Special Alumna Update with Katie Appel

As the semester winds down and the second years are graduating, (or even if you’re just about to embark on your experience at GWU!) many may wonder: what’s next? OID sat down with IDS alumna Katie Appel to hear what she’s been up to since graduating, what advice she has, and her fondest IDS memories. Disclaimer: The views  and opinions stated here are Katie Appel’s and do not reflect those of Plan International USA or any other individual or organization.

OID: Tell us about yourself: What was your concentration at GWU, and what are you doing now?

Alumna Katie Appel with youth focus group participants in Egypt

Alumna Katie Appel with youth focus group participants in Egypt

Katie Appel: I graduated from IDS in May 2012. I grew up in Arlington and went to UVa, but now live in DC.  Before GW, I spent a year teaching adults at a vocational school in Ecuador and I also did global education outreach in DC public schools with an international NGO.  Those experiences shaped my interest in the transition from education into the workforce, so within IDS, I created my own concentration in women’s empowerment & workforce development.

I started interning at Plan International USA during my first semester at GW, and by the time I got to my final semester I had been hired as part-time staff.  I became a full-time Program Associate after graduation and I have really enjoyed the role so far.  Plan is a child and youth-focused international NGO with offices in 70 countries and programming across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. I really believe in Plan’s approach of child-centered community development (CCCD), which in my own words, means working with community-based groups  to lead the development process, ultimately empowering children, their families, and the wider community.

Luckily, my work really does apply to my concentration at GW.  As a member of the Labor, Education, Economic Empowerment, and Protection (LEEAP) team, I primarily work on managing our projects in those sectors, though I will focus more on economic empowerment going forward.  I serve as the liaison between our country offices and donors (USAID, WB, Gates, individual donors, etc.) in a two- way working relationship, offering technical assistance and management support.  When not working directly on program management, I also assist with the business development process and with our representation at conferences and in DC-based technical working groups.  My favorite aspect of my job is getting to work with such passionate staff from all over the world- both the country office staff and the international staff based in my own office.

OID: Tell us about your Cohort: are you all still close? Are you happy you chose a grad program with a cohort?

Katie Appel: Yes, I would say we’re still quite close as a cohort!  During school I loved how supportive of an environment my IDS classmates provided- we always had study groups or shared resources, and we weren’t competitive with one another at all (unlike horror stories from other grad programs).  I’ve found that the same sense of camaraderie has continued on after graduation, too.  We have maintained our listserv, so we spam (I use that in a loving way) each other weekly.  We use it socially (parties, events, informal get-togethers), professionally (job postings, forums, or work events), and for random things that help us get through the work day (YouTube videos, links, ridiculous discussions/debates about completely unimportant things).  As most people are still in DC, we also organize a happy hour on the 12th of every month (our graduation year). I think the greatest asset is the sheer number of people I know at other development organizations.  At times it seems like I have a connection to every other organization, and my coworkers have certainly made comments about how employable my classmates apparently were.  IDS give you an incredible network to tap into and it’s amazing how often I see my peers at events, conferences, or via email about projects or partnership opportunities.

OID: What are the biggest things you feel you gained from your Capstone experience?

Katie Appel: Capstone was an incredibly challenging yet incredibly rewarding experience.  Our Capstone project was entitled Utilizing Participatory Methods to Enrich Health-Related Baseline Data Collection in Kenya: A HERproject case study.  My teammates and I worked with a company called BSR on the transfer of HERproject, a peer health training-of-trainers model, from Asia textile factories to their pilot project in the agriculture sector in Africa.  We participated in the project launch at a rose farm in Kenya and developed a toolkit to assist local partners in identifying the health priorities of the female workers there.  Here are a few of my greatest Capstone takeaways:

  • I really benefitted from learning about my teammates’ different working styles and taking advantage of each person’s strengths.  By doing this, I think we formed a well-rounded and supportive team. This is how an office environment works and it was wonderful to get intimate practice with these teamwork skills for a year.
  • I can’t tell you how often I refer back to my Capstone deliverables.  In the past month alone I have referred back to surveys we developed for focus groups, participatory activities we adapted in our toolkit, and the design and structure of our final deliverable to inform a research document I’m compiling at work.  So while it’s a great investment of time and effort, it has certainly paid off in the long run!
  • I learned the lesson of the unpredictability of development work, which has helped me have patience when at work the circumstances of a project or a travel plan change constantly.  It’s all part of the fun, right?
  • In Kenya, I loved working with our field partner, NOPE.  We had a great working relationship with them and it taught me some key lessons for how to work with field staff that I interact with at my current job.
  • One of the greatest lessons learned was to really incorporate participatory methods at all stages of my work in the field- in meetings, project design workshops, throughout monitoring and evaluation, etc.
  • I remember having this “ah-ha!” moment the day we did our interviews on the farm with the female workers- it was a beautiful day and I had just led an activity and the women had been so forthright and engaged.  I just had this feeling that our preparatory work had paid off and I really was doing what I wanted to be doing.  So, I hope you all find that deep sense of pride in the work that you do for Capstone, and become really excited about where it will take you from there!

OID: The 1st years are about to start our Capstone adventure. As we form groups and start this process what would you recommend?

Katie Appel: My group totally lucked out because we received a Call for Proposals from an organization in late spring of our first year, applied, and were accepted for a consultancy we would use for our Capstone.  Yet while we knew who our client would be that summer, we were still thrown a lot of curveballs along the way, namely that our project start date kept getting pushed back (from Oct to March, so our scope of work had to keep changing) and our country (Kenya) was on high security watch so we were always worried we wouldn’t be cleared for travel (after applying for a waiver, we did get to go!). So my general advice would be to definitely expect the unexpected and remain open and flexible throughout the process.

