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!


Alum Kerry White on International Education, the PMF Process, and Networking

Kerry White

Kerry White

OID: Hello from OID and thanks for talking to us today! Let’s start with the basics: Who are you, where do you come from, and why did you pursue development at GWU?

My name is Kerry White, and I’m originally from the suburbs of New York.  I ended up in development in kind of a circuitous way.  I started my career in international journalism in Northern Ireland, then did Teach for America and taught for a few years.  Then I took a job doing academic counseling in China, and found myself really fascinated by the ways different elements of culture add up to influence an education system. A friend in international public health recommended I look into international education development, and I decided to get a degree and give it a go.

I really liked the emphasis on practical skill building at the Elliott School, including the IDS capstone experience.  And GW offered the most financial aid.  So it was an easy choice.

OID: When did you graduate and what was your area of concentration?

I graduated in May 2012 with a concentration in international education.

OID: How did you find making a career change from domestic education to international education to be? What were some things that helped or hurt you in this transition?

It was intimidating at first, since I really had no contacts in the international world.  But I actually found that the academic realm was a big gateway for me. There is a lot of overlap between the academic and professional aspects of international education, and even though I picked ESIA for its practical focus, my research gave me reasons to contact and interact with international education development experts.  These people also happened to be working at the leading development organizations. I actually met the contacts that got me the job I have now at a conference where I was presenting an academic paper I did at GW.

I remember doing an informational interview with a GW alum, she told me to make sure I took some classes taught by full-time professors—not just professionals—as they are usually taught really well and give you great subject-area expertise.  And I’d second that and add that academic pursuits can lead to professional opportunities, as well.

OID: What tips do you have for people seeking to network, get internships, and jobs? Any pet peeves of things you see on resumes or cover letters or interviews?

Like I said, use your GW classes, even the academic ones, as ways to meet the “studs” of your field, so to speak.  And be an active member of your sector’s community of practice.  If there anything you’ve written a paper about or read about that you find really interesting—a sector or a trend or a specific area of technical expertise—look for events or lectures surrounding that.  Become a familiar face in that community.  DC is a great location that makes it easy to do this.  And networking is much easier when you’re honestly passionate about the topic of conversation.

Be persistent.  The first inquiry I sent to the company where I am now went unanswered, but when I applied I was able to reference it and my name was familiar.  Now that I’m on the other side, I see how easy it is for e-mails to get lost in the shuffle or forgotten.  Finding the balance between persistent and annoying can feel tough, but polite persistence shows that you’re really interested in a company and that you understand how busy the people on the other end of your message are.

As for resumes and cover letters, my former boss said she’s used my cover letter as an example—I had modeled mine off of a classmate’s from my first Master’s program.  Her advice was to remember that the cover letter can be a road map.  You don’t want to just regurgitate your resume, but you also don’t want to throw a whole lot of new things on there in case it isn’t fully read.  Use it to point out the pieces of your resume that speak to the job description.  Take the required skills and experience from the job posting and show that all of those skills and experiences are on the resume.  And don’t be afraid to use bullets.  These people are busy and the more obvious you can make your awesome qualifications, the better.

OID: Tell us what you are up to these days and more about the PMF process. 

I am working in business development, writing proposals, which I love.  And I’m currently waiting to hear about clearance for a PMF position at State.  The process is very intense and I’d recommend anyone who makes it to the in-person assessment phase to do the practice session at the Graduate Student Career Development office.  It’s worth it just for the peace of mind alone, just to walk in with a sense of what’s coming and to not be blind-sided.

If you get to the finalist phase, I’d recommend you use all the possible outlets for finding a position.  I had people tell me the job boards online are useless and that personal networking is the only way to go, and I had other people to tell me the exact opposite!  I got solid leads and interviews from personal networking, asking friends to forward my CV, jobs forwarded from the ESIA career development center, the PMF job fair, and the PMF job board.  So don’t rule any avenue out.

The Elliott School at GWU

The Elliott School at GWU

OID: Any final words of wisdom? Any classes you really loved or wish you had taken (or even classes you didn’t love but that have proven to be really useful in the real world!)

I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I would say to remember there is a whole university and a consortium of universities that you can take classes from.  I ended up taking comparative ed classes in GSEHD, a Trachtenburg methods class, a cognitive neuroscience class from CAS, and even a linguistics class at Georgetown.  It gave me expertise in mother-tongue language literacy acquisition that I could talk up in interviews.  It also made networking easier by being able to “talk shop” with the people I wanted to work with/for someday.  Pairing that with the IDS core and the ESIA skills classes that taught me how to write PMPs and design projects helped me present myself as a total package.

Learning and Practicing Development: An Interview with Mariam Adil

Mariam Adil

Mariam Adil

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?

Mariam Adil: Hi Rachel. Well let’s see, I am a first year IDS student at the Elliott School and am super excited about talking to you today. I come from Pakistan and have spent the past four months trying to make DC home.

