Interviews: Balancing School & Work

Working, going to school, and having a social life/time to relax can be a real challenge, especially in graduate school. Many of GWUs students take advantage of the evening classes by working part or full-time during the day, or securing internships in the field. I spoke with two students who have chosen full-time work to see what that has been like for them, and what advice they might have for the rest of us. Megan is in her second year in the IDS program, Bethel in her first.

Bethel Alemu

Bethel Alemu

OID: Please tell me a little bit about yourself: what made you decide to get into development? What is your area of concentration? 

Bethel Alemu: I knew early on that I wanted to work in development, mainly because of my background and experiences. I was born in Ethiopia and lived there for 10 years before moving to Zimbabwe where I spent the next six years of my life at a time of deep economic and political turmoil. My parents work in development and have moved quite a few times since then within Africa. Although I moved to the United States in eleventh grade, I was always going back between the two continents and the contrast is something that I could never get over.

Even after moving to the United States, knowing that the places where I grew up were associated with so much negativity and backwardness did not sit well with me. I was often pitied and looked down upon for many years when I told people where I was originally from. I consider myself blessed to have the opportunities I’ve been given including becoming a U.S. Citizen. Now, as part of the African Diaspora, I know that if I do not care enough to do something to advance development in that places I’m connected to, then I cannot expect anyone else to either.

My concentration in the IDS program in Economic Development and I am very much interested in going beyond just aid to building/facilitating private sector led growth in developing countries.

Megan Meinen

Megan Meinen

Megan Meinen: I have always been interested in politics and law. When I went to college I studied American Politics and I planned on going on to law school to study constitutional law. Then I went to Peru when I was a freshman in college and became interested in international politics. By the time I finished undergrad, I had studied political science and international relations. I was still not quite to development, however, and was all set to study international law. Then, out of nowhere, the opportunity presented itself to work at an orphanage in Peru. I decided to do it for a year. Three years and a lifetime of eye-opening experiences later, I moved back to DC to get my Masters in International Development. My concentration is grassroots development and local governance. I focus on Latin America.

OID: Are you currently working in the field of development? If so, what are you doing? 

Bethel: Yes, I am currently working full-time for a For-Profit international development consulting company. I am an Assessing and Learning Specialist (project speak for Monitoring & Evaluation) for a USAID knowledge management project. I’ve been with my company for about two years now.

Megan:I currently work as a New Business associate in the Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean region of Chemonics International.  I started out in project management, but quickly realized the extremely administrative nature of the work wasn’t for me. A lot of people shy away from new business, because they say it represents the corporate side of development: making money and winning projects. In my opinion and experience, working on new business has been a way to really get involved in a technical area and project development in a way that just isn’t otherwise possible.

OID: What made you decide to work full-time?

Bethel: I was already working full-time when I started my program at GW and I think that I am fortunate to have a job that is relevant to my field. I also cannot emphasize the importance of building a professional network which I have been able to do in my two years working for my company. Of course, working full-time also means fewer loans so it was an easy decision for me to continue working.

Megan: There are so many opportunities at my work to get involved with different things (trainings, travel, you name it) but as an intern you are really limited in what you can do. After awhile, going full time seemed like the only way to continue to grow professionally in the job. Also, frankly, development is a very saturated market in DC and at many places being a temp or an intern really gives you an advantage when applying for a full-time job. I didn’t want to let the opportunity slip through my hands. Lastly, if I am being completely honest, I took a full time job partially because I felt pressure to do something “important.”

OID: Do you currently go to school full-time? Have you worked and gone to school full-time in the past?

Bethel: Yes! I did full-time work and school last semester and although I started off as part-time this semester, I changed my mind and went back to doing both full-time. (Call me crazy!) I realized that despite all the discouragement from doing both full-time, it is very do-able and I was able to secure good grades in all my classes and keep my job! I do however, find it hard to find time socialize with classmates and hope that I can still graduate from GW with grad school friends!

Megan: I currently have 7 credits. I have never done full-time work and school; I don’t think I could.

OID: Do you feel that working gives you an advantage in classroom discussions and assignments?

Bethel: Yes, if it’s a field/technical area that I’m familiar with. I would also hope that just as I learn and find value in hearing of some of the experiences from my classmates, that they find my contributions useful as well.

Megan: Yes, I definitely do. It makes understanding proposals and proposal development much easier, because I am familiar with it. I also think it helps me to put some of the classroom discussion into context. Many times discussion, while usually interesting, can be theoretical in my classes and having work experience helps me maintain a practical point of view.

OID: What do you do in your free time? 

Bethel: What free time? (Just kidding.) I do make time to train for races, hang out with friends and volunteer at my church. And of course, attend some of the great events hosted by OID and the Elliott School when I can.

Megan: I don’t have much free time, but who does? I am a very laid-back person in general. I am so glad when I do make the time to hang out with friends (even if trying to plan it all sometimes stresses me out!) So, what I do in my free time is have fun! I want to enjoy the awesome friends I have made in DC, who are largely fellow IDS’ers, because who knows where we will all be in a couple months? They key is not to take yourself or your life too seriously. Everything is going to be ok, really, it is.

OID: How do you balance working full-time with going to school? 

Bethel: Prioritize. I will not lie, I’ve had a few breakdowns before, during midterms and finals, so it’s not easy. But I never expected it to be. I know that I am not forced to do this, it is a choice and I think having had a successful first semester has given me confidence to continue with my crazy schedule. Having a good support system of classmates, friends and family also helps.

Megan:  It’s a series of trade-offs, setting priorities, and making yourself do homework when it’s the LAST thing you want to do!

OID: Any advice for students considering working and going to school?

Bethel: Don’t let anyone talk you out of it. If you are willing to work hard and make some sacrifices along the way you’ll do great. There is no substitute for hard work. A few years from now you’ll be proud that you stuck it out.

Megan: Think it through. Understand your options and make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Talk to people who have done it (I am more than willing to discuss with anyone if they want to!) I weighed my options with lots of friends before making my decision. Be sure you know what you want to get out of school and what you want to get out of work. I am really glad I work, but it is definitely not easy.