Yes, You Can Learn Skills in Your First Year of College You’ll Actually Use

by Zach Goldfine as told to Elizabeth Heathfield | MDA Class of 2017 | Nov 15, 2017

I had a succession of really cool roles early in my career: doing basketball operations and statistical analysis for the Brooklyn Nets; running sales and operations at a fast-growing dating startup; starting the San Francisco chapter of a political group that got a lobbyist gift ban on the ballot and passed by city residents.

I studied Political Theory at UCLA, but never felt like I learned anything practical there, except maybe time management. I knew it took me 30 minutes per page to write an essay, so if I had an 8-page paper due, I could start 5 hours before I had to hand it in; 4 hours to write it and one to print it and run it over to the professor’s office.

Out in the professional world, I learned how to work with data to get interesting insights and how to build systems that drive businesses forward. I held senior titles, hired people, and managed teams toward common goals. Living in San Francisco as I do, I even founded an employment startup.

But I always felt like I was winging it, and whatever success I achieved was either due to the people around me or to the sheer luck of being at the right place at the right time. I didn’t have a structured approach to figuring out hard problems. I’ve always learned by doing — on the job, feet to the fire. I did what felt right and hoped for the best. I knew there had to be more.

So I began looking for ways to kill that nagging feeling. What next step would give me the framework I’d need to make good decisions over and over? Should I get an MBA?

I found out about the Master of Science in Decision Analysis because my girlfriend works at Minerva. One day, she came home energized after having lunch with Josh Fost, who runs the Master’s program, and told me, “You’ve got to check it out, it’s perfect for you!”

I considered several criteria in making my decision. Should I focus on a name brand that people would recognize? I was missing that prestige on my resume thus far, and I know schools like Stanford and Harvard come with a lifelong network. I assumed that Minerva, new as it is, did not yet have far-reaching name recognition. It would be up to me to build my own network.

Ultimately, Minerva’s innovative curriculum, as well as its lower cost, won out. I decided that even if it didn’t immediately open as many doors, its focus on practical knowledge would ultimately make me a better hire and more effective team member and leader. It was a chance I was willing to take.

I found out just how different Minerva is on day one. With its active learning approach, you can’t skip class like I often did as an undergrad, since the classes are very small and demand your participation. You can’t daydream during a lecture, since there aren’t any lectures, and everyone sees your face up close on the live video learning platform. You’re responsible for contributing as much as anyone else, including the professor. There’s tons of reading in advance, and the discussion starts with the assumption that you’ve done it. Each class is a 90-minute intense session of intellectual exploration. Slacking is structurally impossible. The workload got overwhelming at times, especially because I wanted to devour everything they threw at me.

As difficult as it was, behind my overwhelmed face and tense shoulders was an ironic feeling of relief. I’d wanted to test my intellectual limits, to see where my brain could be stretched. And that’s exactly what Minerva helped me do, every day.

I wasn’t just learning something in a textbook; I was tackling questions of immediate interest and getting the practical tools I’d need to maneuver through complex problems.

Minerva’s pedagogy translates across its undergraduate and master’s degrees. The four core courses all interact with each other. We’d take some absurdly large question that’s virtually impossible to answer, like the persistence of homelessness, and study it from multiple angles. We’d learn a new data analysis methodology on how to extract insights about the homeless, then the next day we’d discuss sociological and psychological questions like how do different elements of society interact to create the problem?

My fellow classmates were from all around the world, from Bulgaria to Malaysia to Israel, and all from different academic backgrounds. When an artist, a legal expert, and a scientist debated an issue, the challenge really became how to tease out the best thinking from each to come up with a viable solution. It reinforced for me just how valuable diversity is in getting the best ideas out on the table.

The professors are simply excellent, and several are otherworldly brilliant. I was deliberate in going to office hours, to get to know the faculty outside of the class setting. One common thread was that they had all tried to implement something like Minerva’s active learning model at their previous, traditional universities. That meant they all had prior experience being active facilitators, making sure everyone contributed, and guiding us to examine things from new angles. They gave us confidence that we could try and be wrong, that we could say something smart or silly, that we could make real contributions to solving the world’s problems.

So I looked to do exactly that with my master’s thesis. I examined the impact of tax cuts on job creation, a big question that people have been looking at for a long time. I used a data analysis technique — called a synthetic control case study — to examine tax cuts in Kansas in 2012, and then calculated what happened to jobs in the state afterwards. The coolest part was that I learned the method at Minerva, from the person who actually invented the statistical technique. As you can imagine, I got plenty of tough questions when I stood up to defend my work.

Since I live in the tech bubble of San Francisco, all I was thinking about before Minerva was what tech company to work for, and what tech job would I end up with. But Minerva really re-activated my passion for politics and government. Now that I’ve graduated, I’ve taken a Presidential Innovation Fellowship, which is a one-year placement in the federal government. I’ll be embedded in the Department of Commerce’s experimental data group, exposed to the high-level problems they’re trying to solve. My goal is to use what I learned at Minerva to create products that deliver services to the public and the government more efficiently.

At its core, my Master’s in Decision Analysis gave me the tools to navigate complexity. Whatever I do throughout my life, I will never again be overwhelmed by the vast unknown, nor will I just set sail and hope for the best. I have the mindset, and the skillset, to steer through the sea of data and information coming at me — and chart the course to a worthwhile destination.