Interview: Carolyn Smalkowski on Capstone Success


Carolyn Smalkowski Master’s Candidate, 2013

OID: Tell us a little bit about you: what program are you in and what is your concentration? 

Carolyn: I’m in the IDS program. Officially my concentration is in Social Justice in Rural and Economic Development—I wanted to keep it focused enough to learn about an area I’m truly interested in but broad enough to keep me open to a variety of career options.

OID: What made you get into development?

Carolyn: The first experience I had that got me interested in development was while I was an undergraduate. I had the opportunity to go to the Dominican Republic through a class that was working with the organization Grassroot Soccer. I was interested in soccer so that attracted me initially, but the class was more about community development work and HIV/AIDS prevention.  After going on that trip, I realized I was interested in international development and Latin America, and so I started taking more and more related classes. That then inspired me to join the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, which got me further interested in development and led me to decide to focus my career in it.

OID: What has been the best part of your Master’s at the Elliott School so far? Anything you wish you had done/taken advantage of?

Carolyn: I would anticipate that going to Honduras for my Capstone will be the best. I haven’t gone yet but it will be the most hands-on experience I’ve had thus far and therefore the most practical.

To answer the second part of your question, I wish I would have had more time to go to different events or take better advantage of the career resources available. Time is always a constraint so I really wasn’t able to do as much as I would have liked, but I wish I had pushed myself to go more. There are so many interesting events going on all the time and I know that once I graduate I won’t have access to all of them anymore.

OID: Tell us a little about your Capstone Project: What are you doing? Where are you going?

Carolyn: There’s a group of 4 of us who are going to Honduras for 12 days with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). They serve as an external evaluator–they have developed what they call a “poverty-sensitive scorecard” and with that they determine the effectiveness of different agriculture and rural development projects to see which ones will have the biggest impacts on poverty alleviation. IFPRI has already done a quantitative evaluation of the projects they’ve selected for the scorecard, looking into how the projects have benefitted those involved, so our job is to complement those findings through a qualitative assessment doing interviews and focus groups.  We’ll be looking at indicators like improved access to markets and crop production, planting higher value crops and other community development-related initiatives. I’m very excited about going because it’s right in-line with what I want to get involved with in my career.

Ms. Smalkowski in action

Ms. Smalkowski in action

OID: How did you select your group members and focus?

Carolyn: When we chose our group there were initially 8 or 9 of us who were interested in agriculture and rural development and we just separated from there. We didn’t all have the same regional interest but most of us did have Latin American experience so that’s how we ended up getting picked to go to Honduras.  It’s important to keep in mind that when selecting a group, you’re not going to find people that have the exact same interests as you so you have to be a little bit flexible in terms of relatable topics and themes that can be grouped together. An important element of choosing a team is finding people you will work well with—whether you know their work ethic, or have done group projects with them in the past, or you have similar personalities.

OID: Was it difficult to find organizations to partner with? 

Carolyn: Luckily for us, not really.  We started searching for a client pretty early so we had a lot of different options and organizations interested. When we met with the representative from IFPRI it just fell into place and felt right. I think we lucked out and found a great project we were all really excited about.

OID: What has been the best part of the Capstone experience, so far?

Carolyn: When we were searching for a client, I liked meeting with the different organizations and just hearing about all the projects going on. It also gave me the feeling that our group was valued and really had something to offer them. It’s amazing to get the opportunity to make those connections and network. I would imagine the actual trip will be the highlight, though!

OID: What would your advice to first years be about choosing a team and a project?

Carolyn: Get started early! Do research related to your topic and also start to look for organizations early. I don’t mean you need to sign a Terms of Reference in June, but just know what options are out there so you’re not panicking last minute to find an organization. Team-wise, as I mentioned, just find people who you anticipate working well with and who will complement your skills. So if you’re more of a quantitative analysis person, for example, you’ll want someone in your group who is more experienced with qualitative analysis so your group will have the most to offer your client.

One more thing I would recommend: It was hugely helpful that I took a class over the summer so I could take fewer classes this semester. Taking a full course load in addition to doing my Capstone and working would have been too much and I wanted to give the experience my full attention and time. If you can take an extra class over the summer or in the fall, it will make your life much less stressful!