The Journey to IEDP series was created to give readers an understanding of the myriad experiences that have led us to the IEDP. For prospective students, we hope to answer questions of how and why we decided to come to the IEDP, what the decision-making process of applying to and deciding among offers was like, and how the IEDP has aligned with our goals and expectations since we’ve matriculated into the program. This blog series will show how some of our cohortmates have navigated these questions and more.

Thanks for letting me interview you, Shaz!

Brandon: Tell me about what made you realize you need to go to grad school. What were you doing that made you realize graduate school has to be your next step to get you to where you want to go?

Shaz: I was working with some non-profits in Pakistan, in Sindh. I was consulting for a department in the government for a very long time in collaboration with some NGOs, and I realized that a lot of what I was learning was by doing, which was great. But I felt like in terms of a good mix of theory and skills, I needed to go to grad school so that I could have a better understanding of what I wanted to do, both field and practical wise, but also the theory aspect of it.

Brandon: Can you give me a particular example that captured that feeling?

Shaz: In my job, we had to build and write a technical proposal for some schools. There was a Request for Proposals (RFP), and I just did not know what anything was. I think that that was also the time where we were doing our most extensive fieldwork. It was during that time of doing fieldwork to inform our technical proposal, and the financial proposal, that I had my peak realization. I knew all along. It wasn’t like one day I realized that I wanted to go to grad school, but I think that was when I was motivated enough to look for programs and apply. To be specific, it was the summer of 2018 in the district of Dadu.

Brandon: That gives a good, clear example of what made you decide to pursue graduate school. How did you decide that the field of international education development would be the best way to approach your interests, as opposed to just development broadly, as I think could have been really applicable to you, or even taking a more specified, practical approach to it.

Preparing for national board examinations with some 12th-graders

Shaz: I was pretty sure that I was going to apply for an MPA, so a Master of Public Administration. I had known all along that I was going to apply for that because I wanted to keep my interests and my skills broad. But when I started working, it just so happened that I was most closely working with the education sector and I felt more drawn to it. Sometimes I didn’t know why, and I’m okay with not knowing that because I feel like this area seems natural to me. It seems like something that comes from my heart, as mushy as that might sound. That’s why I felt like international educational development was where my heart was, really.

Brandon: How did you discover the IEDP at Penn?

Shaz: The answer to this is really funny.

Brandon: I’m ready for it.

Shaz: There are two answers to that. One, I typed in “international educational development programs,” and I was looking specifically at Columbia at that time. Google shows you the most similar searches, and Penn is the first one on there. I happened to click and found my way here at Penn. The second answer to that is, I knew of someone who was at the law school here, my cousin’s fiancé. He recommended this program over other programs. I had applied to all other programs, and Penn was one of the last programs I applied to because of the late deadline. I think that most of the other programs had deadlines in January. So it was someone’s reference and also Google that led me here.

Brandon: It almost seems like both of those experiences kind of bookend your connection to IEDP. Just like how you knew about it at first but didn’t apply; later it comes up again, and then you think, “Oh, okay, now it’s coming back to me.” It was in the back your mind but then it resurfaced.

Shaz: Yeah, I also didn’t think I would get in.

Brandon: I guess that leads into my other question about your process for deciding to apply. Even though you were aware of the IEDP and it was referenced to you, what made you decide to apply?

Shaz: I did a lot of informational interviews before I even started my application, so I spoke to people who were at Penn in other schools. I didn’t speak to anyone who was at the School of Education, but everyone seemed to know a lot about the School of Education at Penn. That was one of the first steps of my application, to find out if this program is the right fit for me. I looked up faculty profiles, I looked at research that was going on. I think one thing that this program has is a very strong presence on the internet, almost everywhere like social media and websites. It made it easy for me to make an important decision because there was so much that was available and accessible compared to other programs.

Brandon: I definitely agree. And so, what made you ultimately choose this program over other programs?

Shaz: There’s a bunch of things. I feel like this program seemed to have a good mix of practical and theoretical academic stuff, which is what I wanted. I didn’t want to go 100% into the academic part of things because I was so detached from it for along, and I wanted to maintain that balance a little bit. The second part of it was I felt like, from reading about faculty profiles and research that was going on, the IEDP just seemed more closely aligned with what I wanted to do. A lot of other programs didn’t offer specifically the courses or the research opportunities or the internship opportunities that this program does, so that was a big reason.

Brandon: What sort of faculty interest or research interests stood out to you?

