Lucas Rivers

My Education

Columbia University

MA | Public Administration

Lucas is pursuing a Master of Public Administration at Columbia University in New York City. He has mentored 100+ students during his experiences teaching English, working in a college admissions office, and advising social entrepreneurs in over 70 countries. He received the Fulbright Scholarship in 2016, where he taught writing and critical thinking in one of Vietnam’s top high schools. He helped numerous students receive scholarships to prestigious universities like Stanford, Smith, and Bryn Mawr. He has a BA from Union College in Political Science & Chinese. In his free time, Lucas loves trying new foods across New York City.

Q:  Why are you passionate about your academic field? When and how did you discover your love of your subject?  

I grew up in a small and economically disadvantaged town in rural America. I saw my academic career as an opportunity to explore the underlying systems and issues affecting communities like my hometown across the world. For me, the public sector – nonprofits, government agencies, and social enterprises – and the interactions it has with the private sector hold the solutions to many of these problems. Reinventing the public sector as a dynamic and innovative means for addressing some the world’s most pressing problems is my goal. But this wasn’t always the case. As an undergraduate, I focused primarily on international relations and the geopolitical trends behind economic, political, and social developments. But as a Program Manager at a global nonprofit called The Resolution Project, I discovered the unique opportunity to leverage private sector insights in a public sector environment through social entrepreneurship. This has guided me and my ambitions at Columbia University, focusing primarily on learning about impact investing and social impact consulting in order to turn back to my home community in hopes of addressing and solving issues of depleting economic and social capital.

Q:  What are your three top recommendations for a student targeting a masters in your field? What if they are preparing to switch their major to your field?  

My top recommendations for a student targeting a masters in applied social sciences like international development or peacebuilding are:

  1. Find your professional focus in the broad sphere of public affairs MPA students study a vast array of topics – from impact investing to humanitarian relief, from state formation to environmental policy. This makes sense – the public sector is huge! But in order to make the best of your masters experience, you need to know what issues within the public sector you are passionate about. Otherwise, you will spend your entire degree exploring all the public sector has to offer without truly gaining expertise in one specific issue.
  2. Understand the public sector in the geography you intend to work in The public sector will likely look different depending on which country or region you work in. A Brazilian government agency is going to operate differently than a Chinese one, for example. Many MPA programs will offer the opportunity to focus on a specific region that you want to gain experience in, which will allow you to translate the skills gained in a masters program to whichever location you hope to work in after school.
  3. Gain experience in quantitative subjects and foreign languages An MPA program involves a lot of classes in economics, mathematics, and foreign language. Make sure you’re comfortable taking classes in each of these subjects, and try and gain some experience prior to starting your masters. For example, take an online course that provides introductory knowledge about statistics or calculus before stepping foot on campus.
Q:  What resources can students use to educate themselves on your subject?  

The public sector is everywhere around us. With that in mind, I recommend taking a few moments each day to reach news articles related to government issues, global affairs, and public policy. News outlets like the Economist, New York Times, or Foreign Affairs are common, but any news outlet will help gain insights on issues related to the public sector. Don’t underestimate the power of local news outlets too!

Q:  What are your top tips to showcase an applicant  

You must show Admissions Officers that you are more than grades and test scores. So much emphasis and focus goes into getting top scores on standardized tests like the SAT or GRE, but Admissions Officers care more about the type of person you are, what makes you tick, and how you will contribute to a diverse and vibrant student community. This means you must showcase your personality through your personal statement, but that you must also choose recommenders who know you best and can comment on both your work ethic and character. Recommendations are incredibly important for providing verification to admissions officers that they should admit you, so be sure to choose your recommenders wisely and provide them all the important information necessary for writing a stellar recommendation!

Q:  Any pitfalls or mistakes an applicant should be aware of as they apply to your program?  

The biggest mistake an applicant can make is to try to ignore a weak part of their application. One bad semester or a bad mark in one class will not prevent you from entering grad school. However, if you ignore it or don’t address it in a personal statement, the admissions committee is going to be very suspicious. Instead, you should provide reasoning and explanations for why that weak part in your application exists with honesty and transparency!

Q:  Why did you apply to your university and program? What other universities and programs were you admitted to?  

Columbia University has a global reputation, especially in the public sector world. Not only are professors and classes some of the best in the world, but the connections the school has to prestigious organizations, companies, and agencies are unmatched. Since Columbia is in New York City, many Columbia students have the opportunity to have internships at the United Nations, on Wall Street, or with world-renowned nonprofits. Especially students aiming to work in the private sector following graduation will find the alumni network and career services at Columbia incredibly helpful. I also applied to New York University’s MPA-MBA dual degree. Although I was accepted, I found the reputation, connections, and campus culture Columbia had to be more suitable for my personality and ambitions!

Q:  What are the common career paths for graduates in your field?  

Many graduates from the social sciences move onto careers in public policy analysis, either within government or with foundations and think-tanks. There are many opportunities for international careers in project management, fieldwork and consulting with intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations or with NGOs. Graduates can also take up social scientific careers in research and teaching. And some graduates create their own social entrepreneurships or consulting companies.

Q:  What aspects of the campus culture are your favorites? Which aspects surprised you? Which would you change if you could?  

Cambridge University is very well-resourced – its main library has more than 8 million books! It also has a really international student body. Cambridge city which surrounds the university is really special, with so much history and charm. Though growing rapidly, it still retains a small-town feel with its quiet corners, quirky lanes and riverside parks. Cambridge offers some of the most beautiful medieval colleges you can find in Europe. And campus life is never boring: there always a hundred different things to do on any night of the week: whether that’s meeting friends at a pub, seeing a concert or play, attending a debate, listening to one of the world’s most famous people give a guest lecture, seeing a film, going dancing or eating out in Cambridge’s many restaurants. And there are so many university clubs and societies that you can take part in. There’s really something for everyone!

Q:  What is your favorite fun fact about your university? Any special events or traditions or legends?  

Cambridge is one of the world’s oldest universities and has 98 Nobel laureates to its credit! During my time at Cambridge I really enjoyed all the dress-up dinners and parties, especially the May Balls at the end of exams in June. During the year it's fun to attend Formal Hall at the different colleges – these are the formal dinners where students wear the university’s famous black gowns and eat and drink their way through multiple courses. Other great Cambridge traditions are music and rowing. Cambridge is home to world famous choirs and the Cambridge University Boat Club which competes each year against Oxford.

Q:  How did you spend your summer vacation during university? Any advice for making the most of summer?  

As a PhD student I didn't really get summer vacation, since research at that level is full-time. Nevertheless, I did get to enjoy traveling around Europe during my studies. There are several low-cost airlines that fly from London with amazing deals that students can take advantage of. Tired of studying? Sunny beaches are only a short flight away!

Q:  What makes you smile? Share more on a favorite hobby.  

Getting to know people and helping them succeed is one of my favorite things to do! Really!

Q:  Why are you excited to mentor Dyad Scholars?  

Over the years I have had excellent mentors, without whom I wouldn't have known how to achieve my aspirations. I'm so grateful for all the support they offered me. I'd like to pay it forward by helping others become successful too!