Three Students Create Pardee RAND Legacies

students, alexandra mendoza graf, ashley woo, sara amiri

Students Alex Mendoza-Graf, Ashley Woo, and Sohaela Amiri hold Commencement photos of their relatives, Marlon Graf, Jon Wong, and Sara Amiri

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

December 10, 2019

After almost 50 years and more than 500 students, it might not be surprising that Pardee RAND would have family "legacies" — students who count alumni among their relatives. But even we were surprised to realize that we currently have three such legacy families.

Students Sohaela Amiri (Cohort '16), Alexandra Mendoza-Graf ('16), and Ashley Woo ('18) didn't have far to look when they decided to pursue a Ph.D. in policy analysis. While forging their own paths, they are also following in the footsteps of relatives who also happen to be Pardee RAND alumni: Sara Amiri ('05), Marlon Graf ('12), and Jon Wong ('12).

Of course, these are not parent-child legacies. Rather, Sohaela and Sara are sisters; Ashley and Jon are first cousins; and Marlon and Alex are married (they met while he was a Pardee RAND student, and she started after he graduated).

Just as every Pardee RAND student is unique, so too are their stories.

Ashley Woo (bottom left, in pink) and Jon Wong (top left, in a striped shirt, peeking out from behind), at one of their families' many gatherings.

Photo courtesy Ashley Woo

Ashley and Jon, please describe your relationship. We know you’re cousins. Did you grow up near each other? Are you close?

Ashley: Growing up, we would see each other at big family events. I think he left to join the Marines around the time I was in middle school, so I remember seeing him less after that, but would always hear about his adventures from my mom and aunts at family get-togethers.

Jon: We grew up near each other in Los Angeles. But when you’re a little kid, a few years of age difference is a big deal! We didn’t truly reconnect until Ashley spotted a Facebook post of my Pardee RAND graduation in 2016 that got her interested in the program.

How about you, Sara and Sohaela. You're sisters, but siblings don't always get along.

Sara: Actually, we are close and talk to each other frequently and about everything!

Sohaela: Sara is my older sister and the smarter one. I am lucky and grateful to be able to consult with her about making the toughest life decisions.

Alex and Marlon, what about you?

Alex: We had both gone through the same MPP program at UCLA, but at different time periods.

Marlon: We first met at a UCLA tailgate and then reconnected when I was co-organizing the L.A. Policy Symposium in April of my second year at Pardee RAND. The conference was jointly organized between all of the L.A.-based policy schools, and Alex was a second-year student in UCLA’s MPP program at the time. We started talking at the symposium and she invited me to a Dodgers game for the following weekend. The rest is history.

Why did each of you decide to study at Pardee RAND?

Jon: I had no intention of getting a Ph.D. until I heard about Pardee RAND. I had just completed a masters in security studies and had left the Marine Corps after 10 years. I knew I wanted to continue to be involved in national security, but my wife and I also wanted to return to Southern California. One of my mentors in the Marine Corps connected me to Pardee RAND and I was really impressed with the opportunity to work on OJT, the policy focus of the program, and the security of a fellowship for every student. It was a perfect convergence of everything I was looking for.

Ashley: I loved the idea of being able to work on issues that I care about in a very applied setting, and that remains one of my favorite things about studying at Pardee RAND. As I was applying, I remember looking through the research conducted by RAND, and I was excited by the different possible topics and opportunities aligned to all of my own questions about how school systems work. And, of course, being able to stay home in Los Angeles by the beach was just an added bonus!

Marlon: I was always intrigued by the idea of getting a Ph.D. and doing research, but I wasn’t too keen on a traditional academic career. I pictured myself advising policy makers and business leaders but didn’t really know how to do that. Following my MPP at UCLA, I was exploring both Ph.D. programs and career options in public administration as well as consulting. I was really intrigued by the diversity of methods taught at Pardee RAND and the ability to work across a wide range of policy areas. I enjoy exploring many different issues at any given time, and to work with creative and interesting methods, and Pardee RAND seemed like the perfect place to do just that.

Marlon and Alexandra met at the 2013 L.A. Policy Symposium, photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation
Marlon and Alexandra met at the 2013 L.A. Policy Symposium, photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Alex and Marlon reconnected at the 2013 L.A. Policy Symposium

Photos by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Alex: I was somewhat aware of the program in the sense that the Luskin School has a relationship with Pardee RAND, and I had interacted with Pardee RAND students at the L.A. Policy Symposia. Once I got my first job in research, I quickly realized that I would hit a ceiling in a career in research if I did not have a Ph.D. I didn’t really consider other programs because I knew that Pardee RAND provided a unique learning experience, and the ability to do OJT while also learning in the classroom was a must for me.

Sara: I wanted to study in a Ph.D. program that was applied in nature and could equip me with analytical tools to help me analyze complex decision problems within a system’s approach based on data.

