Heller Profiles

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

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Jodi Benenson

USA • Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, Tufts University

PhD '15

Learning to lead with the research question

Jodi Benenson seeks answers about the relationship between civic engagement and economic mobility

Defining moments came for Jodi Benenson, a Minnesota native and Indiana University student, when on a study abroad program in Amsterdam in her junior year. Benenson started paying attention to social policy issues as she observed the 2004 political climate in a country with different customs and priorities than the U.S. But even beyond being in another country, she learned from the other students from different areas of her native country, who were a lesson in diverse perspectives and backgrounds. 

In Holland, Benenson was also bitten by the travel bug, and took a job in New Zealand after graduation, working in an Auckland hospital under a 12-month work visa. Finding she easily warmed up to her project manager role in the clinical records department, the undergraduate business major saw the nonprofit sector opening up as a career path.

When Benenson returned to Minnesota she took a job at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of Minnesota and the Dakotas, where she coordinated programs for Tolerance Minnesota, a diversity education program. She then returned to Indiana University in its Master of Public Affairs (MPA) program with a concentration in Nonprofit Management. The master’s program propelled Benenson further into the world of policy, providing practical tools and knowledge on pressing issues occurring in the public and nonprofit sectors. But despite this new knowledge, she says, “I left graduate school with more questions than answers.”

Benenson’s inquisitiveness has always been a noticeable characteristic and because of this, faculty in her master’s program encouraged her to continue in a doctoral program to satisfy that curiosity. She knew that to answer the many questions her mind was formulating she needed serious quantitative and qualitative research skills. Her questions centered on the relationship between the nonprofit sector and social and economic inequalities. Of interest were how marginalized groups could overcome barriers to participation in society and how their own assets could be leveraged to help do this. The Heller faculty and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy fit snugly with her interests and so she arrived at the Heller School three years ago.

Has Benenson answered all of her questions? “Not yet,” she says, “but I am learning how to research the answers and getting excellent training in being a researcher. I know where to go, whom to ask, and I’m equipped to do my own study.” 

One of Benenson’s professors, the Institute on Assets and Social Policy’s director Tom Shapiro, always reminds Benenson that the research question must drive your study, and the methods will follow. “Question first,” she has learned.

A Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy fellowship supported Benenson’s first three years as a doctoral student.  One study she is working on focuses on advancing knowledge about student philanthropy through courses at higher education institutions. The question: does it make a difference?  “We are finding that specific course activities are linked to increased confidence in philanthropic and civic skills, and that greater classroom engagement affects students’ perceptions about future philanthropic activities,” she said. The “Pay it Forward” project affiliated with Ohio Campus Compact has given Benenson the opportunity to travel the country giving presentations on these findings. “It’s great to have that opportunity as a student,” she says.

Benenson would like to work as an academic after completing her doctoral work, and continue to study the relationship between civic engagement and economic mobility. Her end goal is to shape policies that help people—a goal shared by Heller doctoral and master’s students.

Knowledge Advancing Social Justice

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