Dr. Sarah Bermeo will become the next Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) in Sanford’s Master of International Development Policy (MIDP) on July 1, 2020. Bermeo, a political economist who studies development and migration, previously served as the associate director of Sanford’s Duke Center for International Development, which houses the MIDP program. As DGS, she will continue to teach and research, and will play an integral role in shaping the next era of MIDP.
What early life experiences shaped who you are today?
I grew up on a farm in Western New York and became the first in my family to attend college. My high school had a low percentage of students who went on to any type of further study and the guidance counselors had no idea how to navigate private universities or financial aid. When I told my counselor I wanted to raise my SAT score by 100 points he suggested I set a more realistic – meaning lower – goal (I raised it by 190 points). I was fortunate that someone from the University of Rochester came to visit our school and encouraged me to apply and that I received a partial scholarship and financial aid. Without that lucky visit, my career would have looked significantly different. I had no idea that financial aid and loans could make university affordable for someone like me. The experience made me realize some of the barriers to accessing higher education, especially for first gen students in areas that are not used to helping students navigate the higher education system and the financial processes attached to it.
What drives you in your work? What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about the opportunity to harness the synergies between research and teaching, something that is made possible by being at a top research university. This is what sets us apart from strong liberal arts colleges (which teach quite well) and think tanks (which can do high-level research). The research university sees teaching and research as a two-way street. Students interact with faculty and learn from cutting edge research in the field. Faculty are able to sharpen their research through the feedback they get from interacting with students in the classroom and bringing them directly into research projects. And our students are amazing – they are inquisitive, curious, and ask tough questions. We also have excellent practitioner teachers in Sanford, of course. We could not be a top program without them. But for me personally, the ability to join the energy of teaching and research is what motivates me on a daily basis.
What international development topics or challenges do you think about a lot?
I spend a lot of my research time focusing on why and how people, ideas, and things move between countries. Why do people migrate? How are trade partnerships decided, particularly when one county is much wealthier than another in the agreement? What drives foreign aid decisions? How should international institutions be designed if they are to effectively tackle global problems such as those related to health or climate change? I also increasingly look at intersections across topics that affect development: What is the relationship between foreign aid and migration? How do we think about economic opportunity, violence, and climate-related changes in food security as drivers of migration? Can we harness knowledge across political science and economics to develop better international institutions? How does foreign aid policy affect global health – and how do concerns about global health affect aid policy? Breaking down traditional barriers across research topics and fields – bringing political scientists, economists, psychologists, sociologists, demographers, agricultural experts, global health experts, and others together – has to be the way forward. We cannot be constrained by narrow definitions of fields or siloed into thinking about policy issue areas from one particular point of view.
As you take on the role of DGS, what excites you about the MIDP program?
The MIDP program is one of the more exciting and unique programs with which I have had the opportunity to work. To be part of a program where the students come in with so much knowledge – most with several years of work experience – and from such different backgrounds is energizing. The opportunity to teach and learn from fellows from around the world in each class – and for them to learn from each other – is amazing. Having the MIDP and the MPP as sister programs enhances the experience for students and faculty in both. At a time when we are striving more than ever to embrace diversity and learn from those whose experiences differ from our own, the MIDP program is a bright light from which others can learn. At a time when international development is rightly at a crossroads – seeking to empower people from developing countries to bring their own knowledge to bear in finding sustainable solutions to local, national, and international policy problems – the MIDP program is showing how to gather these different views in one place and harness the opportunity to learn from each other. This program – which has existed for decades – is the program of the future for international development.
What do you like most about working at Sanford and Duke?
Duke and Sanford are leaders in interdisciplinary research and teaching. Students and faculty regularly interact with multiple departments, schools, and programs around campus. It is a completely normal day to attend a research talk in the political science department, a high-profile event hosted by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, a research team meeting in the Duke Global Health Institute and a meeting on a student project co-advised with someone in the Nicholas School of the Environment. Sanford is particularly special in that it brings people from a wide variety of backgrounds into a single unit: economists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, demographers, experts in social policy and health policy – research faculty and practitioners – all sit down the hallway from me! This is an incredible advantage for both students and faculty and creates a natural environment to foster collaborations across traditional fields.
What skills and traits do you think prospective graduate students need to bring with them when they come to MIDP? What do you want them to leave with in return?
A key trait that our MIDP graduate students bring is experience. Our fellows have years of work experience, much of it directly related to policy. They know the questions they want to explore in the classroom because they have been asking them in their jobs. Students should bring a willingness to share their own experience and a mind open to learning from the experience of their professors and peers. Some background in statistics, economics, or social science more generally can be helpful, but we also spend time teaching those in our core courses. It is our job to increase the toolkit with which graduates can approach problems when they leave. Our graduates have enhanced analytical skills, learned through courses such as policy analysis, economics and statistics and employed in elective courses and their required master’s project. Students also have the ability to engage in more in-depth study on a particular issue by taking courses in an area of focus. We offer experiential learning through programs such as Bass Connections, which brings together teams of faculty and students to conduct cutting edge research and the Duke DevLab, which involves students working on international development programs with clients. Students can also gain key skills in courses focusing on monitoring and evaluation, cost-benefit analysis and conflict management, among others.
In a few words, what do you hope will be the theme of your term as DGS?
Adelante! We need to embrace changes that keep us teaching and learning at the forefront of the international development field, while holding true to our values of empowering fellows with education to be change agents in their home communities and in the global community. We cannot by shy about moving forward, but we must retain that which makes us special: the diversity, feeling of community, and personal connections between faculty and fellows are and must remain key hallmarks of what we do. At the same time, we have to imagine the educational space of 5-10 years from now and be leaders that help shape the innovations to come.