Sohaela: Pardee RAND allows me to finally connect the seemingly unrelated dots in my life: I have gone through a rigorous architecture and engineering training, as well as economics. I have been working in the field of public diplomacy, more specifically, global engagement strategy and foreign policy. The lingering questions in my field of work revolve around assessing impact and making more evaluation-based decisions. I want my work, especially my dissertation, to “be the answer!” Well...more like a first step to an answer, but I had to use the slogan. I do believe that the experience that I am gaining at the school and at RAND allows me to move towards realizing these goals while maintaining my status as a decade-old Angelena.

Were you influential in your relative’s decision to apply to Pardee RAND?

Jon: Ashley was really interested in addressing some of the systemic problems that she saw in K-12 education, but knew she lacked the methodological background to rigorously study it. That sounded exactly like the reason that drew me to Pardee RAND for national security issues, so I pushed her to apply and helped with her essays. She was concerned about how long the program would take, but I emphasized the chance to work on OJT and to partner with some really top-notch researchers working on policy-relevant problems.

Sara and Sohaela Amiri in 2015

Photo courtesy Sohaela Amiri

Sara: I did encourage Sohaela to apply, knowing her interests and strengths. I told her this program is not an easy undertaking, as it would require her to put on two different hats at the same time — a “student” hat, studying for quals and working on a dissertation, and a “researcher” hat, working on real-world projects — and that the goals and requirements of these two roles may not always align.

But I also told her that the Pardee RAND experience is extremely rewarding as it would provide opportunities for her to meet and make friends with classmates that have a wide range of backgrounds and policy interests, to take interesting analytical and policy courses, and to work on real-world projects with top-notch researchers.

Marlon: After her MPP at UCLA, Alex ended up working in several research-oriented jobs. We regularly discussed both her and my projects and she became really interested in learning more about research methods and the program. Both of us were drawn to Pardee RAND because of the emphasis on applied research with tangible policy implications.

What advice or guidance have you received?

Alex: Once I was accepted at Pardee RAND, Marlon was very helpful in getting me to understand the structure of RAND and how everyone operates. He also really instilled in me the importance of constantly networking and building good relationships, which has been invaluable during my time here.

Ashley: My mom mentioned something in passing about Jon working at RAND—this might have been around the time that he graduated—and I thought to myself, “Wait! Jon works at RAND? I need to ask him about this!” We ended up getting coffee, and he really sold the program to me. He introduced me to another RAND researcher and a student, both of whom had worked in the education space. They reassured me that my years’ worth of math avoidance wouldn’t be a huge hurdle if I worked hard to prepare myself. Since I’ve been here, he has given me advice about balancing OJT and classwork, and even checked in on me after quals to make sure that I made it through in one piece! Overall, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to apply if Jon hadn’t encouraged me.

Sohaela: All I can recall is Sara warning me about how life-changing and difficult the Pardee RAND experience is and to proceed with maximum caution. In fact, having witnessed her journey when she was in school, I did not think I’d ever want to go through the same program. But life is funny in ways we cannot foresee. Sure enough, the time came when the most important objective for me was to pursue a doctoral degree at Pardee RAND, for the reasons I explained earlier. And at that point, Sara also thought that this would be a great match based on my life goals, skills, and interests.

students, ashley woo, jonathan wong

Ashley Woo and her cousin Jon Wong hold his commencement photo

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

What do (or did) you study at Pardee RAND, and what are (or have been) the highlights of your education here?

Marlon: I worked on a wide array of different research projects as a student. I always enjoyed getting my head into new projects and learning about new policy areas or research methods. These days, my work primarily consists of health economics research on pharmaceutical treatments, and I still use most if not all of the tools that I learned in the program. In addition, the fact that I mostly work with researchers from a more traditional economics and pharmaceuticals background often means that I am able to bring a fresh perspective to projects, very much rooted in my policy analysis training.

Alex: My areas of research at RAND are in the area of social determinants of health and education, and I specifically focus on research that affects under-served populations. Two of the highlights from my time here have been instances where the RAND projects I was on directly influenced policy: helping the State of Texas develop new policies to increase college readiness among community college students, and working in Puerto Rico to help municipal recovery after the hurricane.

Ashley: My work at RAND has been largely education-focused, and I’ve worked on projects around principal preparation, social emotional learning, instructional systems, and encouraging STEM participation. I think all of my projects have impacted, and are still impacting, my future career in some way. They all give me an idea of how the different pieces of the puzzle fit together, and how crucial each piece is to another and the workings of the whole system.

Jon: I did a wide range of defense work when I was a student, and my current focus stems from my dissertation, which studied the effectiveness of several organizations the U.S. military set up to quickly develop technologies needed in Iraq and Afghanistan — precursors to the organizations I study today. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the impact of the some of the projects that I worked on as a student. Earlier this year, I met a group of Marine Corps infantry and intelligence officers who cited one of my analyses as a foundational text used in their training. This is why I came to Pardee RAND: to have the opportunity to help the young Marine that I once was become a better fighter, and give him or her a better chance of coming home to family.

Sara: At Pardee RAND I mostly worked on transportation energy and environmental policy projects. Now, I have a small consulting business that provides quantitative analysis and research services to support sustainable infrastructure projects, programs and policies in the fields of transportation, water, energy, environment and sanitation.

