Tips to Consider When Applying to PPIA as an Undocumented Student


With the deadline for the Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Junior Summer Institute (JSI) fellowship approaching fast, I want to share with you all some tips that I hope will help undocumented students strengthen their applications. PPIA is a seven-week fellowship that exposes college juniors to the public policy field by allowing them to take graduate-level courses while also connecting them with a network of professionals who work in different areas of policy. The program’s purpose is to prepare students for graduate degrees in public policy and international affairs to diversify the policy field with leaders from underrepresented communities who “are representative of the full spectrum of America.” There are five participating universities that host fellows for the JSI program: Carnegie Mellon, Princeton, Berkeley, University of Michigan, and the University of Minnesota. Unfortunately, Berkeley and Princeton University are the only institutions that accept undocumented students. Although admission into PPIA is extremely limited for undocumented students, that should not discourage you from applying.

In my second semester as a transfer student, some friends and I traveled across the country to attend the Harvard Latino Law, Policy, and Business conference. While there, I met an undocumented student who was pursuing a Master in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. Being an undocumented student myself, I was intrigued by the fact that even though she was undocumented, she was pursuing a master’s degree from an Ivy League. When I asked her how she was financing her education, she responded that she was attending Harvard with all costs covered because she participated in PPIA as an undergrad. Although our conversation that day was brief, the few minutes we spoke for were enough to encourage me to look further into PPIA and apply.

I had the privilege to participate in PPIA. Overall, I had a phenomenal experience that reassured my desire to pursue either a Master in Public Policy or a Master in Public Administration. Never in my life did I imagine that someday I’d be surrounded by inspiring folks from all over the nation who share my same passion for using policies to serve the communities we come from. We took classes in micro-economics, statistical analysis, policy writing, and policy analysis. The amount of work that we had to do–including econ and stats problem sets, STATA lab assignments, exams, and policy memo write-ups–was overwhelming, but having each other for support got us through.

Throughout the summer, I had a difficult time understanding why only two of the fellows in my cohort were undocumented students. Knowing that I was one of the few from the undocumented community who would have access to the benefits that come with being a PPIA alumnus, I wondered why information about PPIA is not widely advertised within our community. PPIA is more than a summer fellowship that allows you to take classes and learn about the policy field… it grants access. Completing the program guarantees a minimum of a one-time $5,000 scholarship for a graduate degree at one of PPIA’s consortium schools, though in most cases the scholarship awarded is larger. For some students–though not for allbeing a PPIA alumnus has even led to a fully-funded master’s degree in policy. As undocumented students, our presence in undergraduate institutions throughout the nation is miniscule and the number of undocumented graduate students is even smaller. Changing this requires access to opportunities like PPIA, and we can’t gain access unless this information is widely advertised within our community.

In my view, you can’t make policies for us, without us. And so, for those interested in policy who are or will be applying to PPIA, here are some tips to consider as you work on your applications:

  1. Emphasize your commitment to public service.

Demonstrating your commitment to public service is extremely important. PPIA looks for students who are not only interested in serving underrepresented populations in the future, but who have already been engaged in service. In your application, you want to illustrate your trajectory: how you’ve served, how you are serving, and how you will continue to serve. Include any extracurricular, internship, volunteer, or mentorship work you’ve done that clearly showcases your commitment to helping others.

  1. Showcase who you are. Be honest, be you.

Be creative and honest with your answers. Every document in the application should reveal something different about yourself. When Berkeley and Princeton admissions personnel are reviewing your application, the information that you include helps them create an image of who you are. In a way, each application document is a piece of the puzzle that illustrates your life and passions. So, don’t be afraid to talk about your background, your hardships, and what has influenced you to come as far as you have.

  1. Focus on one policy issue and thoroughly explain why you’re passionate about it.

Focus your application around one central issue that you’d like to resolve using public policy, and make sure to connect this to the work you’ve been doing. I focused on immigration. Now, I am very passionate about labor rights, womxn’s rights, and education. Yet, after stepping back and reflecting on my experience, I realized that I am most passionate about immigrant rights. So, I framed my application around that. I wrote about how my experience as an undocumented womxn influenced my interest in serving our community and I used my extracurricular work as evidence for my passion.

  1. Show that you have a clear career goal in the policy field and explain how PPIA will help you achieve that goal.

Take some time to reflect on your goals. Do you aspire to be a policy analyst? To work for a non-profit organization that does policy research? Or maybe to be an elected official? What is it that you want to do with a policy degree to serve marginalized communities? Show that your goal is aligned with your commitment to public service and explain how PPIA will help you be one step closer to accomplishing that goal. Will the quantitative courses help you? Will being exposed to graduate level courses help? Why is completing PPIA crucial to your advancement in the policy field?

  1. Don’t be afraid to include less “glamorous” work that you’ve done.

Service extends beyond the professional field–beyond being the president of a club or a member of the student senate. It is what we do for our families, our neighbors, and the people who need an extra hand from someone who genuinely wants to help. Did you translate documents for your parents or neighbors? Did you mentor your siblings, cousins, or children from your community? Did you have a church friend who needed help filling out paperwork they didn’t understand? Include that information in your application.

More tips about the PPIA essays can be found in this Facebook event page.

Please note that adhering to these tips does not guarantee admission into the program. Use this information as guidance and please, send this article to anyone you feel will benefit from it.

Melissa was born in Guayaquil, Ecuador and immigrated to the U.S. in 2001. She attended Mt. San Antonio College before transferring to UC Berkeley. She studies Latin American Studies and has used her degree to gain a better understanding of why people from Latin America have and continue to migrate to the U.S. She is in her last semester at Cal and plans on spending a few years in the workforce before pursuing a Masters in Public Administration in the coming years.


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