A Political Scientist in Development: An Interview with Kaan Jittiang

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Kaan (right) at graduation with his mentor.

Hi Kaan, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What brought you to the Elliott School?

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My name is Bhanubhatra Jittiang, but most of my friends call me “Kaan”. In Thailand, where I’m from, almost everyone has both a real name and a nickname. Kaan is a shorter version of my Thai nickname—Kaankaew.

Before coming to the Elliott School, I was living in Thailand. I graduated with a B.A. in Political Science in 2011 from Chulalongkorn University and then spent two years working towards my Ph.D. in Political Science at the same institution, until I completed my coursework and passed the qualified examination. I was also a teaching and a research assistant. I came to DC because I was granted a scholarship from the Royal Thai Government to pursue graduate studies abroad. After finishing both the Master and PhD, I’m required by the scholarship to work as a university lecturer in Thailand.

I chose the IDS program at the Elliott School because I wanted to study development in Washington, DC, a center for international affairs. While I will be working in academia in the future, the IDS program gives me a chance to gain practical knowledge and expertise. I think this is very important because it will allow me to understand the practical limitations to theory. I’ve chosen democracy and governance as my concentration and want to learn about development from a political scientist’s perspective.

 You have decided to write a thesis instead of completing the capstone. Why? Tell us a little about your topic.

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Enjoying Washington, D.C. with friends

It was a big decision to opt-out the capstone and choose to write a thesis. I hope to gain a strong research background for my doctoral studies.  More importantly, working on the thesis will allow me to deeply investigate the topic in which I am particularly interested.

I will investigate the No-Dam Movement, an environmental movement in Thailand. I am researching how social media is used to gain supporters, mobilize them offline, and to urge the government to reconsider its plan to construct a dam in a national forest area.

The case study that I will investigate in Thailand is interesting because  social media has never before played such a vital role in mobilizing popular support for an environmental cause, especially to urge the government to reconsider its plans and to halt the construction of a dam. This topic will allow me learn more about social movements, social media, and environmental politics, topics that are not seriously investigated in Thailand. I hope my education in the US will provide me with expertise on these issues so I can contribute more in my home country when I return.

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Kaan participates in the Young Leaders Program, The 25th Asia – Pacific Roundtable

How has it been adjusting to life in Washington DC? What are some of the challenges to being an international student? What are the benefits?

Although I previously lived in the US for a year long student exchange from 2005 – 2006, I was still afraid of re-adjusting to life in the US before arriving last year. However, living in Washington, DC has not been difficult for me because it is a very international city. I can easily find foods and other things that I prefer. Moreover, living in DC allows me to meet, talk to, and exchange views with new people who have various backgrounds and come from several countries around the world.

The biggest challenge for me is that I do not like living in a busy city (though I had lived in Bangkok for several years before coming to the US). I have to balance the time that I spend in the city and the time that I go out to the countryside. Luckily, I can easily escape to the forest in DC since there are several huge green spaces located in and around the city.

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Hands On Relief Work: Laurel Jansury on Volunteering in the Philippines

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IDS Student Laurel Jansury

By Laurel Jansury, GWU IDS Student

I could never understand how people could fall completely head over heels in love within a matter of days. I never understood, that is, until I went to the Philippines. Over winter break I had the opportunity to spend two and a half weeks doing earthquake relief on the island of Bohol.

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The main road to our camp. Periodically along they way we would see these signs painted on the road

On October 15th, 2013 at 8:12 am a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit the Visayas region of the Philippines with a majority of the damage being sustained in Bohol. The earthquake caused over 35,000 families to lose their homes. Unfortunately for those affected, Super Typhoon Haiyan hit 23 days later with a ferocity that caused many relief organizations to shift funding and man power to the neighboring island of Leyte. While this lack of aid had a detrimental effect on the population, many volunteers, like myself, came to the program because of their interest in volunteering for Super Typhoon Haiyan relief.  I had previously wanted to work on natural disaster relief but wasn’t able to because of school or other commitments. This time, since school was on break for the winter holidays, I jumped at the opportunity.

The organization I volunteered through, All Hands Volunteers,  focuses on deconstructing unsafe houses, allowing the residents to be able to begin to rebuild. Knowing that a majority of the work would be manual labor I was unsure what the experience would be like and I definitely did not expect it to enjoy it so much. At 7 am every morning we would load up onto the jeepneys, which took us to our work sites for the day, and come home around 4:30 pm, with a break at 11 for lunch. Teams of 5 to 8 people would go to different sites throughout the area surrounding our camp. The deconstruction included pulling tin sheets off roofs, prying apart wooden support beams, sledge hammering concrete columns and moving loads upon loads of rubble. While we were doing the work to help others, they weren’t the only ones benefiting from the work; there is nothing like sledge hammering and some creative visualization to get out a bit of stress!

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The team loading up on the jeepneys to go to work in the morning.

The most rewarding part of our day by far was the ride to and from the sites we were working on. Easily recognizable (mostly because we were the only vehicle on the road with 10 gringos riding on the top), children would come out of their homes to yell hello and wave to us. Seeing their smiles and enthusiasm gave us the strength we needed to continue to do our work day after day.

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Before and after cleanup efforts

While the work was gratifying, my fellow volunteers are what made the experience so much fun. Living in a communal space like our camp, eating, working and spending your free time together helps you to get to know people pretty quickly. Nothing bonds two people together more quickly than commiserating over flooded tents! Though all the volunteers came from such diverse backgrounds, they came together because, for no matter how short the time period, we all wanted to help. By the time I left our project, we had 147 volunteers from 17 countries, who contributed 14160 hours of labor and finished deconstructing 71 houses, 5 chapels, 3 schools, 1 town hall and 1 church.

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The All Hands Project Bohol volunteer group

Though I knew that this experience would give me new insight into doing development work, I never expected that it would actually change my life so completely. Having completely changed my concentration and area of focus, from international education to humanitarian assistance, I am already planning to return to the Philippines for the summer to continue the relief work there.

