OID: Alejandro, OID probably knows you best as the OID President. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself, such as where you come from, why you chose to work in development, and what you are concentrating on in your academic studies?
Alejandro Guzman: I’m from Valencia, Venezuela, but I grew up in Caracas. I lived there until I was about 9, and then moved to the DC area where I lived until just after finishing high school. After that I moved to San Jose, Costa Rica where I went to college and was there for about 5 years. So when asked I will always say I’m Venezuelan, but it is certainly quite a mix.
My move into development has been a pretty gradual process. I was always very interested in international affairs, but somehow decided I wanted to be an Econ major in college. To say the least, that didn’t work out… So eventually made the right move and switched over to International Relations. Parallel to all this academic craziness, after only a few days in Costa Rica I joined the National Fire Corps of Costa Rica, where I served as a volunteer fire fighter, and later, with the National Urban Search and Rescue Team.
This combination of volunteer and academic interests led me to work with International Cooperation Section of the National Emergency Management Agency of Costa Rica, which gave me my first insight into international humanitarian assistance. After an extended deployment for search and rescue operations for the 2009 Cinchona earthquake in Costa Rica, and support operations for the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I was sold on humanitarian assistance. Hence, my concentration in IDS is in humanitarian assistance and complex humanitarian emergencies.
OID: Where are you this summer and what are you doing?
Alejandro Guzman: I am currently in Nairobi, Kenya, working with the Africa Zone Office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. I will be here until mid-August undertaking a series of assignments with the Disaster Management Unit, and the Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Unit. The primary tasks will be mapping bilateral donor operations with the 49 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa, and field evaluations of operations in Juba, South Sudan, which has just been recognized as the 189th National Society in the Movement.
OID: How did you get this internship/opportunity? Was it difficult to find a position outside of the US? f I recall correctly, the last time we talked you were going to South Africa. What can you tell us about being flexible in development?
Alejandro Guzman: I think flexible is the perfect word in this case. From my first contact with IFRC to my landing in Nairobi, it was a mere 3 weeks. I started my search pretty late, and many of the possible leads did not come together. Basically, after exhausting all my networking contacts, I just started “cold call” emailing a couple dozen organizations. Amongst those emails, one was directed to the Director of the IFRC Africa Zone. To my surprise he responded within hours, and now I am here. I didn’t make it in time for any of the deadlines for the grant applications, so I had to squeeze a bit more from those student loans to cover a large part of this trip. But already the benefits of this experience are proving to be well worth the investment.
(Editor’s note: if you are thinking about working or interning abroad next summer, try to get started early. The International Internship fellowship deadline for funding is in March, and although GSCD is helpful in aiding with your search, they won’t be able to hand you a position.)
OID: You are one of IDS’ international students. Does this in any way inform your decisions about courses to take and jobs you may apply for? Did it impact your decision to study abroad this summer in any way? Do you have any recommendations (for courses, internships, or time management…whatever you think would be useful!) to the incoming first years?
Alejandro Guzman: Coming to the program with an international background has certainly shaped many of my choices. One of my primary objectives coming into IDS was to break my heavy Latin-America and Caribbean background and focus. So this led to me focusing many of my research efforts on East Africa. I also wanted to expand my knowledge base from disaster response to humanitarian assistance in conflict and complex emergencies. This has certainly influenced many of the classes I have taken. The Elliott School has a limited selection of classes in this field such as Care of Children in Complex Emergencies and Information Technologies for Crisis Response. Luckily the public health school and the Disaster and Emergency Management Program at the engineering school have been able to fill this gap well with classes like Humanitarian Operations, International Disaster Management, Emergency and Crisis Management, Disaster Recovery and Organizational Continuity, among others. Now there are probably no classes (at least that I have found) geared to fill the programmatic gap between humanitarian assistance and long term development. This is where much of my research has been focused. I know this has been the case for some of my fellow classmates also focusing on humanitarian assistance.
So my primary recommendation to incoming students, not just international students, is to be as resourceful as possible to mold the program in order to serve you academic and professional interest. Luckily the program is designed to allow this. So take advantage of the endless courses offered by other schools at GW or elsewhere within the consortium, contact as many organizations in your field of interest as you can, whether it be for internship opportunities or simply for informational interviews just to learn about what they do. Being a student again will grant you endless freedoms to contact and be well received by many organizations, which you may not have once you are back in the “real world” – so take advantage of that.
OID: What do you think will be the best part about this experience or what has been the best thing so far?
Alejandro Guzman: Although we have the amazing opportunity to attend one of the best IA schools in the world, it is very hard to understand how far removed from the realities of the developing world we are until you have the opportunity for true “field” experience. Being here, it has become very clear that no class discussion, no book, nor fancy think tank event can replace the value of experiencing first-hand the challenges of development. D.C. is likely one of the best hubs for professional advancement, but the small bubble you become accustomed to is hard to break.
Last semester I had the opportunity to publish an article on conflict sensitive development in Northern Uganda, yet I had never been to Uganda or even met anyone from Northern Uganda. Then, a few days ago I met a young Red Cross volunteer from the pastoral region of Karamoja (one of the focus regions of my article), and as I shook his hand I couldn’t help but think – “wow, I’ve read about you!” This experience led me to truly understand the value of my time here.
OID: What has been the most challenging part of this experience so far?
Alejandro Guzman: The extensive security and other limitations which delegates (fancy name for expats) must abide by are often quite ridiculous to me. Although many are meant to ensure the security and well-being of those coming from abroad, they very often lead to a deep rooted separation from the realities of the place and the people you are working with. This has likely been the most difficult aspect of my stay here.
OID: How will this experience change the courses you take and the types of jobs you apply for down the road?
Alejandro Guzman: This experience has been crucial in solidifying my commitment to humanitarian assistance as the field I want to be in. It has also been very important in identifying the necessary skill set for this line of work, which will certainly shape the classes I will take to help build this skill set.
It has also been a vital opportunity to build much of the network that will likely be necessary to secure an opportunity in this region once I am done with the program. So, hopefully that will work out.