Jennifer Opare-Kumi, improving youth mental health outcomes with the DPhil in Public Policy

Jennifer Opare-Kumi

Prior to starting the DPhil in Public Policy, Jennifer Opare-Kumi (DPhil 2019) worked as a programme manager at Young 1ove, a grassroots NGO in Botswana founded by fellow DPhil student Noam Angrist (DPhil 2016). The organisation’s initial focus on youth HIV work aligned with Jennifer’s academic and professional background – after completing a master’s in health economics, she spent time working in international organisations, including the International Organization for Migration, where she analysed health outcomes for migrants in South Africa.

When the Botswana government asked Young 1ove for help exploring evidence-based programmes to improve educational outcomes for children (following a successful health programme led by Noam), Jennifer’s focus shifted to education. As programme manager, she spearheaded the national scale-up of Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL), a basic literacy and numeracy intervention created by Pratham Education Foundation, which focuses on teaching groups based on skill level rather than age. Rigorous evaluation through multiple randomised controlled trials has demonstrated improved learning outcomes among students as a result of this intervention.

Jennifer’s DPhil research is inspired by the results she saw while working at Young 1ove. “It was incredible to see children picking up the basic literacy and numeracy skills in such a short period of time,” she says. In addition, anecdotal evidence from parents, teachers and students showed that the intervention had a positive effect on students’ confidence, their attitudes towards learning, and their behaviour. These findings inspired Jennifer to undertake the DPhil, combining her background in education and health to study the connection between educational attainment and youth mental health. “If we can capture the connection, we may find cost-effective ways to support mental health and learning in low-resource environments,” she says.

For Jennifer, the Blavatnik School’s focus on bridging academia and practice was central to its appeal, and she values the opportunity to learn from world-leading experts.

“I was eager to learn from and work with leadings economists such as Stefan Dercon, who is now my co-supervisor. The school constantly attracts thought leaders, academics and policymakers who challenge our thinking and enrich our research.”

Jennifer has taken advantage of numerous opportunities to strengthen her research skills, from quantitative methods courses at the Oxford Department of International Development and the Evidence and Public Policy course at the Blavatnik School, to the Research Development Seminars which form a core part of the first year of the DPhil.

“Presenting my research to fellow DPhil students in the Research Development Seminars has helped me hone my presentation skill in a relatively low-stakes environment. It’s great preparation for further down the line, when I’ll have to present my work for evaluation in front of other academics and economists.”

Jennifer has also joined an African public policy group, set up by Martin Williams, which meets fortnightly at the School. “The group has been a really valuable resource for meeting African scholars, as well as scholars who are interested in Africa. It has provided an ongoing network of support, particularly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and in the context of recent events surrounding police brutality in the US and the Black Lives Matter movement more widely.”

Jennifer also values being part of a close-knit community of DPhil students at the Blavatnik School.

“The small class size allows for a truly supportive intellectual community – it enables you to really engage and understand what other people are doing, to support each other, and to share ideas and critical feedback.”

Jennifer received full funding for her DPhil studies through a Blavatnik School of Government Scholarship and the Exeter College John Kufuor Scholarship (see some DPhil funding opportunities). “I’m immensely grateful for the funding support I’ve received, as I wouldn’t have been able to come to the Blavatnik School without it,” she says. She is now making the most of opportunities to engage in Oxford life – from participating in classic traditions such as Evensong at the Exeter College chapel, to getting involved in community volunteering with Universify Education, an organisation set up to facilitate more diverse, inclusive education.

“My first year in Oxford has been a wonderful, thought-provoking experience. I’m grateful for the support I’ve received from the academic community – from my fellow students and departmental and college advisors – and look forward to the coming year with equal optimism.”

Jennifer received a Blavatnik School of Government Scholarship and the Exeter College John Kufuor Scholarship.

August 2020