Sohaela: Qualitative program evaluation and system analysis remain the underlying themes for most projects that I am drawn to. The topics have ranged from public health to social media use for disaster response and citizen science. The project topics that relate more directly to public diplomacy have included Track Two diplomacy in the Korean Peninsula, media literacy, and other projects in Asia and the Middle East.

The Amiri family at Sara's Commencement in 2010, photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Sara (left) and Sohaela Amiri (right) at Commencement 2010, when Sara graduated.

Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

How do your Pardee RAND experiences differ?

Sara: I know that the style in which the courses are offered has changed.

Sohaela: I think it’s fair to say that the re-imagined Pardee RAND is less centered on economics, and more inclusive of other disciplines. But because our fields of work and experience are substantially different, it is a challenge to make any comparison.

Jon: The major difference I see between Ashley’s Pardee RAND and mine is the addition of the design studios and policy engagement streams that grew out of the school’s redesign effort. That said, her experience tackling all the weighty microeconomics and statistics classes and worries about OJT sound very similar to my own.

Ashley: Our cohort is moving through the school as it is being redesigned, so there are many elements of the program that I’ve experienced — like the policy design studio — that Jon didn’t. I think that our experiences are also probably different, in part, because we have very different research interests.

Marlon: I think the primary difference in our respective experiences at Pardee RAND is the fact that we entered the program at different stages in our lives. When I started in 2012, I had just turned 25 and moved back to L.A. after a year spent working in the European Parliament. Alex started the program somewhat later, was already married, and had other strong family ties in the L.A. area. Because of her additional work experience, she has truly excelled in getting OJT and has been a true asset for her research projects. My experience was somewhat different as I came in with very little work experience and had to learn a lot on the fly.

Alex: Marlon and I have pretty different backgrounds and have completely different experiences in terms of the type of OJT we did and the classes we took. Marlon is more of a mixed methods person who leans toward being stronger in quantitative methods, and I lean toward being stronger in qualitative methods. For this reason, most of my experience at RAND has been doing qualitative work through either focus groups or interviews, and this has led me to spend a lot of time on site visits doing field work, while a lot of the work that Marlon did was more data analysis.

Alexandra Mendoza-Graf and Marlon Graf at Commencement 2016, photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Alex and Marlon at Commencement 2016

Photo by Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Do you have policy discussions — or disagreements?

Alex: We don’t have disagreements per se, but we do have different viewpoints. One good example is Marlon's dissertation focused on how to support public policy makers in fostering economic environments that will support tech clusters, such as Silicon Beach. Through his dissertation and the conversations we had around it, I started to realize some of the effects that this kind of economic development can have on local populations, like gentrification. This inspired me to tackle the flip side of his dissertation and focus on the issue of gentrification and its effect on lower-income populations. This is a pretty good example of how we don’t necessarily disagree but often have different view points that can add to or complement one another.

Marlon: We do joke that our dissertations are in opposition to each other. Other than that, our skill sets and interest areas are pretty complementary. She specializes in qualitative methods whereas most of my work relies on quantitative approaches. Recently however, both of us have been branching out a bit and have been able to teach each other new methods for projects.

Sohaela: I’m not sure about policies discussed, but I am excited that we speak the same analytical language. Regardless of the topic, I feel like Sara and I have a communication advantage that neither of us has with other family members, relatives or friends. We might disagree on policy decisions, but we agree on how to discuss them. To me, this connection is invaluable.

Sara: We discuss a wide range of policy issues ranging from energy and environment to public diplomacy and foreign policy, and in most cases, we are in agreement.

(Ed. note: Clearly this differs by family...)

Ashley: I don’t really discuss policy issues with Jon.

Jon: Yeah, we never talk policy issues when we chat! That would be weird.

How did you end up having two policy analysts in the same family? Are there others?

Jon: While we have quite a few relatives who are devoted to public service like we were — three aunts and an uncle in the Navy, and my brother who was a Navy civilian — we’re the oddballs who took it to the next level.

Ashley: The major parallel that I see between Jon and me is that we both had a desire to get on the ground in our respective fields to make a positive impact; he joined the Marines and then, years later, I moved across the country to participate in Teach for America. And, both of us, in attending Pardee RAND, shared a similar desire to use our experiences in continuing to push for positive change.

Sara: It’s just the two of us... for now.

Sohaela: We do not have relatives in the field. But I do think that my parents would have made great policy analysts if they had the opportunity. They appreciate and have encouraged us to become analytical problem-solvers and public servants.

So, if you have kids, will you encourage them to continue your legacy?

Marlon: Good question! I think that Pardee RAND is a great program for some people — like Alex and me. If you are looking to do impactful and applied research that directly affects policy in one way or another, it’s a great fit. I obviously am very happy with my experiences in the program and would definitely do it again, but I’ll leave it up to our kids to decide what they’d like to do.

Alex: Absolutely! They can obviously pursue the career they choose, but I would definitely be inclined to heavily advocate for Pardee RAND!

Interviews by Monica Hertzman