Record-Breaking Cohort Begins Atypical Year

Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

October 28, 2020

With 33 members, Cohort '20 is the largest class of new students in the school’s history, the first to be admitted to the school’s three new academic streams and enter the fully-redesigned program.

As Dean Susan Marquis noted in a message to the school, "They applied and were admitted at the very start of 2020, and since then have been together through the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide protests calling for social justice and racial equity, record setting hurricanes and fires, and our now in the final weeks leading up to one of the most contentious presidential elections in U.S. history. The 2020 cohort is one for the ages."

“The 2020 cohort is one for the ages.”

—Dean Susan Marquis

Although they only just arrived in September, they connected through online "policy reading circle" discussions of our Dean's Summer Reading List, joined in Town Halls, and set up their own groups in Teams. The result was an incoming cohort that had more interaction prior to arriving than any prior cohort.

Stefanie Howard, assistant dean for admissions and strategic initiatives, said in welcoming the new cohort, “Many have moved across the country and even across the world to be here, moved their families, weathered an array of hurdles, and remain dedicated to their educational pursuits with us and to their work in the field of policy analysis.”

By the numbers, 17 were admitted to the new Research, Analysis and Design academic stream, 7 to Community-Partnered Policy and Action; and 9 to Technology Applications and Implications. There are 22 men and 11 women; 6 active duty military, including four from the U.S. Air Force Academy; and 3 international students, from India and Ukraine (6 additional international students were admitted but deferred until fall 2021 because of visa challenges). The cohort's median age is 28.

They previously worked with the Florida Department of Public Health, NASA, Upward Bound, the U.S. Army’s veterinary corps, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the U.N. Development Programme, to name just a few. Their colleges and universities include the University of Houston, Emory, Brown, Vellore Institute of Technology, Florida A&M, CalTech, and Macalester College.

Classrooms without Walls

Students attend an economic class on the third floor terrace

Diane Baldwin/RAND Corporation

Fall courses kicked off in early October: twelve courses plus dissertation workshops. Taking advantage of RAND's extensive patios and courtyards, three of the courses are being offered in-person. Assistant Dean Angel O’Mahony oversaw the execution of the fall classes, whether hybrid or online, working with faculty and students to mitigate implementation challenges. Of course, any student who has health or caregiving concerns may participate remotely.

The in-person courses include one for Cohort '20, Understanding Economic Systems 1; one for Cohort '19, Policy Design Studio: Design for Emergence; and one elective, Cause-Effect Modeling for Policy Analysis. Associate Dean Rachel Swanger worked with RAND’s Incident Command Team and COVID-19 Task Force to develop safety protocols for these in-person classes, including teaching in small pods, spacing individual desks and chairs six feet apart, sanitizing regularly, and requiring that faculty and students wear masks, even outside.

Swanger also secured CARES Act funds for the school to support its operations during the pandemic. This funding enabled the school to provide students and faculty not only with their usual RAND-issued laptops, but also iPads and Apple Pencils for collaborative e-whiteboarding, and noise-cancelling headphones.

“We are also fortunate that the home to our program is in RAND’s headquarters building, which in addition to being beautiful has a significant amount of outdoor space with very few people on the property,” Marquis said. “We’ve heard from students through their first-year review essays and in individual conversations with students and faculty that the isolation and lack of social connection weighs heavy on many, if not all. And we’ve been able to draw on the scientific expertise within RAND to ensure safe practices in compliance with guidance and directives from local and state governments.”

A Virtual Welcome

For the first time, the school welcomed the new cohort during an entirely remote Bootcamp, September 21-October 2.

To build community with our incoming students and to welcome everyone back for the fall quarter, staff and faculty developed a series of virtual social events during bootcamp to kick off the new school year. Events included more policy-oriented content, such as a talk on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the transformation of low-wage labor, but also a beer tasting with Professor Phil Armour, a comedy evening with the renowned Joey Greer, a trivia night, a game night, and a rock concert featuring two members of Pardee RAND's own band, The Revies. Alum Etienne Rosas (cohort '14) and his brother Carlos rocked the videocall; unfortunately, for social distancing reasons, percussionist James Syme (cohort '18) wasn't able to join them in person.

—Monica Hertzman