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Education and Social Policy Alum Erik Shell Leverages Data Analytics for Chicago Government


NYU Steinhardt alum Erik Shell is the director of strategic planning and impact for the City of Chicago’s Department of Family.

After a career journey with many twists and turns, Erik Shell (MA ’20, Education and Social Policy) is now leveraging his broad-based knowledge of government with a skillset in data analytics to help the City of Chicago run more efficiently.

Shell started out as a tradesperson doing electrical and carpentry work behind the scenes for theater productions. This connection to the stage led him first to pursue advanced studies in ancient Greek and Latin, but when that didn’t feel like a sustainable path, he ended up as a communications and services coordinator at the Society For Classical Studies (SCS).

“Pursuing ancient Greek was a very difficult job environment; the academic field is small, as are the opportunities for tenure or career growth,” says Shell. “However, I really enjoyed the freelance education policy work for my community that I did while working at SCS, and the data aspect felt very practical and applicable. With data, you would do something and see a direct result.”

While at SCS, Shell stumbled upon NYU Steinhardt’s Master of Arts in Education and Social Policy (EDSP), which seemed like an ideal confluence of his interests. The EDSP program uses the frameworks of economics and sociology to teach students how to use statistics, data sets, and research results to formulate, implement, and evaluate educational policies.

Headshot of Erik Shell

I dip into my learnings from the EDSP program on a regular basis to do my job in the best way possible.

Erik Shell (MA ’20, Education and Social Policy)

“I was so pleased with the high emphasis on foundational work, not just in education policy, but also in basic economics and how the government is organized and functions,” says Shell, who earned his degree part-time over three years while continuing to work full-time at SCS. “The idea was that if you’re going to make policy, you need to understand the spiderweb of the way things move, so you are learning these things in tandem for the data aspect, but also with equity and policy in mind.”

After graduating from Steinhardt in May of 2020, Shell moved to Chicago and began working for the city government as principal operations analyst, a human services role with an emphasis on practical data application. Now the director of strategic planning and impact for Chicago’s Department of Family, Shell oversees a multidisciplinary department that analyzes data from different divisions to come up with strategic solutions to identify and fix issues. 

“If a division is having problems, sometimes they can be changed by choosing the right person for the next open job or collecting different kinds of data,” says Shell. “It’s our responsibility to keep a broad view of the whole department and what systems changes can be leveraged to create real and lasting improvement.” 

Shell says that small changes can provide useful feedback and create noticeable solutions in as little as a week, while other, more system-wide changes can take a year or more to design and implement.

“I was very lucky to find the Steinhardt program because it was the exact blend of what I didn’t even know I wanted,” says Shell. “I found this incredible niche for myself, and I dip into my learnings from the EDSP program on a regular basis to do my job in the best way possible.”

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Applied Statistics, Social Science, and Humanities

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