5 Tips for Landing a Summer Internship Abroad

We talked to a few second year IDS students about their experiences last summer, how they found their internships, and tips they would offer those looking for summer opportunities. Here’s what they said:

  1. Start early and plan ahead. Now is the perfect time to start reaching out! Many organizations have formal internship processes, so make sure you research and make all deadlines. However, Morgan Blackburn, who interned at Karen’s Women Organization in Thailand added, “don’t be discouraged if something comes together at the last minute. Most organizations are so busy they can’t even bother to think about summer plans in the winter.”
  2. Determine what you want to gain from your internship experience. Of course, traveling abroad for a summer with an organization sounds fun and exciting! But you also want to make the most of your experience in order to leverage it for future career opportunities. As Jason James, who interned with Sustainable Bolivia in Cochabamba, Bolivia last summer advises, “Make sure you have an idea of the type of work you want to do and the experience you want to gain and make sure the internship will give you that.”
  3. Don’t forget about small organizations! Yes, many people choose to intern with big name organizations, but you often have more room to explore your interests and learn a variety of things at smaller organizations. Anne Sprinkel, who interned with Mercy Corps in Nigeria, suggests reaching out to small organizations working in your area of interest and pitching what you can offer them. She explains, “it takes more work to contact them, sell them on what you can provide for a few months, and probably find your own housing, but in the end I think they’re a great opportunity for good experience.”
  4. Use your network. Talk to professors and other students about potential organizations to reach out to. Sometimes, professors  have contacts at organizations that can find you an internship even if it’s not officially posted. Kevin Robbins, who interned with iDE Bangladesh explains, “The important step was finding a contact in the country I wanted to visit. Then he introduced me to someone else, and she introduced me to someone else, and that person had a position for me. I had more luck using the relationships of others abroad than internet searches, in large part because so many of the opportunities there never make it online.”
  5. Be persistent! Reach out first by email to let your contact know who you are and what you are looking for. As people and organizations are often extremely busy, it is important to write a couple of follow-up emails and be prepared to call them directly at some point. Simon Boehler, who interned with the German development agency GIZ in Kosovo advises, “Don’t take it personally if people do not respond immediately!”

Special thanks to Anne Sprinkel, Alejandro Guzman, Jason James, Katya Verkhovsky, Simon Boehler, Kevin Robbins and Morgan Blackburn for their input!

Niyara Alakhunova on Going Back to School, DC, and Changing Perspectives

Niyara Alakhunova

Niyara Alakhunova

OID: Tell us a little bit about yourself: Where are you from and what interests you most about development? 

Niyara Alakhunova: I come from Kyrgyzstan – a small post-Soviet country located in the heart of Central Asia that gained independence 22 years ago. It is still overwhelmed by social and economic problems, which affect its development. I graduated from the American University in Central Asia with a BA in Business Administration and frankly never thought that my focus would become so global. In 2007 I started working for a USAID-funded project on agricultural development. In my work I applied my business administration skills in a very different but relevant context, helping farmers to cope with difficulties they face in the undeveloped agricultural sector. I was part of the implementation team working with the local communities with scarce agricultural resources to rehabilitate the irrigation system on dehydrated and stony lands to make it suitable for harvesting. That is how I began to gain first-hand experience in development. Additionally, I was involved in several small-scale humanitarian and charity initiatives which made me realize that I am capable of being helpful even if I can change lives of a few. At that point of my life I understood that I need a deeper knowledge of development and how it operates.

Violent ethnic clashes that happened in June 2010 in the south of my country mostly affected my desire to help people and it came clear to me that working towards development, ensuring social justice and human security should become a great pursuit of mine. I still don’t believe I have the chance to study at a university as prestigious as George Washington, and it’s great to be in DC, where so much of development theory and action takes place–it’s like being in the center of development.

On a visit to a project's livestock farm

On a visit to a project’s livestock farm

Niyara on a trip with Kyrgyz farmers to Russia

Niyara on a trip with Kyrgyz farmers to Russia

OID: You’re halfway through your first semester: has anything about your interests changed or been challenged thus far?

Niyara Alakhunova: Before I came here, I thought I would concentrate on agricultural development and food security. However, as I started learning different sides of development, its’ history and approaches,  talking to professors and groupmates, and participating in Elliott school social events, I was overwhelmed by so many new and interesting things I want to learn! By the time we had to submit our plan of study I made up my mind to concentrate on conflict and development, humanitarian assistance, and human rights. As I look at the list of courses available at GW; I’m always so eager to take more than I am eligible to!

OID: Tell us about your cohort and what aspects you enjoy or find challenging about being a part of it.

Niyara Alakhunova: First of all, I have to admit that IDSers are the best! I am very happy to be a part of such a great team of smart and interesting people. They make me feel motivated to learn more, and to develop further. It was a bit difficult to keep up with them in the early beginning, although they all told they didn’t see it! We have students from Mexico, India, Pakistan, Senegal, and lots of other countries, so it is always fun to talk about different cultures!

OID: As you are from a developing country, do you feel that your insight into class discussions differs from others in your classes?

Niyara Alakhunova: Class discussions are my favorite, particularly our Cornerstone class debates on different aspects of development. As our professors like to say, we have to learn so much from our peers. Yes, I definitely feel that being from a developing country and on top of that representing two ethnic minorities in from that country, my insight into class discussion is different from others’. I like to compare the theoretical knowledge I get from the readings with the reality of living in a developing country versus the experiences of my groupmates from a developed country. I am very grateful to Professor Fink, who encouraged my class participation and always supported my ideas.  Dr. Sean Roberts (our Cornerstone professor and the head of the IDS program) has been working in my country for two years and it has been great to meet a person who has lived in my country and knows a lot about it.

Niyara on a visit to Moscow

Niyara on a visit to Moscow

OID: You worked for several years before going to grad school. How do you feel that helped you, and how has your grad school experience differed from undergrad?

