Robertson Hall, home of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, photographed in 2017.
Princeton University, Office of Communications, Nick Donnoli
Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative sets students on a path in the federal government

Alexandra (Alex) Kasdin ’14 *18 majored in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, and by the time she reached her junior year, she envisioned spending her career working in environmental policy. She’d taught conservation in Kenya and reported on climate science for a nonprofit, but finding a path into the policy world was still a challenge. 

Looking for a “foot in the door,” Kasdin applied to Princeton’s Scholars in the Nation’s Service Initiative (SINSI), then a six-year program spanning undergraduate and graduate school that aims to train career public servants through internships, fellowships, and the master’s in public affairs program at the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA). She became the first SINSI student to spend her fellowship years in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which helped her to return to the agency after her MPA studies. Today, she serves as a project manager for Endangered Species Act implementation. 

“I know I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for Princeton and the SINSI program,” Kasdin said. “It will always be there as the foundation of my career.”

Creating new paths from Princeton to U.S. government service was what then-dean Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80 had in mind when SPIA launched SINSI 15 years ago. “Government service has to be the core of public service,” Slaughter said at the time. The program has evolved slightly — the summer internships for rising seniors and the four-year MPA/fellowship path are now separate offerings — but the goal remains unchanged.

“I know I wouldn’t be where I am right now if it wasn’t for Princeton and the SINSI program.” — Alexandra Kasdin ’14 *18, project manager, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Rick Barton and Kit Lunney, co-directors of the SINSI program, are working with a demographer (a former SINSI fellow) to study the career paths of the dozens of alumni who’ve completed the MPA track. The top destination is the federal government, Barton said, and even those who start their careers elsewhere are likely “to cycle through the federal government at one time.” Others pursue roles in state and local government, nongovernmental organizations, or as consultants working with government agencies. 

The pandemic has temporarily reshaped the SINSI experience, forcing interns and fellows to work remotely. Barton and Lunney said this can be a handicap because it disrupts mentorship opportunities, but overall feedback from participants has been positive. They expect this year’s internships to begin remotely and are hopeful that some could include in-person elements by the end of the summer. 

SINSI named its newest class in January, selecting eight interns and four graduate scholars. Most of the interns are SPIA concentrators, but the four seniors entering the MPA fellowship track come from a broad range of majors: computer science, civil and environmental engineering, economics, and sociology. 

Alumni of the SINSI graduate program said they learned a great deal in a relatively short time, spending an intense year in MPA studies before entering the federal government. Graduate students can arrange for up to four rotations in different agencies. 

Nabil Shaikh ’17, who worked in the Department of Justice and will complete his MPA in May, appreciated the balance of SPIA and fellowship years. “You get the two years in the graduate school, where you can work on a breadth of issues and there is a lot of academic freedom,” he said. “But then you balance that with two years of work in the government, where you really learn the constraints of ... working with specific laws and working within the constraints of statutorily defined roles.”

With a pay-it-forward-minded community of about 100 alumni and students, SINSI has an enduring influence on its graduates, according to Nathan Eckstein ’16 *20, who is beginning a career in the foreign service this month. “I owe a lot to the SINSI fellows who came before me,” Eckstein said.