Admissions Blog

Program Assistant Introduction: Leen Sawan MPA ‘24

By Leen Sawan '24
Posted Sep 14 2023

Note from Admissions: We're excited to welcome our new group of program assistants (PAs) working with us here in the SIPA Office of Admissions and Financial Aid. They’ll specifically be helping you through the application and decision process over the next few months through answering your emails, calls, and writing relevant blog posts to help you during this admission process.


Leen Sawan is a second year Master of Public Administration (MPA) candidate concentrating in Economic and Political Development (EPD) and double specializing in Technology, Media and Communications (TMaC), and International Organization & UN Studies (IO/UNS). At SIPA, she is part of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Forum. She is Palestinian-Canadian and was raised in Qatar. Leen completed her undergraduate degree at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, where she majored in Economics and minored in International Development Studies. Prior to joining SIPA, Leen worked for four years as a Management Consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Middle East in their Qatar office, where she was part of the Government and Public Sector advisory practice. As a student, Leen has prioritized coursework that has allowed her to gain both substantive knowledge in a diverse range of policy areas, as well as practical skills that she could leverage in any professional opportunity. This summer, Leen interned with the United Nations Headquarters in New York, specifically with the United Nations Operations and Crisis Centre, the organization’s primary crisis management information hub.

What attracted you to SIPA and Columbia University?

What’s not to love! SIPA and Columbia University both have so much to offer to students, and there are always new opportunities to explore and a seemingly infinite number of resources to leverage. For me, there were several reasons that made SIPA the most obvious choice. As someone interested in potentially pivoting away from the private sector towards working with multilateral organizations, SIPA’s location in New York City and its extensive connections with the United Nations (whether in the form of the IO/UNS specialization, internship opportunities, events, alumni and affiliated faculty) were definite selling points. SIPA’s reputation is also unparalleled – both in New York City and globally – and I knew that a degree from SIPA would undoubtedly open many doors, no matter what area of focus I decided to pursue. Finally, in addition to its interdisciplinary approach to international and public affairs, SIPA offers its students the opportunity to gain access to the rest of Columbia’s graduate schools through cross-registration. The ability to take courses at the Business School and the Law School was just another reason (amongst many) to choose to complete my masters at SIPA.

What was the most challenging aspect of the application process?

Definitely time management! When I decided to apply to graduate schools, I was working full-time in a very demanding and fast-paced environment, often completing long hours and working on weekends. It was challenging trying to manage that with the various elements of the application process, including recommendation letters, transcripts, personal essays, and other required documentation, as well as deadlines.

To help make this process more manageable, I started as early as I could – right when I decided to seriously pursue graduate school! I took the time to research different schools, programs, attended information sessions, and spoke to current students and alumni when I could. I also took the time to collect and prepare all my materials earlier on (refreshed my resume, requested for my transcripts, and spoke to my references), keeping track of the status of each.

Finally, I made sure to reflect on my motivations to attend graduate school quite early, and made sure that I had a comprehensive narrative that clearly traced my steps and explained why SIPA was the perfect fit for me. While every school had a different version of the personal statement, it never hurt to have a clear starting point before the applications opened – that way, I had all my materials prepared and I could hit the ground running with the Early Action deadline.

What advice do you have for current applicants?

You have a zero percent change of getting into SIPA if you don’t apply, so don’t let imposter syndrome prevent you from applying. I remember all too well looking at the SIPA admissions requirements and reading the SIPA Admissions Blog, wondering if I would be a good fit for the school.

To be sure, SIPA attracts the best and the brightest, and the caliber of students here, as well as those applying, is quite high. It’s only natural to have such thoughts while in the midst of the application process, and while they can be hard to silence, there’s no reason to prevent yourself from trying your best. I would advise prospective students to channel that energy into the personal essays, focusing on crafting a compelling and comprehensive narrative that highlights what makes you unique, and how SIPA clearly aligns with your professional and personal interests. Every applicant is unique in their own way, and as a former mentor of mine said, your applications are not the time to be humble! Make sure you really reflect on your past accomplishments, and speak to your peers, mentors, family and friends to get inspiration about some of your achievements. Sometimes, we can forget things that we’ve done that are actually quite impressive, and might even be a great story for an application.

What’s your internship experience been like?

This summer, I had the opportunity to intern at the United Nations Headquarters (UNHQ), with the United Nations Operations and Crisis Center (UNOCC), the organization’s primary crisis management information hub. As someone who was hoping to explore other career options beyond the private sector, and had always dreamt of a globally-oriented career, I knew that one of the opportunities that I wanted to get out of SIPA was an internship with the United Nations (UN).

Although SIPA has the option to waive the internship requirement on a case-by-case basis (usually for students with a certain number of years of experience), I knew that an internship in New York would be a great addition to my resume. I found my summer internship through SIPA Connect, and immediately applied after running my resume and CV past an advisor at the Career Advancement Center (CAC).

The internship was incredibly insightful and gave me an insider’s view of how the UN Secretariat functions. As an intern with the UNOCC, I was able to work on identifying emerging signals of risk and developed reports that would support in deciding on priorities for UN system-wide preventive engagement. It was also surreal to walk through the UNHQ, and I definitely cherished the opportunity to fulfill a long-standing dream of mine!

What has been the most challenging part of your SIPA experience?

While SIPA has a lot to offer (from interesting courses, speaker events, student organizations, social outings, research opportunities, and assistantships), it can sometimes be overwhelming, especially for international students or anyone else making a move. While it took some time to find the right balance, I have learned that the best way of dealing with this stress is to prioritize on a weekly basis. Beyond coursework, I like to schedule time on my calendar to socialize with friends and classmates, and have tried to make it a habit to attend SIPA or Columbia-wide events (an interesting speaker, a career-focused panel discussion, or a concentration event) at least once or twice a week as a respite from studies. I also love taking advantage of being New York, and sometimes, taking a break from the Morningside Heights neighborhood and getting out into the city during the weekends can really help put things into perspective!