Logistically speaking, my group members each had an assigned role within the group, which I think really helped us to work together:

  • Member 1- Managed deadlines, sent reminder emails, and kept a calendar
  • Member 2: Managed all email communication with the client
  • Member 3: Took all meeting notes
  • Member 4: Managed communication with Capstone advisor and organized Dropbox

We also did a good combination of in-person meetings and Skype calls because, as you’ll see, scheduling is the biggest challenge!

OID: Do you get a chance to go to the field now that you’re working? If so, tell us a little bit about that.

Yes!  I have actually traveled quite a bit with Plan in the last year.  Since last May, I have helped to lead project design workshops in Ethiopia (the Girls Empowerment through Education project), Togo (the Women & Youth Saving for Empowerment [WYSE] project), & Egypt (the Safe Future for Girls project).  I have also attended workshops or conferences in London, New Orleans, New York, and I have an upcoming trip to Seattle.  So it’s been quite a whirlwind, but I have really learned a lot from the experiences.

Since I just returned from Egypt a few weeks ago, I’ll share a little of that trip as it’s fresh in my mind.  Plan has a global campaign called Because I am a Girl (BIAAG) and I am helping to support three of the BIAAG projects funded by our US office (Ethiopia, Egypt, & Vietnam).  We spent a week with our Egyptian colleagues for the design workshop, which entailed participation of staff from community-based Plan offices and some girls themselves.  We led several participatory activities (focus group discussions, asset ranking tool, and a community mapping) with the girls, aged 11-24, in order to learn more about the situation in their communities and what they wanted to see changed.  Very clearly they indicated that their priority included increasing the safety of their communities in and around Cairo, especially at school.  They also conveyed the prominence of early marriage, FGM/C, and gender-based violence and discrimination in their communities.

A community mapping of Cairo South

A community mapping of Cairo South

The final two days of our trip, I facilitated the development of the project logframe and it was really exciting to see the project take shape!  The three main components include girls’ asset building, community sensitization on gender-based discrimination, and safety in and around schools. We’re still finalizing the design document (narrative, budget, work plan, etc.), but we’re on target for the project to launch in July.

OID: Give us advice! What do you wish you had done differently in grad school?

One thing I do wish is that I had gone to more Elliott School events and stepped out of the IDS bubble (though I did LOVE that bubble), especially since it’s hard to meet new people in the working world!

Thankfully I don’t have many regrets about grad school, but there are a few things I am really glad that I did do:

  • Took part in IDS activities– As a member of OID, I helped to organize a lot of events and I subsequently attended them.  It really helped me get to know every member of our cohort, which has been a huge asset, both socially and professionally.  And I could always count on my classmates to work hard and play hard- hanging out with them or commiserating with them was great stress relief between writing papers!
  • Interned– I worked 20-30 hours each semester while in school and I honestly think it’s one of the reasons my grad school experience was so enriching.  I really felt like I could bring things from work into the classroom and vice versa- the experiences really complemented each other and made my learning comprehensive. I had wanted to intern in various sectors- public, private, and non-profit- but I found the first internship just stuck (and also paid, which was definitely a plus)!  But I do think that trying various internships would be a great goal for current students if possible, in order to get a feel for the different types of jobs possible after graduation.
  • Took some great classes– Some of my favorite and most beneficial classes included the one-credit Participatory Planning class with Scott Yetter (this was vital to my Capstone and my role at work now), Jennifer Brinkerhoff’s Management Tools & Processes (learning about project design, logframes, and budgets from her has been the foundation of my role at work now), Dan Moshenburg’s Domestic Labor class (very theory based but really changed how I view work opportunities for women)
  • Learned about management tools and processes- I am really glad I walked away with a good understanding of logframes and budgets. I wish I had invested a bit more into my M&E and Statistics classes and retained more of the overall concepts and practices.
  • Became conversant across development sectors– I feel confident speaking about wide-ranging development issues, due to the broad overview I received in my classes at GW.

OID: What about those about to graduate? What do you wish they knew?

Katie Appel: Here are some tips for soon-to-be graduates that I’ve learned from my own experience and from peers:

The Job Search: I would recommend checking out the Society for International Development (SID) Washington chapter website for a list of their member organizations. This might point you to organizations you hadn’t known about before, and they also have a ton of networking events and newsletters and such. Here’s the website.
As you probably know, InterAction is another well-respected member alliance that has a bunch of international development/ globally-focused organizations to research. Click here to learn more.

Devex has job info and general news and information from the development community.

Lastly, alumni networks are very helpful!  Beyond tapping into GW’s Career Services and your cohort’s connections, I would definitely recommend tapping into your undergrad’s alumni network too.  There may be alumni working in DC in development or similar fields, and they are usually really happy to do informational interviews with other alumni.  I have a lot of friends who have found jobs this way because these alumni have strong allegiances to their alma mater and often pass along your resume to other staff. Don’t shy away from meeting with high level staff because they often have the clout to tell their direct reports to consider your resume!

Interviewing: I would recommend taking your project proposal and/or any Capstone deliverables to job interviews.  Print them up and bind them- employers find it very impressive! Also, I always prepare answers to these questions before job interviews so that I’ve thought through them and have some general responses ready beforehand.

Finances: I saw a financial counselor after graduation and I found it super helpful in planning my loan repayments and figuring out how much to invest in my 401k, etc.  It helped to ease the stress!