Notes from the Field: Capstone Returnee Tells All

Joanna London, in Kyrgyzstan

Joanna London, in Kyrgyzstan

Students in the International Development Studies (IDS) program at The Elliott School at George Washington University undertake a capstone project where students work on a real-world consulting project. Students have to form a group, typically of 3-4 people, seek out a host organization, conduct research, and implement a project. Joanna London is an IDS student who recently returned from her project, and agreed to tell us about her experiences and to share some photos.

OID: Tell us about yourself: what is your area of concentration? 

Joanna London: My concentrations are Gender and Development and Sub-Saharan Africa

OID: What made you interested in those areas?

Joanna London: Good question. I guess the shortest response is that I have had an interest in Africa since high school, but I wasn’t really sure in what capacity I would integrate that into my future plans. Then, during my undergrad, I was a research assistant for a project called WomanStats that examines the nexus between the status of women in a country and that country’s national security. I also worked closely with Valerie Hudson, PhD, on that project and took multiple courses from her. As she became a mentor to me, I continued to develop my interests in this area, though it wasn’t until a few years later that I determined that I was interested in gender issues in the development context, specifically.

OID: What made you choose your Capstone group? 

Capstone group outside the White House

Capstone group outside the White House, on the way to meetings at USAID for their Capstone project

Joanna London: The biggest feedback that I got from my IDS mentor and other 2nd years was that you may have to compromise somewhat on your region or topic of interest, but what is most important is to choose people that you know you can work with closely for an extended period of time without wanting to rip your hair out. Capstone can be stressful enough – you don’t want to have to deal with horrible group dynamics in the middle of it all. We chose a group from our main friends/study partners since the beginning of the program. We had also worked on various projects with each other in one capacity or another, so we were all pretty comfortable knowing that we understood each others’ strengths and weaknesses and that there wouldn’t be any surprises.

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In Kyrgyzstan

OID: What compromises did you have to make, with respect to group formation and client preferences? Any advice for those just beginning this process?

Joanna London: Like I said, our priority was group formation, and then we determined that we would hash out a compromise on an area of interest. Luckily, we had a lot of overlap in our areas of interest and we all had pretty reasonable expectations. I just think it’s important to remember that in almost anything in life you are not always going to get 100% of what you want (in group projects, at work, in relationships, etc.) but that doesn’t mean that the experience isn’t incredibly valuable and enjoyable (and sometimes even better for you in the long run). I just figured that I would probably end up working on gender or in my region of interest, but I would be really lucky if it turned out to be both. Remember, you are not only working with 4 peoples’ interests, you are also trying to align those with the priorities of your partner organization. Once we decided on the focus of our prospectus (GBV and, ideally, Africa), we pretty much divided and conquered to research potential partners and everyone just naturally went toward the organizations where they had an interest or possible connection. We didn’t worry too much about client preferences until there was a solid conversation (aside from targeting those who would probably be big enough to help us financially since we didn’t have the funds to pay for ourselves).

OID: What did you end up doing for your Capstone Project? 

Communist Past, Democratic Future

Communist Past, Democratic Future

Joanna London: We are working with the Office of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID. Specifically, we are assisting them in drafting a gender integration toolkit for program design in complex crisis environments. Basically, under the auspices of the new National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, this department of USAID is trying to figure out the best way for their staff who are not gender experts (those programming in economic growth, democracy and governance, health, etc.) to take gender dynamics and implications into account when they design their projects and make sure that they are benefitting both men and women in the best way possible. This is targeted at countries that are being funded by the Complex Crisis Fund, a special fund set aside by Congress that is more flexible and can move quickly to implement programming in places that are experiencing economic, political, or social transition (not natural distasters or humanitarian emergencies). We did a thorough desk review and then we split up and traveled to Kyrgyzstan and Nepal (each team had a USAID staff member come with us, which was great since they did a lot of the logistics!) to ground truth what we had been reading and interview government officials, USAID mission staff, other donors, INGO staff, local NGO staff, and beneficiaries to get feedback about the best ways to make this toolkit useful. The trips were exhausting, but great. Now…we just have to write up the actual toolkit!

View from the market

View from the market in Kyrgyzstan

OID: Tell us about your Capstone experience: did it change your career goals at all? Do you think there is anything you would do differently, if you could do it again?

Joanna London: I don’t think know that the experience has changed my career goals drastically, but I have been incredibly impressed with the caliber of staff that we have worked with at USAID, as well as those that we met in the field. I also ended up falling in love with Kyrgyzstan and now have a special place in my heart for Central Asia (a little place next to the big place set aside for southern and eastern Africa). We spoke a lot about what we would do differently during the fall, but now it’s kind of hard to remember. I guess that’s a lesson: write down your feedback early!

Some of the key things I would say is that even though you need to make sure you are working on things actively, don’t be so stressed about the timeline in fall as long as you are making progress. We had the expectation that we should have a committed partner by the end of October, but some people don’t get back to you that quickly (or have to travel, or pass your info along to someone else, etc.). We were getting a little bit nervous, and then all of a sudden we had about 5 significant conversations going on at once. In the end, we were glad we held off because USAID didn’t get back to us right away and then we ended up committing right before break and signing our TOR over the holidays (and they have been AMAZING to work with!). The other thing I would recommend strongly is to gauge the appropriateness and generally try to bring up everything important in that first meeting, even the hard things, right away so you don’t waste the organization’s time. It is hard to get meetings with people and much easier to talk to them in person about things like the funding issue, travel approval, etc., so let them know about those possible complications in the first meeting so they have all of the information right away and don’t feel like you misled them (or they misunderstood you) later.

Capstone Meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Capstone Meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

OID: What do you hope to do now that graduation is just around the corner?

Joanna London: Oh, gosh. I hope to get a job! I also hope to read for fun a bit more. I also look forward to running into Elliott School alumni and IDS alumni in the field in the future (our POC at USAID is an Elliott School alumna and we ran into another IDS alumna in the field – it’s a great network out there!).

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