Interview: Audrey Suarez

Capstone group with smallholder oil palm farmers who were interviewed in Kade.

Capstone group with smallholder oil palm farmers who were interviewed in Kade.

OID: Thanks for talking to the OID blogosphere! Let’s start with the basics: who are you, what are you interested in? What is your concentration?

Audrey Suarez: I’m concentrating in Rural Development and Environmental Sustainability. I take a lot of environment classes (the school of engineering has some really great technically-focused courses), and classes on indigenous peoples, rural development, human rights, etc. I also take classes that focus on China, because my geographical focus is Asia and I’d love to work in China someday.

Capstone group in Ghana on a canopy walk

Capstone group in Ghana on a canopy walk

OID: What made you decide to go into development?

Audrey Suarez: I’ve always been passionate about the environment and human rights. When I studied abroad in China during undergrad, I took an anthropology course on Chinese minority cultures where we went and stayed in several different minority villages in Southwest China. These communities were mostly agricultural, and they were struggling to improve their economic status while trying to hold on to their traditional cultures. A lot of the economic development we saw was extremely environmentally degrading, which not only went against many of the cultural traditions they wanted to preserve, but was bad enough that it would most likely stall their economic growth in the future. I wanted to be a part of helping them achieve their goals in a way that wouldn’t destroy the environment. After I graduated, I worked for the Department of Defense for a few years. I decided that I wasn’t really happy doing force mobilization cost analysis, and I should probably get a degree that would help me do something I really believed in. 

OID: Do you currently work or intern? If so, where?

Audrey Suarez: I work at Paxton International, which is an international shipping company. It’s not directly related to development, but we ship project cargo and household goods for pretty much every development company/NGO in the area. I worked there before I started school, and they have been super flexible about letting me cut back to part time so I could pursue my degree. I left them for about 9 months to do an internship at Chemonics in their East Africa department, but now I’m back.

OID: What was your Capstone project about? 

Oil palm plantation in Kade, Ghana, transporting harvested palm fruits to nearby processors who will press them for oil

Oil palm plantation in Kade, Ghana, transporting harvested palm fruits to nearby processors who will press them for oil

Audrey Suarez: We are working on a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO) project called Monitoring African Food and Agricultural Policies (MAFAP). MAFAP works in 10 countries throughout Africa, analysing the market incentives and disincentives created by the food and agriculture policies in these countries. If the market analysis shows that the policies are not effective, MAFAP provides recommendations to the host countries’ governments on how to adjust them to better achieve the goals of food security and economic growth. My team developed recommendations on how to incorporate the cost of environmental externalities to agriculture into the existing economic analysis MAFAP does. Our fieldwork was a case study applying our suggested methodology to the oil palm sector in Ghana.

Woman picking palm fruits off the bunches for processing in Kade.

Woman picking palm fruits off the bunches for processing in Kade.

OID: What was the best part of your experience?

Audrey Suarez: The fieldwork! Getting the opportunity to travel to Ghana to do consulting work for a UN organisation was amazing. We had a lot of fun, learned a ton, and I even get to put it on my resume. Capstone in general is a great experience – it’s very practical/ applicable to actual development practice.

OID: Any advice to first years just starting the process?

Audrey Suarez: Not everything will work out how you want, and it’s OK. I’ve talked to a lot of my fellow second years, and everyone has had some aspect of their Capstone that they wish had been different – maybe they would have preferred to work with friends, or to meet new people through Capstone; maybe they would have preferred a different technical focus, or a different geographical focus; maybe they would have preferred a bigger, more well-known client, or a smaller grassroots organisation, etc. Nobody I talked to had 100% what they would have wished for in every single category. For the most part though, we were mostly happy with most categories. Realising that no one else was having a perfect experience that I needed to be jealous of made me feel a lot better about the aspects of my own capstone that weren’t 100%.

OID: Of course we have to ask the million dollar question: what will you do after you graduation?

Market in Kade, Ghana

Market in Kade, Ghana

Audrey Suarez: Go to Malaysia to visit my little sister, finish planning my wedding, and go out dancing a lot more often 🙂 I’ll stay in my current job until I can find something more related to my degree and my personal interests. I’m applying to some places that focus more on development, and some that focus more on environment; I’m thinking I may want to focus on getting technical expertise re: environmental work when I’m newly graduated. Having a job that I can stay at until I can find “the job” really takes a lot of the pressure off of job-searching.

Thanks to Capstone team member Haoaram Kim for the photos of the canopy walk, the group with all the farmers, and the market.

FAO offices in Ghana

FAO offices in Ghana

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