Niyara Alakhunova: I worked for 7 years before going to grad school. It was a hard decision for me because I had gotten used to the work atmosphere, schedule, and way of life you can have being employed full-time, (and the things you can afford being employed!) I feel that this experience has helped me a lot, as I am able to look at development through the lens of my previous work and it definitely enriched my knowledge of how development works in practice. That said, being a student again is very challenging. It took me some time to get used to my new graduate school life. I did my undergrad in Kyrgyzstan, at the American University in Central Asia, and my grad school experience as of now is very different, not only because I’m studying in a different country, but also due to the work load, content of the coursework, greater focus on discussions and analytical thinking. My life has become different here, and it has changed me in a positive way. Feeling the spirit of school again is amazing! Grad school is tough, but it is rewarding too. Dare to dream, and get rid of any fears in accomplishing your goal!

OID: If you could draft the perfect position based on your interests, what would it be, and where would you work?

Niyara Alakhunova: I don’t set any limits in terms of my career interests in development, but I would be very much interested in working with conflict prevention, poverty reduction and human security programs at the UN, USAID, OXFAM or CARE. I have recently read a case about the implementation of a rights-based approach CARE used to increase accountability of development institutions and governments, and I was truly excited about their work and results. Being influenced by Amartya Sen’s book of “Development as Freedom”, I want my future job to be focused on removing “unfreedoms” that make a lot of people around the world suffer from inequalities, poverty and other social ills.

Wherever life takes Niyara, OID expects big things!

Wherever life takes Niyara, OID expects big things!

Rachel Clement on Gender, Youth, & Urbanization

OID: Rachel, tell us more about yourself and why you chose development?

Rachel Clement

Rachel Clement

Rachel Clement: I’m originally from Colorado (and I miss it terribly especially when it’s hot and muggy here in DC!), but have spent several years working in Austria, Costa Rica, and Ecuador. I majored in Sociology and Spanish in undergrad. Professionally I have spent time working for a small NGO in a rural village in the Andes in Ecuador and as a Bilingual Program Specialist for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Colorado. Both instances helped me to realize that my calling was development.

Rachel and her "little sister" before indoor skydiving in Denver

Rachel and her “little sister” before indoor skydiving in Denver

At BBBS I interviewed volunteers, children and families and matched children ages 7-12 with suitable adult mentors. I mentored a girl for over 5 years, and still consider her my “little sister.” Working with youth domestically who were living in poverty and seeing them rise above so many challenges and obstacles and make their own paths in life really inspired me. While I was in Ecuador I learned a lot about development, and felt frustration at my own lack of knowledge. The organization I worked for was trying to build tourism, invest in human capital by building computer and English-language skills, as well as improve  water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems. The water in the village was not potable–you could actually see things floating in it–and there was no formal road in to the village to bring supplies (such as water and medicine) or to transport the children to the next village over for secondary schooling. I attended several community meetings and there were several times when the concerns of the community did not align with those of the NGO. Being an insider/outsider allowed me to see both sides, but not how to resolve the issues that were presented. There were a lot of factors for the NGO to work on, and they tried to work with the community on a lot of them, but I felt that going to graduate school would allow me to see the “big picture” of development and program management so that I could be prepared to tackle the processes involved in a development project.

OID: So, why did you decide to stay in DC this summer and are you happy that you did it?

Rachel Clement: I’m really happy I decided to stay in DC this summer. I was able to attend several lectures that I wouldn’t have had time for with school and interning during the school year.  I heard from top people from the UNDP, Population Council, Oxfam—just recently I saw Rajiv Shah  talk about women in Afghanistan.  It’s amazing to have the opportunity to hear people you read about in class speak and often have the chance to talk to them afterwards and ask questions. It really makes you question what you hear and read in class in an intelligent and critical way. It’s also a great way to explore topics that aren’t  necessarily in your area of concentration, and to hear different points of view.

I’ve been an intern with The Coalition for Adolescent Girls since February and when I was offered the position I knew it would be through December (and that I couldn’t go abroad.) The Coalition is made up of 40+ member organizations who come from all areas of development.  It’s the perfect internship for me because gender and youth are both cross-cutting issues and members of the Coalition address both from all areas—economics, health, advocacy, education, and more. It’s given me a really healthy perspective on what is and what isn’t being done for girls in development as well as which areas I want to specialize in. So, while I was sad to not be in the field I think the experiences I gained are well worth it. It also afforded me the opportunity to take my research methods class over the summer, which means I’m better prepared (and able to go part-time second semester) for the IDS capstone project.

OID: Your concentrations include Youth and Gender. What got you interested in these aspects of development, and how have you found them to be inter-related?

Rachel Clement: I was in a sorority in college and am the kind of girl who loves wearing a dress–I don’t think I’m my mother’s generation of feminist. I didn’t start out identifying myself as a feminist, which would make my poor mother cringe to hear, but in all of my previous professional experiences I realized how much of how we interact with the world around us is impacted by gender. Everything from how you walk to school or work, to what you wear and what you say, to what kinds of jobs you take is impacted by gender. And yet, traditionally a lot of development policies and programs lumped people together as though men and women—and boys and girls—all have the same needs.

A group of GWU students participating in a Day of the Girl advocacy campaign. This year's theme is girls' education.

A group of GWU students participating in a Day of the Girl advocacy campaign for ABC News. This year’s theme is girls’ education.

I’m passionate about girls in development, which is why I am concentrating on youth and gender in urban spaces . I’m a huge proponent of consistent collection of sex and age disaggregated data (and I’m not alone). (If you’re interested in gender but don’t have space for it on your schedule, DevEx made this list of the “top 10” books you should read and it includes everything from value chains to mainstreaming. It’s not comprehensive but might be a good starting place!) I decided to focus on young women because I think often they are the most overlooked part of any population. In most cultures, including my own, we are taught to be quiet and respectful while boys are taught to speak up and dominate classroom discussions, relationships, politics, business, you name it. And I don’t think all men are bad or that all men hit women, but I do think there are a lot of girls and women whose voices aren’t heard, and I want to help amplify them, and give them a place within the world and their own communities.

