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Master of Global Affairs, Munk School

An immersive education: How capstone projects prepare MGA students for their next step

When Melika Ameresekere was considering enrolling in a master’s program, she knew she wanted to gain hands-on experience working with leading firms and institutions in the policy world. That’s why she found the capstone project and internship at the Munk School’s Master of Global Affairs (MGA) program so attractive.

Now graduating from the MGA program, Ameresekere says her capstone project working with the MaRS Discovery District was a confidence-building experience, especially coming from a different academic background. “I wasn’t coming from an international relations or political science background, so I was really excited explore new subjects, concepts and ideas. I wanted to apply the new things I learned to the internship and capstone project.” 

A key component of the MGA curriculum, the capstone is a culminating assignment that ties all the foundational elements of the Munk School curriculum — inter-cohort collaboration, practical work experience, and innovative problem-solving – together in a culminating project. In the past, second-year MGA students have consulted for capstone clients such as the RCMP, the Royal Bank of Canada, Global Affairs Canada, the World Bank, and Grand Challenges Canada.

Unlike traditional master’s programs, MGA students go beyond solo, research-based theses, working instead in small groups to consult for clients. Client organizations come from a range of fields, from government to the private sector, and MGA students advise on the practical challenges these organizations are facing.

Ameresekere’s capstone project involved consulting with the MaRS Discovery District on their Business For Purpose Network (B4PN) to evaluate the impact of corporate social responsibility programs. She notes the non-traditional structure of the capstone project was rewarding. “I really wanted to gain hands-on research, analysis and project development experience, which I believe the capstone project gave me, says Ameresekere. “The skills I developed will definitely be beneficial throughout my career.”

The capstone project serves as the final challenge for students completing their Master of Global Affairs, putting the Munk School curriculum and skills to the test in a real-life setting before entering the workforce. This means working with a small team for an intense period of research and data mining, and then compiling comprehensive recommendations for clients who are often pressed for time and in need of solutions-oriented consulting services.

Normally, students work from the client’s offices or travel to present their final recommendations. While these visits were made virtual due to COVID, Professor Shiri Breznitz, who oversees the innovation-focused capstones, says the urgency of the pandemic nonetheless presented a valuable learning opportunity.

“This year students were specifically looking at questions around COVID – this is a real-life situation with clients asking, ‘what kind of policies really help?’ And that was very exciting for students,” she says.

Those questions were central to Justine Tanguay’s (MGA ’21) capstone project consulting for the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation, and Trade. Her team researched how government can utilize disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence to support small- and medium-sized enterprises as they adapt to disruptions like the pandemic and an ever-changing economy.

Tanguay enjoyed the hands-on aspect of the capstone, and the possibility of making a real impact. “The best part of my capstone was being able to work closely with the provincial government and gain insights on the policy process directly from policy leaders. I am grateful to have contributed to a policy framework which may shape a future digital strategy for the province and impact businesses in our local communities.” 

Often, clients like both MaRS and the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation, and Trade; come back to the Munk School requesting a new set of capstone students to consult on issues they feel require a fresh perspective.

Breznitz, director of the MGA program, notes that many students go on to do internships or are hired permanently by their capstone clients. In turn, many capstone clients are MGA alumni themselves, who choose to bring in new students to tackle the challenges their organization is facing.

This collaboration between MGA students, alumni, and capstone clients embodies the Munk School’s mission to prepare students to emerge as leaders in an increasingly interconnected and complex world by the end of their two years of study.

“The most rewarding part for me is when the students understand that all those articles they read, and all those topics they discuss eventually have real applications,” says Breznitz. “I get that in a lot of the feedback from our students.”