GWU was a natural choice when I made the decision to pursue a second master’s degree. Having experienced the depth of issues in international development in my three years of employment at the World Bank (WB) Country office in Pakistan, I was determined to pursue an enhanced mix of technical skills to be able to tackle the complexities of evidence-based policy making.  I feel the field of development is fairly complex and therefore I joined the Elliott School in an attempt to understand the horizon of global practices that populate the development canvas.

The opportunity of pursuing graduate studies at ESIA allows me to learn from distinguished faculty, interact with a truly global student body and live in a city brimming with career opportunities in international development.

Mariam Adil and the globe at WB HQ

Mariam Adil at the World Bank HQ

OID: Where do you work right now and what kind of work do you do there?

Mariam Adil: I am currently working as an Economist for the World Bank Africa Education Unit. Having previously worked on primary education in Pakistan, I am extremely excited about the opportunity to not only work in a new region but also focus on a different dimension of the educational pipeline, tertiary education. I am a member of the higher education team that assists the region’s governments with policy advice, financing and technical assistance to improve education outcomes.

OID: What made you decide to work and go to school simultaneously?

Mariam Adil: In my mind, there was no other way to do it. I feel the benefits of being able to create linkages across my work and study far outweigh the pressures of multi-tasking. Development is about unveiling channels through which lessons are learnt across regions, knowledge is shared across borders and experiences inspire across time zones. The WB-GW mix is ideal for celebrating the spirit of development.

OID: Do you feel your experience as a practitioner has aided in your classroom experiences thus far? If so, in what ways?

Mariam Adil: I used to think, I would have to zone in and out of the student mode if I am working and studying at the same time, but it turns out that everything I do feels like an excellent learning opportunity with my student hat on. Given my experience in the World Bank, I am better able to contextualize the concepts that are discussed in class and relate them directly to my professional experiences. In the past few weeks, I have come across several development perspectives that are critical of the way that the IFIs function. Being part of an IFI, I am not only able to understand these criticisms in a meaningful manner but also appreciate the progress that has been made in the past decade in addressing some of the longstanding concerns. Lastly, examples from work help in taking a shot at those class participation marks.

Mariam shared this picture from the field-the boy is standing in a gaping hole in his school's wall, he found the entire thing very funny. Mariam said, "every time i look at the picture, I wonder if we could give him a different reason to smile."

Mariam shared this picture from the field-the boy was playing between a gaping hole in his school’s wall. Mariam said, “every time i look at the picture, I wonder if we could give him a different reason to smile.”

OID: The semester is still just getting into gear, but do you feel like what you’re learning in class helps you professionally? If so, how so?

Mariam Adil: I am truly enjoying the mix of faculty at the Elliott School. We have a great line-up of anthropologists, with the likes of Professor Roberts, Professor Fink and Professor Gow, giving me an opportunity to view development with a different lens, one that is shared by the World Bank president who is also an Anthropologist. And then there are the inspirational economists that that have strong linkages with the Bank. Professor Foster is buddies with the WB Chief Economist, Kaushik Basu, and Professor Fox, having worked at the WB for several years, is super popular amongst my class-fellows and colleagues J.

Also, the biggest advantage of being in class is the fact that there is no such thing as a stupid question. In development, there are many things that can boggle one’s mind and I am glad I have a second shot at learning more about the work that I so passionately enjoy.

OID: How is your cohort so far?

Mariam Adil: While I do not get much time to enjoy the student life, I can easily say my class fellows have made the entire experience an absolute treat. I am super excited about the cornerstone project and can’t wait to group up and dive into development challenges. Some last words: I think OID rocks. It’s inspiring the work the second years have done, especially on the blog, and I hope we can keep the legacy going. (Editor’s notes: elections are coming up in November!! If you, or someone who inspires or challenges you seems like they would be a good fit to be on the OID board, encourage them to run!

What a Week!

We hope everyone enjoyed all of the great events around town this week in DC and at GWU. Did you attend the World Bank event with President Jim Yong Kim’s speech about ending poverty by 2030? (If not, the speech is online, here.) What about the Society for International Development’s Career Fair? George Washington and the Elliott School work hard to bring these events to DC, and our school. We love to see OID faces in the audience!

GWU students attend WB and SID events

GWU students attend WB and SID events

As midterms rapidly approach it can be tempting to move into Gelman, but don’t forget to take a break and attend some of the great events in and around DC. Please support your fellow grad students and consider attending these upcoming events:

Youth Dialogue: Innovation in Job Creation
from and for the Youth

October 9, 4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

George Washington University, Lisner Auditorium

The Youth Dialogue, which has been organized as part of the Annual Meetings for the past 2 years, will provide a platform for youth to share their views on the persistent high unemployment, especially among the Youth. With traditional channels of job creation not working fast enough to deal with joblessness, innovation in self employment and private enterprise may be key.

Twitter: #YouthDialog, and watch onlinehere: (Allison DeMaio will be a featured panelist for this prestigious event.)

