Carnegie Mellon University
December 15, 2020

Influencing Policy in a Pandemic

A recent Carnegie Mellon University graduate obtained the fellowship of a lifetime, working with the New York City Emergency Management

By Stacy Kish

Zachary Rapaport, a 2020 Carnegie Mellon University graduate, traveled to New York City on March 9 for an interview.

“I wanted to immerse myself in city government,” said Rapaport, who completed a Bachelor of Humanities and Arts in global studies and art with an additional major in Hispanic studies. “The Urban Fellows Program presented a hands-on opportunity to learn about government and public policy in New York, an impressive and complex city.” 

Everything was normal when he arrived, but a few days later the world had changed.

“On my flight home, there were only six people on the plane,” said Rapaport. “Leaving New York was completely different from when I arrived.” 

Rapaport went home and waited.

Finally, he and 18 other fellows received official word in September. They had been accepted into the program.

I was overjoyed. After months of uncertainty and a great deal of behind-the-scenes advocacy by Urban Fellows alumni, the news came as excitement and relief,” he said. “The program has been mostly virtual as a result of COVID-19, but that shift hasn’t detracted from the experience. It’s been going really well.”

Rapaport is currently situated in an apartment in the city, working with New York City Emergency Management’s planning unit. When he initially applied to the program, he hoped to gain a greater understanding of urban planning and policies, but he never imagined he would be in the center of creating plans to respond to a pandemic.

Only two weeks on the job, Rapaport is still getting his feet wet, reading through reference documents and policies for all types and scales of emergencies, including pandemic scenarios, coastal storms and winter weather events.

“In my time working with Zachary during his studies at CMU, I never ceased to be impressed by the unique combination of intellectual rigor, artistic creativity and community engagement that lies at the heart of his interests and his work,” said Paul Eiss, associate professor in the Department of History and one of Rapaport’s advisors while a student at CMU. “His longstanding commitment to community and public engagement aligned perfectly with the New York City Urban Fellows Program, and his creativity and imagination must be uniquely valuable to City agencies interested in thinking outside the box as they tackle complicated urban issues.”

Rapaport is working on plans to deal with the possibility of an additional wave of the coronavirus that could affect the residents of New York City during the winter season.  

He also has a front row seat for intrastate coordination, assisting agencies across New York about new policies and approaches to combat the virus. He is learning how agencies, like the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Mayor’s Office to Protect Tenants and the Department for the Aging, are helping residents across the city.

“The coronavirus pandemic has been a learning experience for emergency management,” Rapaport said. “I’m seeing first-hand how New York City responds to a crisis with countless cascading effects across health, housing and economics, as well as their disproportionate impact due to racism and systemic injustice.”

As part of the fellowship, Rapaport is attending online seminars to learn from officials, who have years and sometimes decades of experience in city government. Beyond discussing their roles in government, he is learning the circuitous paths each speaker took to reach their current position.

Being a fellow is such a unique way to experience the complexity of New York City,” said Rapaport. “I have the privilege of working alongside a dedicated and gracious team that’s committed to helping New Yorkers in the midst of intersecting crises.”

The Urban Fellows Program is a highly selective, nine-month fellowship, designed to introduce a diverse group of college students and graduates to local government and public service. Fellows gain experience working in mayoral offices and city agencies while attending seminar series featuring prominent members of city government. Through the fellowship, participants explore current urban issues impacting public policy.

The Fellowships and Scholarships Office assists Carnegie Mellon undergraduate and graduate students when preparing applications for nationally competitive scholarships and fellowships. The office advises students and provides writing support and helps manage the application process and interview preparation. Visit the Fellowships and Scholarships Office to learn more about opportunities and how to schedule an appointment to obtain assistance.