Alumni Q&A: Clare O’Brien

Clare O’Brien graduated from CIPA in May of 2017 with a concentration in Public and Nonprofit Management.  She currently works as a Leadership Fellow at The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.Why CIPA?  There are a lot of MPA programs around—what made you choose CIPA over other programs you were considering?

The affordable tuition and Cornell name offered me unparalleled value for an MPA program. I also spoke to the director before committing to CIPA and got a sense that I would get much more individual support and guidance than at the larger programs I was accepted into, and that has definitely been my experience.

Also, as a Fellow who came to CIPA right after completing my undergraduate studies, CIPA’s range of experiential learning and customizable curriculum gave me the freedom to narrow in on what I really want to do. My goals and interests have evolved since I started the program thanks to my coursework and experiential learning opportunities.

What are your long-term career goals?  How did CIPA help prepare you for these?

CIPA taught me to speak the language of public affairs in a way that I didn’t before. I am now comfortable participating in work meetings and discussions with experienced career public servants. I want to be a part of analyzing and shaping organizational strategy, and CIPA gave me the managerial skillset and public affairs background to understand and tackle the challenges governmental organizations face.

What would you tell a prospective student who asked you to list the top three reasons that CIPA was a good fit for you?

  1. CIPA is a great place for service-minded professionals to zero in on their specific career interests in government, nonprofit, or international organizations. There are a wide range of experiential learning opportunities, events, clubs, and coursework to help you find your passion and niche. I discovered policy areas and professional functions that I hadn’t known much about before but ended up becoming interested in. Also, those who come in with a strong sense of what they want to do can really tailor their experience to get the outcome they want.


  1. I received a fantastic level of individual support from CIPA’s Career Services Office throughout my job and internship search process. CIPA’s Assistant Director for Career Services, Millie Reed, met with me many times during my first and second year to connect me with alumni, look over my résumé and cover letters, and help me prepare for interviews. I also received incredibly helpful advice and support from CIPA alumni at my target organizations, which really made a difference in my career search outcomes.


  1. Ithaca was an amazing place to spend two years. I completely fell in love with the natural beauty of the gorges and waterfalls and hiking trails. Outside of schoolwork I was happily occupied with the festivals, shows, and activities downtown and with the constant stream of lectures and events on campus. I am grateful to have spent these two years with my classmates—to have learned about public administration in other countries from mid-career international students, to have gotten advice on starting out in a new position from young professional classmates, and to have been inspired to be a better public servant and person by my friends.

Are there any particular “stand out” experiences at CIPA that made a lasting impact on you

I loved being a TA for Nonprofit Finance and Management. The course was one of the ones that I was most excited to take at CIPA, and it prepared me to work for a CFO in a federal agency during my summer internship. Explaining these foundational concepts to the first-year class and passing on what I’d learned was a chance to give back that I truly valued.

My internship at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of the Chief Financial Officer was invaluable to my professional development. Working on the budget team, I put some of my coursework into action while also developing on-the-job Excel and budget analysis skills.  As an MPA candidate at Cornell, I was trusted with much more responsibility and interesting projects than in any of my previous internships during undergrad. I attended meetings with the CFO and agency director, learning about the budget process as well as organizational politics.


How would you describe the sense of community you find at CIPA?

CIPA is large enough for you to meet a wide variety of people, but it’s also small enough to be intimate. I’ll really miss walking into a class or party and knowing every person there. My classmates were incredibly smart, passionate, and knowledgeable about their areas of interest, and it was a gift to be among them and learn from them for two years.

I’m also really grateful for the CIPA alumni community. Alums at my target organizations gave me thoughtful, honest, and incredibly helpful advice about career planning, and helped connect me to numerous opportunities. I’m excited to pay it forward to future classes of CIPA Fellows and contribute to this supportive network.

What role did the Capstone play in your educational experience at CIPA?

Capstone was a good chance to do research or strategy consulting with real clients and put the skills we learned during our time at CIPA into use. It provides the opportunity to cement skills in project management and leadership.

Capstone also gave me the opportunity to double-down on skills I began developing in my summer internship in federal budgeting. In the Capstone, I worked on a project with the Volcker Alliance examining trends in state budgeting practices. Having two experiences in budgeting gave me credentials I didn’t have at all coming from a liberal arts background, and I quickly started getting interview offers from government budgeting offices.

Is there anything else about the CIPA program, about the opportunities here, or about your particular experience that you would like to share with prospective students?

The CIPA experience is truly what you make of it. Whether you are interested in a career with meaning and looking for the right policy area or functional fit, or know exactly what you want to do, CIPA provides opportunities to get where you want to be. For motivated professionals, there are a vast number of resources here at Cornell that you can leverage into a strong career transition.

CIPA provided a supportive environment for me to grow from a fresh liberal-arts graduate to a prepared and confident public affairs professional. I am deeply grateful for my time at CIPA and for the skillset and sense of purpose I gained from the program.

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