors you can interact with, speakers that they bring to campus, are a huge benefit to the Harris students and really enhance what they are doing with their Harris work.
Do you have any advice for current or prospective Harris students?
I would say a couple things. One is that, from a course-taking perspective, I highly, highly encourage prospective or current students to seriously consider taking at least one practicum course. Those courses were perhaps the most impactful of the experiences I had at Harris, because you are out in the field, and seeing what real communities and organizations are faced with. It gives you a perspective on why you’re doing policy—there’s a real world out there that we have a chance to make a difference in. And then, based on my own experience, I would say it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what kind of policy you want to study. You have time to sample and get involved—don’t feel like you have to go in and stick with something. I obviously didn’t and it ended up really working out. Just be open-minded and don’t feel too much pressure to fit in to one slot.