Student Spotlight: Sarah Allin


1098250_10101443186449608_1962047010_n*What did you do before came to the Kennedy School?

What didn’t I do. Yeesh. Officially I was a policy analyst with the Mississippi Economic Policy Center in Jackson, Mississippi. The organization’s mission was to provide analysis of state-level policy decisions with a lens toward how those decisions affect low-income families across the state. I particularly worked on how to make community colleges more accessible to low-income students and adults. But I did legislative education on a whole host of issues. My last report at MEPC will actually come out very soon! It is on how to restructure the state’s financial aid programs to better account for the financial need of students. Currently, only 15% of our state grant dollars are allocated based on need – a percentage far too low in a state where 30% of our children live in poverty.

I was also a board member for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi. Previous to working in Jackson, I was a data analyst for a KIPP charter school in rural Arkansas.

*What did you do and whom did you tell first when you got accepted to HKS?

I was stuck in a horrible rush hour traffic jam in Atlanta as I was driving between Jackson (where I lived) and North Carolina (where I’m originally from). I was reading my email and driving (don’t tell) and felt like it was the universe’s way of apologizing for the misery of ATL traffic. I called my husband, Tom, immediately after reading the email.

*Cats or dogs?

This is the easiest question I’ve ever been asked. DOGS. I’m not sure how to quantify the amount of love I have for our standard poodle, Charlie. Everyone in my cohort knows about him because I can’t stop talking about how much I adore him. My cohort members have even asked if I could set up office hours for him, so they can visit and play, and I brought him to Quorum Call in October. He is a central part of our Cambridge experience.

*What’s the best thing about Cambridge?

Technically, I live in Somerville, so my answer applies to both towns.

IMG_1122Walking. I walk to class. Tom and I walk to dinner and the grocery store and the dog park. We’ve even walked into Boston several times. I love that we can go two weeks and not get in our car. In Jackson, it was almost impossible to access the things you desired without a car, and I find the ability to get basically anywhere on my own two feet really refreshing, and it also helps with finding peace and clarity after a long day in the classroom.

Tom and I also got to go to Game 6 of the World Series this year which is obviously a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we will forever attribute to Cambridge.

*What do you miss most about Jackson, Mississippi?

This is hard because there is so much I miss. If I had to choose, it would be two things.

1) We have dear friends that hold a HUGE back yard barbeque competition each fall. Teams from across Jackson –many of which are made up of friends– set up tents, grills, smokers, etc. on a Friday night and spend all night cooking and prepping for Saturday’s hungry crew to come, taste, and judge the meats of their labor. They give out trophies and everything.

2) Would be our 3-year-old niece and 7-year-old nephew. I miss coloring, playing tag, reading, face painting with them more than most other things about Jackson especially on days when I’m trying to understand things like chi square testing and domain name servers. Sometimes all I really want to do is color in elmo and read about a dragon with a cold.

*What are your 3 proudest achievements (other than being interviewed here of course)?

Marrying Tom Allin. I know that is cheesy, but it is really by far the thing I’m most proud of because I’m so proud of him and grateful to be his partner in strengthening the communities in which we live.  He also makes a mean cocktail which does not hurt on a Friday night.

When I was at UNC Chapel Hill, I was awarded best thesis for research I did on North Carolina’s food back network. I put a lot of heart and energy into crafting recommendations that would help with the provision of emergency food assistance in the state, and it was the first time I was recognized for being able to make a positive contribution for the public good.

The third is probably the first time I successfully completed a TV interview. I’m definitely an introvert, and during the beginning of my time in Mississippi, I was very nervous about being a young face attached to  serious, important messages like many of the issues we analyzed at the Policy Center. I felt a lot of responsibility and weight in being the messenger, so overcoming that fear and being more comfortable with my knowledge and myself was a really important hurdle to pass for my future career.

*Bieber or GAGA?

A man who looks like a baby or a singer whose name sounds like what a baby says…hmmm? Honestly, I love Lady GaGa’s music. I could never pull off her outfits. Justin Bieber also makes me feel old when I look at him, so that puts him lower on my list.

*In your experience, are public figures more fascinating in real life? Can you give an example?

I’m not sure I would say they are more fascinating, but they are definitely more complex. Basically all of the agency heads or legislators I worked with Mississippi had a more nuanced view on issues than they were portrayed to have in the press. Some of that was through their own design, and some of that reflects the limits of media coverage on the state level.

*What one item is essential to your everyday life and why?

This is a bit sad, but coffee. A lot of mornings I pester Tom to make it for me as I run around getting ready. I have committed to only 1 cup a day though, and so far at HKS I have been able to keep that commitment.

*What are you hoping to do once you graduate?

I came to HKS to become a better communicator – in policy writing and in media messaging – because I believe strongly that there is more common ground in many policy areas than our current political dynamic is able to locate. I felt in Mississippi this was particularly true in higher education policy. I also believe that we have to find some common ground around issues or ultimately the population at large suffers. My hope is that HKS through courses in policy analysis, negotiations, media strategy, etc. equips me to return to the South and continue to work toward implementing policy that enhances the quality of life for all residents but especially low-income individuals.