Students vote Müge Kökten Finkel as “Best Grad Professor”


Alyssa Carnevali | Staff Photographer

Müge Kökten Finkel, a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

By Srinidhi Gopalan, For The Pitt News

Pitt students voted Müge Kökten Finkel, a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, as the best grad professor in The Pitt News’ “Best Of” survey. 

Finkel teaches Gender and Development, a Capstone on Project Design and Evaluation and a survey course on Global Poverty and Inequality at GSPIA. Outside of teaching, she also is involved in research projects with the United Nations Development Programme and Gender Inequality Research Lab. Finkel’s teaching style is centered on pushing students to think outside of the box and experiment, preparing them for professional life.

Finkel said she’s surprised and “exceptionally honored” by her win.

“I only teach smaller and elective classes, so being acknowledged as one who has made a large scale effect has been wonderfully gratifying,” Finkel said.

Finkel’s classes at GSPIA focus on issues such as problems of development and inequalities on both the global and local scale. Finkel said she takes a collaborative approach in her classroom that students seem to enjoy. She strongly emphasizes a more interactive learning environment that is discussion-based rather than lecture-based. 

“Interacting takes more effort, courage and commitment, but the end result is always more satisfying,” Finkel said. “In grad classes, I believe we need to prepare our students for a professional life as expediently as possible.” 

Anisha Mallik, a junior graduate student at GSPIA who took Finkel’s Gender and Development and Capstone Project Design and Evaluation class, said Finkel was “super energetic” and described her as an “industry leader” in her sector. 

“She has such a zest and passion for life,” Mallik said. “It would be Monday morning at 9 a.m. and she would already be three coffees down, super awake and energetic.” 

Mallik said Finkel wants to challenge students to meet her energy and passion level each class.

“Students find the most growth in their careers when being challenged to engage in interactive and energetic discussion,” Mallik said.

Finkel acknowledges that her approach may be initially intimidating, but it ultimately allows her to see her students’ active thinking skills.

“My main goal is to make sure everyone in the class feels included, that their points are valued, and that everyone has a rightful place in the classroom,” Finkel said.

Naomi Yamashita Sperry, another student at GSPIA looking to get her masters in public health, also emphasized the energy seen in the classroom. Yamashita Sperry is 55 and has a background in emergency room nursing and chose to continue her learning in Finkel’s interactive environment.

“She is extremely intelligent, and the three hour classes fly by because she commands the room in a way that is participatory, not us just sitting there in a lecture,” she said 

Yamashita Sperry said her classes with Finkel are not “cookie cutter,” as she aims to change students’ ways of thinking. 

“For example, when looking in the field of healthcare, so much of data has been based on perception-targeted populations that don’t include everyone,” she said. “Dr. Finkel looks to include ways that we include the entire population and why issues affect minorities, instead of looking through it with a white privilege lens.”

Finkel also co-leads a research project with the United Nations Development Programme, where she focuses on collecting gendered data and analyzing global trends in gender equality in public administration. Her project has continued since 2015 and is critical to the Gender Inequality Research Lab at Pitt.

Through Finkel’s efforts, every year, six graduate students from Pitt work with UNDP regional hubs as summer researchers. 

Her projects outside of the classroom have also had resonating effects on students. For example, when Mallik discussed her post-grad plans, she mentioned her interest in sanitation and waste management. 

“I will be attending a UN water conference soon, in which I am hoping to make connections,” Mallik said. “I’m interested in working with displaced people through climate crises and political displacement down the road, and Dr. Finkel’s capstone course inspired this as I want to work in South Asia, India or Nepal after graduating.”

Finkel continues to be a leader in her field, according to her students. She even started a new comparative project which focuses on online violence against women in politics in Turkey and Brazil. 

“It has allowed me to forge new collaborations with colleagues from different disciplines, which is always inspiring and energizing,” Finkel said. “The downside is now I feel the need to learn Portuguese.”

Finkel said in her limited free time she enjoys traveling, reading mysteries and watching tennis. She even has a goal to learn how to play pickleball this spring. 

If she had one wish for her students, it would be for them to travel to one place that isn’t typically on a “Best Places to Travel List.” She said it is both important and rewarding to pick a place where students will “find themselves lost and challenged to step outside their comfort zones.”

“It is in those rare instances I believe we all get to rediscover our core strengths, our common humanity, and gain empathy and humility, and travel really opens us up to new insights and opportunities,” Finkel said.