Shaz: I came in with a lot of diverse interests, and so there were some programs that cater to one or two of those. The IEDP may not be catering to all of them 100%, but it does seem to cater to the diverse mix. For example, there is a focus on curriculum and pedagogy, but there’s also a lot of discussion around South Asia, which is my regional focus. It was the topics I was interested in and the region I was also interested in. I was also interested in policy and broader public-private partnership models, and that was something that I also saw here. Other programs had all of that, not to say they didn’t. But it was like some had more of some of my interests and less of the others, and here I felt like I could really be flexible in terms of exploring more of those interests, if that makes sense.

Brandon: Yeah, that makes sense. If you had to pin it down to one deciding factor, would you say that the flexibility in exploring interests would be it?

Shaz: I feel like it ultimately came down to the experience and a lot of that had to do with the IEDP Student Blog. It had to do with what I found from the blog because I was able to read different experiences, and that’s not something photos can capture all the time, that’s not something posts or Facebook or lists of courses can capture all the time. Actually getting to know student experience without having to worry about how do I connect with people who do this program was was one of the deciding factors.

Brandon: Pressure’s on, haha. Now that you’re a student in the IEDP, how are you pursuing your goals and interests at Penn? You just talked about what that looked like before the application process and during, so how is it now that you’re here?

Shaz: I feel like so much of what I witnessed and experienced kind of informs the way I engage with things that I’m learning here. When we talk about student learning, I’m finding it very easy, in a way, to relate to things that I’m learning about. I find it humanizes the whole process, right; there’s this personal connection to everything you’re reading about and learning about. It’s making me reflect on things that I did, on things that I was thinking about, or on things that other people were doing that I never reflected on in a way that I wasn’t before. So, thinking about things from different lenses. A lot of it has to do with reflection, but also a lot of it has to do with moving forward, these are things that I would do differently. These are situations that I would approach differently, and these are assumptions that I would be mindful of.

Brandon: That’s more of the understanding side, so within the practice of it, you mentioned some interests of yours. How are you able to realize those through courses or research or other ways at Penn?

Shaz: I’m mostly exploring it through courses right now. I do a little bit of research here and there, but I haven’t taken up a full-fledged task because I’m also taking five courses this semester. So, my workload is pretty intense.

Brandon: What made you decide doing the program in one year versus one and a half years?

Shaz: When I applied, I was pretty sure I was going to do it in one and a half years. In the first semester I signed up for five courses, and I was like, This isn’t not doable. It requires some compromise here and there, and you have to be kind of smart about the kind of classes you choose to somehow balance the workload, which is what I did. Not all of my classes are equally reading heavy or assignment heavy. I’m not sure that’s going to happen next semester, but if it doesn’t, I will push it and I will do it in one and a half years… or I’ll take a summer course. But you know, that’s the kind of flexibility that comes with the IEDP, that you can toy around with the timeline a little bit to figure it out.

Brandon: Do you think there’s maybe one class that sticks out the most to you that is giving you exactly what you wanted out of the program?

In “Systems Thinking,” delving into the complexity of problems looks ‘messy’ but the idea is to accept the world as is: indeed, messy; embracing this messiness is just the first step

Shaz: I’m taking this class by Dr. Alec Gershberg, which is called “Systems Thinking,” and I think it’s definitely that class for me; it’s my golden class. It talks a lot about the way we understand and think about contexts and people and issues, and how much of that understanding informs the way we then propose to solve those issues. And that understanding is often not as comprehensive as we think it is. Our own assumptions, that I know enough about this place, get questioned. We start to think about issues as more complex, and I don’t use that word lightly. An issue doesn’t exist in a vacuum; there are hosts of things that inform that issue, and we keep thinking about those things and that makes us kind of more cautious of the way we approach development, more careful of the things we think about. That would be my class. Sorry I’m rambling, right?

Brandon: No, no. Not at all. I asked for the ramble. Last question: What advice would you give to prospective students of the IEDP?

Shaz: Do your research. Because once this program starts, it picks up so quickly. There’re all these other options like certifications and all of that, and they pop up. I’m hearing about them much later in my semester, and because I didn’t think about them before, I don’t think I researched enough, like I thought I did. I don’t think I met with people to discuss my options early on. I am doing a lot of that now, but I feel like it’s very quick, 100% hardcore once it starts, really when the program starts starts. I would make the most of the first slow week that you get to explore all the many things that you can do with this degree, dual degrees, and all of that. The other advice would be to not make this experience physically be just from GSE to the library because the Penn campus is beautiful and it’s huge. I feel like I get lost all the time because my daily experience is literally just walking to this one building, and perhaps going to the library, and I haven’t seen much of it. This time flies by super quick, so I would advice being comfortable getting lost on campus and moving around more.

The sun coming out after a torrential rain, viewed from the steps of Van-Pelt Library

This transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.