Earth Institute Profiles

Denise Lee

M.P.A in Development Practice '11

Denise Lee

Denise Lee has long had a passion for pursuing equitable and sustainable development and contributing to the creation of a global system that apportions value to social and environmental capital alongside economic capital. Denise’s values and goals have led her on a unique academic and career path that has included research and development work in El Salvador, India and New York City, and has ultimately brought her to pursue Columbia University’s Master of Public Administration in Development Practice (M.P.A. D.P.), jointly administered by the Earth Institute and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). A first-year student in the program, she is training in the cross-disciplinary core competencies and skills that will prepare her to be an effective leader and problem solver in the development field.

Since she became involved with Amnesty International as a high school student, Denise has been interested in development issues and the plight of marginalized communities around the world. The drive to explore the interrelated nature of the challenges that people in developing communities face in an increasingly globalized world led Denise to move from Cincinnati to New York City for her undergraduate education. At Fordham University, Denise sought to deepen her knowledge by pursing a degree in political science and international studies.

“This program is unique in the world of development education,” says Professor Glenn Denning, who is directing the new program after working as a development practitioner in Asia and Africa for the past 30 years. Like other M.P.A. programs at SIPA, the M.P.A. D.P. provides essential grounding in economics, management and public policy analysis. Building on this foundation, the program requires all students to take classes in public health, food systems, infrastructure and environment. But what is also critical to the success of the program, according to Professor Denning, is that students like Denise arrive equipped with enough field experience to contextualize the lessons being shared by selected Earth Institute and SIPA faculty, all of whom are seasoned development practitioners. In selecting candidates for the program, Professor Denning explained, “we look for passion, a burning desire to help end extreme poverty and to build a more equitable and sustainable world.”

By the final year of her time at Fordham, Denise was anxious to learn beyond the classroom. She had long been interested in the unusually high level of women’s participation in the Salvadoran civil war, and she developed a project proposal to study the effects of their participation on gender roles in rural communities. Denise forged a link with a nascent oral history program in the Salvadoran National Archive and, after receiving a prestigious Fulbright Fellowship, moved to El Salvador to collect the testimonies of 50 women from four regions. “Witnessing the incontrovertible challenges faced by marginalized people and, simultaneously, the power of getting their voices heard, moved me,” said Denise. Denise left El Salvador with a heightened determination to work for the development and prosperity of disenfranchised people and regions. 

Upon her return to New York, Denise worked with the City Bar Justice Center’s Immigrant Women and Children Project, assisting individual victims of human trafficking and domestic violence with gaining their independence and rebuilding their lives. For Denise, this period brought into focus the spectrum of root causes and drivers of poverty, migration and conflict, and their implications for development. A trip to India in 2005 highlighted climate change as one such key driver. Denise decided to pursue climate change professionally. She took on a leading role at the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation, focusing on the threats climate change posed to its core development efforts in the Indian subcontinent.

Denise joined the foundation in the fall of 2005 and worked with the managing trustee to build their global and Indian climate change initiatives. “Globally, our strategy was to coordinate two key, hitherto underutilized communities: philanthropists and institutional investors,” said Denise. The resulting initiatives included work on all aspects related to climate change including mitigation, resilience, technology and investment. Denise’s work in India focused on strengthening national capacity for facing the dual challenges of development and climate change. 

Working for a development organization enabled Denise to further understand the complexity of development issues, as well as the need for development practitioners to be trained in multiple fields and disciplines in order to have the perspective and skills necessary for tackling challenges of sustainable development. Denise was therefore attracted to the M.P.A. D.P. program at Columbia. In particular, the interdisciplinary coursework encompassing the natural sciences, health sciences, social sciences and management made the program stand out from any other development program. Currently in its first year at Columbia University, the two-year M.P.A. D.P. program was based on the recommendations of the International Commission on Education for Sustainable Development Practice. The program is unique in its integration of coursework and intensive summer field study experiences.

The cornerstone course of the M.P.A. in Development Practice, Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Development Practice, gave Denise the opportunity to interact and collaborate with students and professors at multiple institutions around the world in a “Global Classroom.” A major component of the class was research into the multiple facets of sustainable development for a particular location. During initial investigations into the development situation in Madagascar, Denise found that most budgetary support necessary for maintaining development programs had been suspended due to the political crisis. Recognizing the potentially devastating effects of such suspensions, she spent the rest of the semester investigating the status of aid suspensions and their effects.

Denise described her first semester in the program as “an exciting period of academic growth.” In addition to benefitting from new courses designed for the M.P.A. D.P. and learning from the distinguished faculty at the forefront of their fields, one of the most stimulating aspects of the program has been Denise’s interaction with other students in the program. Denise is a member of a very diverse class, with students from a wide range of countries including China, South Korea, Japan, India, Kenya, Senegal, Colombia, Guatemala, Ecuador, South Africa, Ireland and the United States. “Everyone brings a wealth of perspectives and accomplishments from a diversity of disciplines,” Denise said of her classmates. “Our education and professional experiences enrich the learning environment; I often find that other students are the best resources.”

Denise intends to use the cross-sectoral, cutting-edge knowledge gained in the M.P.A. D.P. program to address development challenges and achieve local and global impact. “In the development field, we face many challenges that are likely to only increase in complexity and severity. I have seen the impact and imperative of development at the micro-level with the people it most affects and at the macro-level in relation to the issue of climate change. Moreover, I have witnessed the fragmented nature of practitioners attempting to address these complex and interlinked challenges. I believe that this program will enable me to become a bridge amongst the diverse experts in the development field, aiding in their mutual understanding, ability to collaborate, and overall effectiveness in creating and scaling up innovative, integrated solutions.”