Urban Quito, Ecuador

Urban Quito, Ecuador

I chose urban spaces based in large part on my own professional experiences with youth in urban and rural Ecuador and urban Denver. The global trend, particularly in the developing world, is towards cities and urbanization. About half of the world lived in cities as of 2000, and it is projected that by 2050, seven out of ten people will live in urban areas. I was born and raised in a city and feel I have a better understanding of urban issues and aspirations, and living in rural Ecuador really helped me to define that I don’t have that same passion for rural areas. One of the big issues we saw there was a rural to urban migration of young people, so I don’t think the two are separate issues, either. I think building good cities that provide economic and educational opportunities for young people can also increase the kinds of migration we see, and help to improve rural areas, keep young people at home to finish their education, and to be more financially stable in general. I’m hopeful that by concentrating on vulnerable populations in an emerging area of need will position me where I can be marketable and of the greatest use.

Rural Pistishi, Ecuador

Rural Pistishi, Ecuador

OID: You have previous work experience working with domestic youth, how has this impacted your view of youth and international development?

Rachel Clement: I think sometimes people forget how big a little thing can be, which was really brought home to me working with youth domestically. I paired children with one-to-one adult mentors. Usually the mentors took their mentees to do fun things like go out to ice cream, to the park to play, or maybe work together on homework. We really discouraged spending money (and encouraged spending time) with the kids. I was fortunate to see several of our “Littles” graduate from high school and move on to pursue tertiary education. Interacting with the kids everyday really brought home to me how having those support systems—whether it’s family, friends, or a role model or mentor—can make all the difference for someone. I didn’t start out with this concentration when I entered GWU, but through the cornerstone and other courses came to firmly believe that interventions made in childhood and adolescence can be the most impactful long-term investment one can make. I often think of the children that I supported at BBBS and about what a big difference simply having one extra person who acts as your cheerleader can make, and how enormous of an impact organizations that promote healthy youth outcomes and supported mentorships can make.

OID: You’ve completed a few internships while in the IDS program. Can you speak to how you found these internships and how they have benefited your studies at the Elliott School?

Rachel Clement: I found my first internship through the Elliott School Career Center job website. I had an interest in gender and a vague interest in youth and Plan International posted two positions related to adolescent girls. The position I applied for was a research internship looking at funding that is either targeted at interventions for or eventually reaches adolescent girls. From this internship I began focusing most of my class papers on adolescent girls and the various interventions that are being used currently. The thing with writing a 20 page paper, and doing it well, is that you have to be interested in what you’re writing about and I found that I always had too much to say and too many pages to write! From this, I began looking at organizations that have programs specifically working with and for adolescent girls. Naturally when the Coalition for Adolescent Girls advertised an internship opening, I applied immediately! I think interning while going to school is the perfect balance. I was in a youth class with a professor who helped to write a major US government youth policy. Actually talking to the person who wrote the policy was a truly memorable experience. That, coupled with people who are working to translate that policy into practice, gave me a really full view of all of the moving pieces that go into changing development policies, priorities, and programs.

OID: What was the best advice you received before your first year? What is your best advice for incoming IDS students?

Rachel Clement: In the fall, about one month into my first semester, one of my friends died. I was still new to DC, and my cohort really came through. I remember the now-President of OID, Alejandro, stopping me outside of Gelman and saying, “we are your family now. You have to deal with this, and we are here for you.” I think that’s what really makes IDS unique: you’re in this cohort of people from such diverse backgrounds and interests, but everyone is really compassionate and caring. We edit each other’s papers during finals, host dinners and study groups, and are just really there for each other as a support system. I don’t know of another program that has that. It doesn’t have to be something as tragic as a friend’s death: being in a new city or a new program can be really stressful and isolating for anyone. Just know that your whole cohort feels some degree of the same thing and that they (and the second years!) are here for you, and can and will make that transition easier. I’d also echo some of the advice given by other second-years: don’t worry too much if you don’t have all the answers right now. Take on internships, even if they are unpaid or part-time. Attend as many events in DC as you can, even if you don’t think they are in your area of interest. You’ll figure it out (and if you stay in DC and want to take a class you couldn’t fit in, GWU has really good alumni rates for auditing classes!)

GWU students listen as World Bank President Jim Yong Kim's new strategy to end global poverty.

GWU students listen as World Bank President Jim Yong Kim’s new strategy to end global poverty.

OID:  What is (are) the best class(es) you’ve taken at GW? Do you have any recommendations on how to find the best schedule?

Rachel Clement: That is a tough question. Best classes: I loved the Gender and Development class with Dr. Fink. I was a little intimidated to take two classes with the co-chair of the department my first semester but I am very happy I did. It was great to see Fink in her element and I think she brought to that class the perfect balance of structure and debate. We had some really eye-opening and thought-provoking discussions that made me decide on gender as a concentration (and that I wanted to look more into youth interventions as well). I still reference the readings in meetings and other classes I’ve had. I think other interviewees have echoed this but Mr. Yetter’s Participatory Planning class was also incredible. I wrote my final paper for that class as a re-imagined second-chance at my experiences in Ecuador, and what that would have looked like using participatory methodology. It was phenomenal to apply a real-world experience in a class like that.

Best schedule: Don’t give up! Search other schools in GWU at the Consortium. This semester I’m actually only taking one Elliott class; the others are in the School of Public Health and one via the Consortium. Taking classes outside of Elliott is an extra step (you have to have your professor, advisor, and the registrar sign an additional form for consortium, and sometimes really justify your class choices for other GWU schools) but for me it’s been worth the hassle! I really appreciate that about GWU: since I have been able to hone down my concentration through my core coursework and the papers I wrote in my first year, I can take classes now to apply that knowledge and further increase my skills as they relate to my concentration. My class with Dr. Ruiz on Adolescent Health is really engaging and it’s interesting to get a non-development perspective from my fellow classmates. I’m taking an urban development class at American University and we are actually doing a service learning project with a community here in DC. I applied to AU and GWU initially, so this is a great way to get the best of both worlds! The class is also really diverse: about half international students and half-Americans, with several students from business and law perspectives.  I’m also taking Introduction to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course which is out of my comfort zone and fast-paced but I am loving it thus far and  can’t wait to apply it in urban contexts with youth-oriented services. I’m contemplating taking Advanced GIS next; I think the way youth can and cannot move around a city and obtain services like education, transportation, and sexual/reproductive healthcare is intriguing and directly impacts effects of programmatic interventions.  I am confident that having a GIS skill-set can help me provide additional expertise once I enter the workforce.

