The SIPA Office of Alumni and Development is pleased to share A View from the Class, a series featuring current SIPA students, recently graduated alumni, and faculty.
Hello, I am Toumai Kafri, a second-year Master of International Affairs (MIA) candidate concentrating in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy with a regional specialization in Latin America. This year, I am also a fellow in the International Fellows Program.
What were you doing prior to SIPA?
My professional experience includes designing and managing finance operations for humanitarian and international development INGOs as well as leading field teams in onset emergency responses. As an undergraduate, I attended the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, graduating with a degree in finance. I then worked at a bank and in corporate finance in Canada before transitioning into international development with a first opportunity in Bolivia. Since then, I’ve worked in Colombia, Guatemala, South Sudan, Haiti, France, Israel, and New York. I also have an entrepreneurial spirit and supported ventures of family and friends whenever I could.
Why did you choose to attend SIPA?
I initially heard of SIPA from colleagues in the humanitarian sector. After doing some research, it was clear to me that I wanted a school where my interdisciplinary experience would be of value and a program that would allow for flexibility in choosing my coursework and areas of focus. SIPA was a perfect fit. It has great resources for learning more about the intersection of business and human rights, which is of great interest to me after working on partnerships between the corporate sector and aid organizations, and I like SIPA’s practice-oriented approach. Visiting two classes in-person (pre-pandemic), confirmed my impression that SIPA was the right program for me.
How did your prior experiences prepare you for SIPA?
I took a relatively long break between my undergraduate and SIPA studies. Working for several years and experiencing different roles and sectors helped me come to SIPA with a good sense of my interests and a critical mindset on many of the topics that I was about to pursue at Columbia. I came to learn and expand my knowledge, but I also came with critiques and questions on industries in which I had worked.
Why did you choose your particular concentration and specialization?
Concentrating in Human Rights and Humanitarian Policy was a very intuitive choice for me. I believe in a rights-based approach and enjoy being around people who are led by this view in their work. I chose a regional specialization in Latin America because I have a personal and professional attachment to the region, and can see myself working and living there in the future.
What has been your experience at SIPA thus far?
In my first year at SIPA, I was selected to be a Human Rights fellow with the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, a joint center of Columbia Law School and the Earth Institute. As a fellow, I supported work relating to indigenous protocols and by-laws for materializing the right to free, prior, and informed consent in extractive projects in Latin America - with the aim of supporting better results for affected communities. I am also part of the board of the SIPA Pan-African Network, and I sit on the SIPA Diversity Committee, advocating for better representation among students and faculty. This past summer, I joined Accountability Counsel, an NGO, as a policy fellow, where I supported work to strengthen accountability and recourse mechanisms of the world’s leading multinationals and development organizations. In August, I joined CORE, a humanitarian organization, in Haiti as a partnerships consultant, working on grant writing and reporting as part of the response to the 7.2 magnitude earthquake. It was very meaningful for me to be part of the response in a country where I have roots and with an organization that is committed to local community-based programming.
Can you tell us about your experience with the International Fellows Program?
I was initially interested in the impact of U.S. foreign policy on my homelands, and on human rights and humanitarian crises. However, it's been fascinating to dive into the thought process and history that goes into shaping the decisions of a global power like the U.S. Moreover, this year’s group of fellows is truly remarkable – a great mix of people with critical minds and extremely different perspectives. There are fellows from SIPA, but also from other schools at Columbia and from all over the world. It’s exciting to know that we’ll be spending the rest of the year together. (Note from Admissions: Learn more about the International Fellows Program at SIPA here and here.)
What are you looking forward to during your remaining time at SIPA and Columbia?
Since this is the first and only year that my cohort is fully in-person, I hope to continue building relationships with the wonderful people I’ve met and to enjoy being a student while it lasts. I’m also looking forward to the capstone project and to some courses that are only offered in the spring.
Aside from the academics, what else at SIPA has made an impression on you?
People! I heard about this from alumni before I started at SIPA, but you have to experience it to feel it. The professors I’ve interacted with have been genuinely caring and passionate about their work, and about their students. My first year was mostly online, and yet instructors managed to make time to get on Zoom with us outside the class setting, checking in on how we were doing and bringing us opportunities for networking and career planning. All done of their own initiative. Likewise, my peers are just this amazing group of people that inspire and challenge each other every day. Students have extremely diverse interests and backgrounds, and distinct plans for the future, but nonetheless there’s a sense of comradery and a lot in common. Everyone I’ve met is driven by a passion for something and a desire to leave a positive impact. I’m excited to see where this path leads all of us!