Chief of Staff to NYC deputy mayor says liberal arts made him a 'critical thinker'

By: Agnes Shin,  A&S Communications
October 23, 2015

During his time at Cornell, Udai Tambar '97 conducted research on nutritional science, played intramural sports and majored in both chemistry and Asian studies.  Today, he plays an instrumental role in shaping New York City’s public policies as chief of staff to the deputy mayor for health and human services.

To say that his path has been unpredictable would be an understatement, but Tambar attributes his multi-dimensionality to the liberal arts education he received as a student in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Though he initially entered Cornell with an interest in the sciences and declared his chemistry major early on, Tambar says he developed an interest in Asian Studies while taking classes to fulfill his A&S distribution requirements. “It exposed me to classes in the humanities and social sciences, and I just began taking more and more classes in Asian Studies.” Before he knew it, he was majoring and completing his senior thesis in the department.

Tambar credits his liberal arts education with more than just restructuring his academic interests, however. Since graduation, Tambar has worked in research, policy and direct services.

Tambar describes his story as a “series of serendipitous events” – which may come as both a surprise and a relief to students who may be unsure of their future career. “I didn’t know that I wanted to do public policy going out of undergrad,” he says. “It was more an evolution of experiences,” born out of his desire to involve himself in something engaging and impactful.

After leaving Cornell, Tambar spent time as a teaching assistant for third graders and with low-income youth through the organization South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!), and then worked under a City Council member. Both of these experiences, he says, helped him realize how great of an impact policies have on low-income and marginalized communities, and drove him to obtain formal training in public policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.

Then the September 11 attacks occurred, and he wanted to help rebuild the city – so Tambar joined a non-profit organization to help coordinate social services for 9/11 victims, while still in graduate school.

Since then, he has taught an undergraduate course at Princeton, been a member of the transition teams for Newark Mayor Cory Booker and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, worked for the NYC Human Resources Administration, and returned to where he first began at SAYA!

After serving as the Director of Youth and Children services to the Deputy Mayor for health and human services from March 2014 to February 2015, Tambar is now the chief of staff. In his role today, he helps develop and coordinate key policy, management and strategic initiatives for city agencies with a combined budget of more than $20 billion.

How, might you ask, did a chemistry and Asian studies major end up in this job? “You think chemistry and Asian Studies, and the two are so disparate – but being able to toggle between those two structures was a skill that I learned,” he says.

“After 9/11 happened, my commitment to public service solidified – I wanted to get involved, and one thing led to another. You can’t anticipate the impact of events of that magnitude … One thing that has been consistent in my career has been change, and I’ve been able to pivot and do different jobs and move into different types of sectors because of my liberal arts education.

“It’s the liberal arts education that’s given me the solid foundation to be a critical thinker, be an analytical thinker, and to be able to learn new information. I wouldn’t be where I am without it.”

To all current Cornell students, he says – appreciate the community and the people you meet. “I met all these incredible people, whether they be fellow students or professors – and stayed in touch with them. Cornell is just great for that. You can learn synthetic chemistry anywhere, but are you going to learn from people you admire and who are so invested in your success? It’s really the people and the incredible community… that make Cornell special.”

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