Nikhil Gehani on Career Changes and Development Challenges

Nikhil Gehani

Nikhil Gehani, studying with a friend

OID: Thanks for talking to OID today! Tell us a little bit about yourself: where are you from, what makes you passionate about development, and why did you choose GWU for your Master’s degree in IDS?

Nikhil Gehani: I’m from Michigan and have actually spent my entire life there. So, as surprising as it sounds, this is my first time moving away from home! After graduating with a BA in Marketing from Michigan State University, I spent five years working in Detroit for a couple of advertising agencies (assigned to, of course, two of “The Big 3” accounts). Working in Detroit, I would see the effects of poor policy decisions, corruption and a single-source economy. But I also saw the resurgence of a city rebuilding itself through innovation, entrepreneurship and community involvement.

The Detroit skyline

The Detroit skyline

I wouldn’t say that’s the reason I decided to pursue a degree, but it definitely impacted my thinking and approach. It forced me to think about development each day. I chose to come to GW for a number of obvious reasons (ie location, prestige, curriculum). But what really made the choice clear was a conversation I had with Dr. Roberts in the spring. If I can simplify it, he basically said that the program encouraged students to challenge long-held assumptions, to be critical of the status quo and then to get out in the field and do something about it. That was refreshing to hear, especially from a program director. I accepted the offer later that week.

OID: What specific areas of development are you interested in and why?

Nikhil Gehani: As of now, my focus is on entrepreneurial and enterprise development. I’ve always wanted to build businesses and I enjoy building brands and market strategies. In many parts of the US, entrepreneurs and small- and medium-sized enterprises have a plethora of resources to tap into whether that is financial or knowledge support. But in other parts of the world the soil isn’t as fertile, so to speak. Yet, there are very capable, competent and committed entrepreneurs all around the world who are pulling their communities out of poverty through job creation and market development. I don’t want to dictate how they should build their business. I just want to help in any way I can, whether that is raising capital or crafting their brand strategy.

Lafayette Greens in Detroit

Lafayette Greens, an urban farm in Detroit

OID: You’re making a seemingly big career change—what made you decide to get out of advertising and into development?

Nikhil Gehani: I’m not sure I see the move as a complete departure from advertising into development, at least in terms of what I want to do with my career. I mean, in terms of moving from one industry to another, absolutely it was a big switch (and seemingly random to most people). The ad industry is full of brilliant, creative and dedicated people. It was difficult to leave the agency world and some of the perks that came with it (let’s just say the beer and wine fridges were a nice touch). But there is plenty of overlap between advertising and development (not just the drinking part), especially in entrepreneurial and enterprise development. We built campaign strategies, brands and, ultimately, businesses. Now, using that experience along with what I’m learning at the Elliott School, I want to help build businesses in the areas that need them most.

OID: Tell us your first impressions: How is your cohort so far? How has grad school differed from how you imagined it would be?

Nikhil Gehani: Let’s just say the first week was extremely humbling. I spoke and debated (and, yes, drank) with insanely smart people from all over the world with fascinating backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. In the few short weeks that we’ve been here I’ve expanded my thinking, challenged nearly all of my assumptions, and revised my approach to development (more than a few times). As for grad school expectations, well, I had a very narrow focus on what I wanted to do. But seeing the different perspectives has made me realize there are other aspects I need to consider. Development has many facets and seems to become more complex each week.

Nikhil, demonstrating an important facet of development work

Nikhil, demonstrating an oft-important facet of development work

OID: Where are you currently interning and how did you find this opportunity?

Nikhil Gehani: Right now I’m interning at Encite Capital, a start-up that not only invests financial capital in Haitian-based companies, but also provides consulting and mentoring services. It’s a great organization and the co-founders are really inspiring and talented people who have already taught me an enormous amount about the sector. I stumbled upon them while reading about impact investing and, after poring over their website, it was clear that this was the organization I had been searching for. I spent a week meticulously composing an email (that may or may not have sounded completely desperate) and, after a few email exchanges, phone calls and in-person interviews, I joined them as a part-time intern. I’ve been there for about a month and absolutely love it.

Interview with Farrah Ahamad

Farrah Ahamad outside the White House

Farrah Ahamad outside the White House

OID: Hi, Farrah! Thank you for so much for talking to OID today. Please start out by telling us a something about yourself: where are you from, what makes you passionate about development, and why did you decide to pursue a Master’s in International Development at GWU?

Farrah Ahamad: Well I’m from the twin island state of Trinidad and Tobago and I did received my undergraduate degree in Business from Boston University, concentrating in International Management. Being from the developing world, I really wanted to study International Development to try to learn more about how I can improve the lives of the people of Trinidad and the Caribbean region.

Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago

I chose GWU for a number of reasons. No one can deny that the location of the campus is ideal to gain the most exposure during my time in grad school. Conventions, discussions, conferences and international speakers are the norm in DC and the insight that you can gain from attending these events is invaluable (not to mention the chances for networking!) I also loved the flexibility of the programs, and the way students can tailor their classes to pursue the more specific or broad concentrations that they want. Also, the chance to learn from and work with professors, academics and practitioners from the field allow students in this program an inside look into the world of international development and what they can expect when they graduate and begin working. I believe that students get the most all-round experience from GWU and I couldn’t be happier with my choice.

OID: What is your area of concentration and how did you come to find that? Any particular classes that you’ve taken that relate to your concentration that you highly recommend, or that helped you realize where your passion lay?

Farrah Ahamad: I have chosen to concentrate in Civil Society and Private Sector Development. I chose this because I am very passionate about the power of the people, but I also understand the realistic need to include the resources of the public sector to create a mutually beneficial relationship for the private, public and civic sectors. I believe this belief came out of all of my experiences, including my time living in the developed world, my time studying business and the private sector, and my time studying abroad in London, England and working in Parliament. It all came together after some research, and realizing that International Development was a field that brought them all together in a way that would help me help my country and the rest of the developing world.

OID: Where are you this/these summer and how did you get this position?

