Connie Ma was a four-term DISI veteran from 2014-2016. She graduated from the Sanford School's Master in Public Policy program in Spring 2016. Since then, she has been working in Taipei, Taiwan in education-related social enterprises. In the interview, Connie shared about her journey at DISI and beyond, her take-away from her DISI experience, and her advice for current DISI members and future applicants.
DISI: What program were you in? When did you graduate? What was your career path after graduation?
Connie: I graduated from the Sanford School's Master in Public Policy program in spring of 2016. I studied social policy (education and labor policy). Since then, I have been working in Taipei, Taiwan in education-related social enterprises.
DISI: In what year did you participate in DISI? What position were you in at DISI? What project did you work on?
Connie: I participated in DISI during all four semesters of my two year master's degree, and it was one of my favorite experiences in graduate school. In 2014-15, I participated as a PI in two projects: Dare Education Foundation and The Power of the Dream. In 2015-16, I participated as a PM, leading projects with the Durham Literacy Center (Project LIFT) and Summer Science Program. I would have loved to work with the Board if I had more time, but I also found it very satisfying to be a PM and get more hands-on experience.
DISI: How did you hear about DISI? Why were you interested in and decided to become part of DISI?
Connie: Since DISI was started by Sanford students, our fellow public policy students recommended that first-years try out DISI, so several friends and I applied. It was my first taste of doing any consulting as a part of a team, which I wanted to try out. I also worked for three years in non-profits before I came to graduate school, so I felt I had an affinity with the organizations that DISI services.
DISI: What was your most memorable experience at DISI? What was the most challenging aspect? What did you like the most about DISI?
Connie: My most memorable experience at DISI was coming out of a Partner Organization visit where we met some Durham residents who were experiencing homelessness. It was an eye-opening experience to see who they were and how the shelter worked with them. One of my PIs who is an international student quietly asked me how a man with graduate education had actually ended up on the streets, and it gave the chance for us to have a difficult but important conversation about social mobility in the US. It left a deep impression on me because we were able to really share our experiences and get to know each other even better. I also remember very well my final presentation as a PM when our client thanked us sincerely and told us that our recommendations and research were being utilized by their Board of Directors; our whole team was surprised and touched, because we had had a difficult semester working with them and striving to redefine the problem and the scope of the project. It touched us to know that they came to respect us and our contribution.
I think the most challenging thing about DISI is that as a student organization, everyone's allowed to stumble and make mistakes. Some of my teammates and friends were not as committed as they probably should've been, and while it would have made a better experience, it's important to learn how you're going to deal with teammates who don't shoulder their weight. Some Partner Orgs also should not have been given projects, because they didn't understand what DISI teams were going to do, or weren't in good shape to make use of a DISI Project, but that also taught us how to deal with clients who didn't know their own needs very well. Those things made for a frustrating experience during my two years, but I think it's also a gift to be able to encounter those difficulties in the sandbox of graduate school. That being said, I'm sure better screening for Partner Orgs and for students will help improve the experience going forward no matter what.
Throughout my two years, I met so many other graduate students at Duke that I never would have known otherwise. I came to know so many Fuqua students with similar backgrounds; I loved learning about their experience and their courses, and they brought a different perspective to working on a team. Also very educational was working with the engineering school students, who have an entirely different academic and work background. I also met PhD students that I still keep in touch with, and in general have a broader friend group today because of DISI. It was also easier to work with some complete strangers than friends that I knew too well from my cohort at Sanford, so I think that was also a benefit. We were able to really treat each other just like colleagues because that was the only context in which we knew each other.
DISI: What did you take away from the DISI experience? How did it help with your career?
Connie: I learned some very important lessons at DISI. One was to trust in my own skills and step into roles when needed, not when I thought I was fully ready. During one semester, I was considering applying for a PM, but felt like I hadn't learned enough. When I did join as a PI, I found that the PM for our group actually had less DISI experience and full-time work experience than the rest of the team members, and that seemed to be one of the reasons we had a difficult time working with our client. It was an unexpectedly frustrating semester, but though I didn't enjoy it, working under someone that I disagreed with taught me valuable things about how to be professional in rough situations. I also learned from his mistakes, getting to a better understanding of what Project Managers (and all good managers) should do. Instead of working on behalf of the client to communicate with the team, it's the other way around: the project manager actually works on behalf of the team to communicate with the client. It's one of the keys to being a good leader and fostering good teamwork.
I have also learned that my DISI experience is one thing, and real life is another. Of course, just because you learn about problems and experience them through DISI, it doesn't always mean that you'll be able to avoid those in the working world. I feel like one of the most important things is to be humble because you'll never anticipate all the problems you can face. You will keep running into problems you never thought of, and the only thing you can do is to add that to what you've learned in the past, and proceed with more caution and try to be more prepared. So the mindset that you adopt in DISI of taking problems in stride is really one that you should keep in the future.
DISI: Would you recommend DISI to other students? What advice do you have for current DISI members or prospective applicants?
Connie: DISI is a great experience for any students who were interested in problem-solving, working on a team, and project management. It does take time to do everything right, and you need to have respect for your teammates and clients. Embrace that you have a lot to learn, and you're going to find that in DISI. It's also an organization you can really contribute to on a school-wide level and see some results, whether that's recruiting an organization that you know could benefit from a DISI project or helping others learn about a school or community resource that could help them. I participated in four DISI projects, and after I graduated, I outlined and wrote the first draft of the handbook that DISI uses today, because I wanted to pass on what I learned. Even the idea of DISI came out of a master's thesis by a Sanford MPP student. You can do a lot with DISI if you want.
In DISI projects, I always tried to look at myself as a professional doing consulting, even if it was pro-bono, and strived to be on-time, respectful, and to listen to my teammates and the client. Even if there were disagreements among the team or if the client was being unreasonable, in our opinion, I think it was a valuable exercise to take them seriously and learn from the mistakes that everyone made. As I mentioned above, expecting more out of yourself and your partners yields better performance, and that's because the DISI experience is what you make of it - if you don't take it seriously and only attend half the meetings, you're not going to learn anything or get a good reference from your colleagues. If you strive to really understand the client's perspective and those of your teammates, you'll get a lot more out of it, and understand whether you're a good fit for working as a consultant after you graduate.
DISI: Thank you for sharing your experience and advice!