Colin Powell School
“It's Okay to Not Have Your Life Planned Out” — Former Colin Powell Graduate Fellow Christopher Rick on his Circuitous Path to Academia
CCNY was “the place that put big ideas into my head,” says Christopher Rick, a graduate of the MA Program in Economics who is now finishing a PhD at Syracuse and will soon begin a post-doctoral fellowship at Harvard. A self-described “boring, suburban kid from Maryland,” Rick was drawn by the rush of city life and the beautiful architecture of CCNY and Harlem. In the Colin Powell School, he found his passion for learning to use public policy to improve society for its most marginalized groups. He taught as a TA in CCNY’s microeconomics course and completed a thesis on gentrification and public housing in NYC, while receiving support from the Colin Powell School Graduate Fellowship. This experience with research and teaching at the university level cemented his decision to pursue a career in academia. Read the full interview.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Maryland and worked in the DC area before moving to NYC. I was a boring, suburban kid so city life, and NYC in particular, always seemed appealing. Eventually, I made the move to the city without too much of a plan.
How did you decide to do a master’s degree at CCNY?
I was working as a transportation research analyst and thinking about getting a master's degree to learn new skills and advance at work. My undergraduate degree was in economics and I enjoyed it, so I figured it was natural to learn more economics. I know this will sound silly, but I walked around campus one day and loved it. The history and architecture and Harlem neighborhood felt right. I started part-time in Fall 2013 and figured I could take a course or two and if it didn't work out, that would be that. But I was hooked.
What is your passion or purpose behind pursuing what you did at City College?
I'm a curious person, so I always want to figure out why things are the way they are — and how public policy can improve the world, and cities in particular. The courses and experiences gave me the skills and tools to analyze urban and social problems and phenomena with the aim of making society a better place, especially for historically marginalized groups. Society gave me a lot of privilege and I want to use that to help improve others’ lives.
How did you decide to pursue a career in academia?
I learned a lot about research at City College, from folks like Marta Bengoa and Kevin Foster. I had never seriously considered a career in academia, but I saw what they did and thought, "I want to do that, too!" Prof. Bengoa was my master's advisor and gave me great feedback on my master's thesis and we later published an extended version of the paper in the Eastern Economic Journal. City College gave me a great glimpse into life in academia that showed me it was the career I wanted.
What was your most significant accomplishment or memory at CCNY?
My most significant experience was the time I spent teaching and being a teaching assistant for ECO 10250 - Principles of Microeconomics. I was lucky to TA for five semesters and solo-teach my own class two semesters. I had amazing classrooms full of kids that wanted to learn — and tolerated my terrible jokes, too. Many of my students were immigrants or experiencing poverty and it always felt great to know I was helping someone that was working hard to improve their life. I always wanted to do whatever I could to help those students, or strivers, because I knew how much work they were putting in.
How have you been involved with City College since your graduation?
First, I try to be a resource for current students, either in the MA or BA/MA program, that are considering applying for master’s or PhD programs. I've talked to a half-dozen or so students about their goals, how grad school can (or can't) help them meet those goals, and answer any questions they have. Second, I try to donate when I can. I'm still in grad school so I can't donate as much as I'd like, but I think it's important to remember where you came from, so I try to support the Colin Powell School financially, just a little bit if I can.
I stay involved as best I can because I know I wouldn't be finishing a PhD this semester and heading to a Postdoc at Harvard if I hadn't started at City College. It was the place that put these big ideas in my head that drove me to where I am today. If I can help a current student think about those ideas, then it's well worth it for me.
Do you have any advice for current or future students?
It's okay to not have your life planned out in high school or in college. It drove my parents crazy, but I think that made it even more fun for me. I took a circuitous path to City College and NYC, then Syracuse, and now onto Harvard, and I am better off for it.