Farrah Ahamad: This summer, I am interning at Population Services International (PSI). I got this position after applying through their website and doing three rounds of interviews. PSI is a public health firm that focuses on social marketing and franchising to create sustainable change in the developing world. I am learning a lot about how partnerships with the private sector, as well as involvement on the local community can create sustainable change that benefits the people who need it most.

OID: It seems like a lot of the IDS students are abroad this summer. Obviously we are all jealous of them, so staying in DC must have been a tough choice! How did you make that decision and how do you feel that your work experience will help you once you graduate?

Farrah Ahamad: Personally, while I believe that field work will do nothing but enhance the grad school experience and give insight to what it takes to work in development, I feel that my time would better be spent in the space between field workers and those in charge.  I know that this is where my skills would be most needed back in the Caribbean and since that is my ultimate goal, working in this space rather than going abroad will give me more of the kind of experience I will need to be successful in the arena I want to eventually work in.

OID: The first years are about the start their first year of grad school. What do you wish someone had told you when you started grad school? What do you wish you had done differently or better?

Farrah Ahamad: Don’t freak out! You don’t have to have it all figured out in your first semester. EVERYONE changes their plan of study at least once, so relax, get the broadest range of experiences that you can so that you can eventually make a decision that fits you best. Go to as many events that you can, even those that you don’t think you are very interested in. You may be surprised what you learn and what your path is supposed to be. (Editor’s note: check out the OID calendar for some great upcoming events.)

OID: Any class recommendations or favorite study spots that you want to share with the group?

Farrah Ahamad: Many people may not agree with this, but Gelman Library was always a fav of mine. (Editor’s note: it has been newly remodeled!) Everyone knew they could find me on the third floor in the weeks leading up to finals. There are always lots of people in there which gives you a bit of motivation that you aren’t alone during finals…and the Starbucks’ 24/7 supply of coffee doesn’t hurt either.

Event Recap: Welcome and Welcome Back

WelcomeHello and welcome to the class of 2015 (and beyond for those of you enrolled in dual programs or taking classes part-time!) and welcome back to the class of 2014! The OID board hopes that everyone had a fun and productive summer–and we look forward to hearing all about it! For the first-years: please feel free to reach out to the OID board (oid@gwu.edu) at any time if you have questions, want to be interviewed for the blog, or are just interested in getting more involved. Remember that this is a student-run organization so we want this organization to accurately reflect your interests and we’ll be turning the reins over to you next semester–so get involved!

Several Elliott students enjoy the views from the City View room and catch up about summer activities!

Several Elliott students enjoy the views from the City View room and catch up about summer activities!

If you are a first-year in the IDS program, reach out to your mentor. We’ve been through what you’re about to embark on and can help guide you–or at least commiserate with you! Come to the OID events because it’s a great way to meet second-years and learn about internships, class recommendations, and to discuss development. Hopefully many of you came to the Welcome Back event last Friday. It was a chance to reunite, meet for the first time, and become acquainted with our professors.

The views from the Elliott School’s City View room are always breathtaking, and meeting everyone (and seeing old faces again!) is a wonderful opportunity. Obama didn’t come by personally, but he did fly over to say hello.

Obama flies by the Lincoln Memorial (and later, closer to Elliott) during the Welcome Back event

Obama flies by the Lincoln Memorial (and later, closer to Elliott) during the Welcome Back event

Thank you to everyone at Elliott who organized it, and to Graduate School Student Forum (GSF) for the after-party event at Sky Bar. To those of you unfamiliar, join GSF for great events, networking, and fun here and/or here.  As we enter this year, we hope that everyone remembers the sense of community that we are so fortunate to have at Elliott. The OID board looks forward to another great year with all of you!

IDS students catch up at Elliott

Elliott School students catching up at Sky Bar

all of usElliott School students at the GSF after party event!

Allison DeMaio on Mozambique and Business in Development

OID: Thanks for talking to OID today. Tell everyone about yourself: where you’re from, why you’re getting your Master’s at GWU, your concentration, etc.

Allison DeMaio

Allison DeMaio

Allison DeMaio: Hi Everyone! I’m a second year IDS student from CHICAGO! It was a hard decision between a M.A. in Development or Economics or an MBA, but in the end my passion is development and my means to reach that goal is through business, which is my concentration. (I had some clever name for my concentration that I forget now, but it goes something like Development through the Private Sector, Small Medium Enterprises (SMEs), Impact Investing, Social Entrepreneurship, Value Chains and Inclusive Business.) I am especially interested in how small local businesses and social enterprises can create not only jobs in a community, but how that employment can lead to other sustainable improvements without the need for handouts.

OID: So often in development you hear that there is no “silver bullet” to fix the world’s problems. Why have you chosen your area of concentration? Why do you think it is the most helpful or the most interesting area?

Allison DeMaio: A silver bullet definitely does not exist. I really thought Microfinance was it for a while, and interned with an MFI (microfinance institution), wrote my undergraduate thesis on microfinance, really drank the Kool-Aid. And I am not saying that it doesn’t work, because it is a fantastic tool.  But through experience, as well as a fantastic class at GW, I came to realize that’s just what it is, a tool in a larger kit. When combined with the right user and other materials, like education and good laws, it can make a great house. But with an inexperienced user or the wrong environment using the same tool to build that same house make things worse off.

I still like microfinance, but I am currently trying to move a bit further up the chain to helping small and medium businesses that hire more people and contribute greatly to their local economies. I chose business because that is what makes sense to me. I am from a family of Midwestern traders, my great-grandpa started a grain trading business in Missouri that he passed along to his son. My dad is an investor, my cousin and uncle are bond traders, and the list goes on. My family might think that what I do is totally different and crazy at times, but honestly I am not that far outside their comfort zone, just reapplying what I grew up with in a different context. To me, business is fascinating, just like to some of our other classmates who focus on health, gender, agriculture, government, or education as their calling.  I think that is what makes our program so unique, we each bring a different tool to the kit, and are perfecting how to use it so that together we can build a stronger house.

OID: You have chosen a newly emerging field within development. Do you feel that this experience has colored your future in any way? Do you think this will change the courses you take or the future jobs that you apply for?

Allison DeMaio: I am really enjoying trying to break into this area of development, it is new and exciting, and much of the work is truly groundbreaking. But like Alejandro said a few weeks ago, trying to be a trailblazer has made some things a bit more difficult, especially in finding classes. I had great luck with one of my consortium classes at Georgetown, and would recommend to everyone to take at least one class outside of the Elliott School, if not for content, then to get the perspective of a different group of people as well as the DC staple of NETWORKING. One of my Georgetown classmates was also in Mozambique for the summer, and it was great to see her and realize how much we had in common. I have also taken classes in the business school and public policy school, which have been great compliments to the IDS core classes.

As far as future jobs go, this position is helping me further narrow down where I want to be and what I want to do. I still have a few decisions to make, but this summer has definitely helped provide some clarity, as did my internship during the school year.  But who knows, one of my fall classes might blow me away, and I am keeping myself open to all possibilities at the moment.

OID: Where are you this summer? How did you get this position?

Mozambique

Can you find Mozambique on this map?

Allison DeMaio: Despite every intention of staying in DC this summer, I was offered the opportunity of a lifetime that I could not pass up. I am currently in Maputo, Mozambique. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mozambique 2009 to 2011 and always knew I wanted to come back someday, I just didn’t think it would be this fast. For those of you who do not know, Mozambique is in southern Africa, just north of South Africa and south of Tanzania, on the Indian Ocean. Some of my recent favorite responses to the statement “I am in Mozambique” have included: “I am going to Morocco in a few weeks, we should meet up,” “I have a friend that works in Zambia, do you know them,” and “I went to an Ethiopian restaurant last week, it was good.” Many people just cannot conceptualize the size of Africa, but here is that same conversation in an American context. Me: “I live in DC.” Response: “I am going to Seattle next week, let’s hang out,” “I have a friend in Florida, do you know them,” and “I went to a Texas steak house last week, Yum!”

If you took questions 1 and 2 and put it into a job description; that is what I am doing here. My organization helps small Mozambican businesses connect with markets by facilitating linkages between large multinational companies (such as the extractive industries in Mozambique), as well as facilitating financing by hand holding these companies through the loan process at local banks. I got this position through a series of fortunate events. I had a great internship with a development finance institution (they give loans and guarantees to US companies looking to set up projects in developing countries). Through that I came into contact with my current organization, which was looking to begin operations in Mozambique. I really liked their model and conveyed my interest in a summer position, but for months nothing really came of it, mainly because they did not have the funding. I got my foot in their door by working remotely for them a few hours a week on small administrative things, as well as taking an internship in DC with another development organization. Then out of the blue in June I got an email from the project team asking me if I would be interested in this position in Mozambique. Obviously I jumped at the chance, and in less than 2 weeks I dropped everything else, and here I am.

The size of Africa, in context

The size of Africa, in context

OID: How is this experience different than your time with the Peace Corps in Mozambique? Do you feel that having an understanding of the country has helped you or hindered you in any way? Do you wish you had gone somewhere completely different or do you feel you could now be considered a specialist in Mozambique?

Allison DeMaio: Other than being in the same country, this position is about as far from my Peace Corps experience as I can get. I was an education volunteer living in a rural town of about 200 people where I carried water every day and did not have cell coverage. Now I am in the capital city, with indoor pluming and internet! I am currently relaxing at a café that overlooks the bay surrounded by ex-pats, their children and nannies. Maputo is a very nice city, with a lot going on every night—with concerts, art shows, restaurants and the like. But most days I really miss my village, the pace of life and the close community there. There is a very large ex-pat community in Maputo, though the majority of them are currently Portuguese (now that their economy has slowed, they seem to have moved here in droves). There are also a lot of former Peace Corps volunteers here, including some from my group. I went to a concert with a bunch of them a few weeks ago, the picture shows PC Moz volunteers from groups number 12, 13, 14 (me) 16 and 17, with services spanning 2007 to today. Clearly, I am not the only one with saudades, but another reason for the huge return rate among volunteers might be the boom in both the private and aid sectors of the country. Couple this with our Portuguese-language background, which makes PC Moz volunteers a hot recruit. I would not consider myself a specialist by any means; there is still so much to learn here and I am picking up more every day. Having been a volunteer here has definitely made the move here super easy; my previous experience made it so I could really hit the ground running. I don’t know if I would have been able to take on this short of a project in a country that I did not have experience in, and hopefully my employer is finding that my background is benefiting them just as much.

Allison and fellow PCVs in Mozambique

Allison and fellow PCVs in Mozambique

OID: Returning from two years in a developing country and then going to grad school must have been a big adjustment. Have you found the RPCVs to be a welcoming community? Any advice for other RPCVs in DC? Any advice for others coming to DC from time abroad?

Allison DeMaio: There is currently a group of volunteers coming through Maputo to finish their service and go back to the States, so I seem to be having this conversation a lot recently. The Peace Corps network is one of the greatest things about service. You get home and have an instant group of people to not only get your foot in the door for jobs, but also people to just talk to and share your experiences. Most other people will get tired of your village life stories pretty quickly, but fellow volunteers have been there and can relate and probably tell a counter story to put yours to shame. Immediately upon returning to Chicago, I was on an RPCV softball team and had a blast just meeting volunteers from Mongolia to Peru that had gotten back decades ago, or just a few months back. In DC they put on networking events and happy hours, and the semi-annual career fair at headquarters is one of the best around. Use the network, especially for jobs and informational interviews, we are always really happy to talk to other RPCVs. There are so many Peace Corps volunteers in DC, and luckily for me there are about 10 from my group alone that I try to see pretty regularly.

For those of you just getting back from any abroad experience, the transition can be a little difficult at times. I struggled in grocery stores, going in for a single item and coming out hours later with half the store. Big crowds were also rough some days, and going to Bonaroo right away might not have been the best idea, but trial by fire seemed to work for me. I got back in December and was not starting school until August, so the best thing I did was take a couple of classes at a local college in Chicago just to get back into school mode and a routine. Any experiences in a developing country will really make you put your life in America in perspective. But you cannot let it control everything you do, and it will shock you how fast you really do re-adapt and pick up old habits. Now that I am back in the swing of American life, I try to do something Mozambican at least once a month to keep the memories alive. But don’t talk about Peace Corps all the time, your friends will get sick of it pretty quickly.

OID: The first-years are about to embark on their grad-school journey. Do you have any advice for them on how to get through their first year? Do you have any course recommendations or time-management strategies?

Allison DeMaio: Welcome first-years! Here are my top three bits of advice, in descending order, which I learned from experience:

  1. Don’t move into an apartment sight unseen. It might not have heat, hot water or a fridge. Then the washer will break, followed by the front door. Then you will just have to move again at a super inconvenient time during the semester. You will spend a lot of time there, so make sure you don’t just jump at the first cheap place and find something that suits you.
  2. Don’t take 12 credits while working 25+ hours a week. That was stupid. But work. My internships have been the perfect compliment to my studies, and have opened the door to other things as well. You cannot learn everything about development from a class, and working with several different organizations will help you figure out what you want to do and where you want to be after graduation. Try out something that you wouldn’t normally do: worst-case scenario is that it’s only a semester and you learned some valuable lessons. Best case, you really love it and change paths.
  3. Most importantly: get to know your classmates outside of the classroom. For those of you working full-time this might be harder, but it is worth it. These will be the people you will not only spend all of your time with for the next 2 years, but they are who you will use to network with once you get out of school. Even if your interests are different, they are great people and will become some of your best friends.

Interview with Jelena Ćorić

OID: Hi, Jelena! Thanks for talking to OID today. Let’s start off with some information about yourself: where are you from, what makes you passionate about development, and why did you decide to on the Global Communication M.A. with a concentration in development instead of the IDS program?

Jelena Ćorić at The Elliott School

Jelena Ćorić at The Elliott School

Jelena Ćorić: People tell me I have a rather interesting background. I was born in Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but my parents and I left in 1992, shortly after the civil war broke out in the Former Yugoslavia. Of all places, we moved to Zimbabwe, arriving with nothing but one suitcase and the clothes on our backs. Our home and most of our belongings were destroyed. Fortunately, we adapted to and grew to love our adopted homeland. I have a special attachment to Zimbabwe and the Sub-Saharan region in general. I have a lot of hope for Africa’s future, and everyday I try to correct people’s stereotypes of the continent. For the past six years or so, I’ve been living, working, and studying in the US. I guess I’m a good example of a third culture kid. Basically, it would have surprised everyone who knew me if I didn’t go into something related to international affairs.

I chose my program (Global Communications) because I am primarily interested in strategic communication and the media, but the great thing about this field is that you can marry it to any other interest you may have, which, in my case, is international development. Communications plays an important role in development, whether you’re promoting your organization to a global audience, or creating a media campaign to spread awareness about good health practices. I’m not entirely sure what I’d like to do, but I’m really enjoying exploring different possibilities.

I also believe that the relationship between development and communications is one worth exploring because media can be harnessed for positive change.  For example, I’m sure everyone is well aware of the various uses of ICTs and social media in developing countries. Zimbabwe held presidential elections on July 31st, and people were sharing live, up-to-the-minute updates about the polls on Twitter and other social media. As someone from the diaspora, I was glad that timely information and people’s opinions were so readily accessible. Online social networks are important tools in countries like Zimbabwe, since much of the media is under state control.

OID: Where are you this summer and how did you get this position?

Jelena Ćorić: I was looking for media and communications internships at non-profits and NGOs, and I ended up accepting two positions. I divide my time between Save the Children in DC and ISEP (International Student Exchange Programs) in Arlington. I was inspired by Save the Children’s State of the World’s Mothers report, so I applied for an internship via their website. As for the other position, a friend and classmate, Hilary Hartley, works at ISEP and she told me about the opening there. It’s been a very productive summer!

OID: How did you decide to stay in DC?  Are you happy that you did? What do you think you’ll gain from this experience?

Jelena Ćorić: I simply wanted to gain work experience in DC, and a summer with no classes was ideal for throwing myself into working full-time. As I already explained, my personal background is pretty international, so I wanted to enhance my professional experiences here in the US. Although I’ve felt a little homesick and missed my family and friends in Zimbabwe, I’m really glad that I decided to stay because I get to compare how things function at two organizations with different work environments. (A large, international non-profit like Save versus a much smaller one like ISEP). I also don’t have a huge amount of professional experience, so this summer has been valuable and eye-opening for me. In terms of specific skills and knowledge, I’ve learned about (among other things) creating marketing content, managing media relations, and using social media in a professional setting. Plus I’m building up my writing portfolio, which is always useful.

OID: The first years are about to start grad school. What do you wish someone had told you when you started grad school?

Jelena Ćorić:

  1. Don’t second-guess yourself! Whether you’re fresh out of undergrad or you’re coming in with years of work experience, graduate school is a tough adjustment for everyone. If you’re genuinely putting in the effort, you will reap the results, and of course, it gets much easier after the first semester.
  2. People may be sick of hearing this one, but it’s so true: manage your time efficiently, especially because grad school just flies by. And managing your schedule isn’t just about keeping up with school work, it also helps you make time for a valuable internship or job, networking events and chill out time with friends.
  3. Try to make it to the Graduate Student Forum’s weekly happy hour! We host an event called “Thursday Night Out” (TNO) during the semester and it’s a great opportunity to meet your fellow students and unwind.

OID: Any class recommendations or favorite study spots that you want to share with the group?

Jelena Ćorić: It’s tough to recommend a specific class since I’m sure the OID blog readers have a wide variety of interests. However, I will say that taking Quantitative Analysis was a great experience for me. It was out of my comfort zone, but I gained a valuable new skill. Not only did we learn to use SPSS, I have also become more comfortable working with numbers. Unless you already have a mathematical background, this class would benefit almost anyone. As for study spots, when the library is overrun with undergrads, (Editor’s note: during finals, this is all the time.) I like to retreat to the Elliott School. I find that the 6th floor is usually pretty quiet.

Jelena pets a lion in Zimbabwe

Jelena under a rock in Domboshava, Zimbabwe

Jelena, in Zimbabwe with an elephant

Jelena, in Zimbabwe with an elephant