International Day of the Girl Summit

October 11, 10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. (For a full schedule please click here)

American University (Rachel Clement, OID Social Media Chair, will be a featured panelist at this event.)

And please, please, please submit any events (particularly if you are on a panel or find it relevant to your own work and studies) to so we can add it to the calendar of events.

Interview with Ani Avetisyan

Ani Avetisyan in London

Ani Avetisyan in London

OID: Hi, Ani! Thanks 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?

Ani Avetisyan: I am from Yerevan, Armenia. For those of you who know little about Armenia, is it one of the fifteen post-Soviet republics.  Armenia is also the cradle of Christianity and the home of numerous medieval monasteries. (Editor’s note: Ani used to work for birthright Armenia and doesn’t always talk like a tour guide. But when she does, you learn something!)



What makes me passionate about development is my country’s own history and the opportunities it has for the future. The past two decades have been the most challenging ones in our history, marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the outburst of the Nagorno Kharabakh conflict, and a tragic earthquake. Although there have been tremendous achievements not only on the public reform side but also in civil society, there is still room for improvement.

As far as for my decision to join IDS, I’d say it was not a difficult one. The program stands out for its’ academic rigor while simultaneously providing opportunities to train students in a real-world setting.

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

Ani Avetisyan: This past spring I was interning at the Office of Investment Policy at the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. Upon the completion of my internship, I was given the opportunity to extend the contract through the summer semester.

OID: It seems like a lot of the IDS students went abroad this summer. How did you decide to stay in DC?  Are you happy that you did? What do you think you gained from this experience?

Ani Avetisyan: As an international student, I decided to capitalize on my time in this important city and gain further experience in D.C. I have come to realize how important happy hours and networking events are, so I made the most of networking this summer. Also, because I had more spare time in my hands, I was able to explore the city. D.C. has so much to offer in the summer such as jazz in the garden, outdoor movies on the National Mall to name a few!

OID: The first years are starting their first year of grad school. What do you wish someone had told you when you started grad school?

Ani Avetisyan: I know the first semester hits you hard, but it does get better.

Ani Avetisyan and her sister, Anush

Ani Avetisyan and her sister, Anush

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

Ani Avetisyan: The sixth floor at Gelman and the Lower Level computer room were my favorite spots to study last year. Since the newly renovated second floor was opened, Gelman has become my second home.

As for classes, I would recommend International Development Management Tools and Processes, which gives you hands on experience with a real client. I found this course especially useful in preparation for the final capstone project.

I would definitely suggest students try to get out of their comfort zone when choosing classes. It is the challenging classes that will eventually help you think outside the box.

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?


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: Jason James from Cochabamba, Bolivia

Jason James in Bolivia

Jason James in Bolivia

OID: Tell everyone about yourself: where are you from, what made you passionate about development, what is your area of concentration?
Jason James: I’m mostly from New York although I also lived in India for a total of 7 years and in Los Angeles for a total of 6 years so I can’t exactly narrow it down to one place. Growing up poor often made me wonder about the root causes of poverty, but it wasn’t until I was 12 and living in Bangalore, India that I really began to think about development. There, I saw the rapid economic growth with outsourcing and call centers, and many shiny new buildings bearing Western names; yet I was surrounded by the extreme poverty of the slums. Ever since then I have been trying to learn more about economic growth and how it can be managed so as to benefit everyone. My concentration is community-based development because I believe that organizing communities to take charge of their own development leads to more holistic and inclusive growth. I am mainly interested in working in Latin America because of the trends in community organizing there (but that is a topic for another post!)

OID: Where are you this summer and what are you doing there?
Jason James: This summer I am in Bolivia as an intern with Sustainable Bolivia. SB is an organization that connects international volunteers and interns with local Bolivian NGOs. I work for a group called PAI Tarpuy which reaches out to street kids to help them develop social and job skills. They also run a youth center where kids of all ages can come to get help with homework and to play games. For the three weeks I’ve been here, I have been helping with the youth center but I hope to begin helping with outreach as my Spanish improves.

OID: How did you get your internship?
Jason James: I got the internship by searching online for organizations in Bolivia and applying through their website. It helped that one of my classmates, Morgan Blackburn, worked with the same organization last year and put in a good word for me. My intermediate level Spanish skills and my tutoring experience also helped me get the specific position with PAI Tarpuy.
Jason James bargaining in the Cochabamba market

Jason James bargaining in the Cochabamba market

OID: What are your initial impressions of Bolivia? How is the Spanish different than what you’re used to?
Jason James: Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and from my time in Cochabamba it is clear that people are poor, but at the same time I haven’t witnessed extreme poverty; that may be more common in other cities or in rural areas. People seem really friendly and generally happy. The pace of life is much slower than say NY or DC – one exception being the chaotic driving where lanes and lights are seen merely as suggestions not laws. There are highway blockades almost every week for some protest or other so bus trips are always a risky proposition.
There are tons of open air and sidewalk markets with individual vendors shopping their wares – you can get just about anything from the sidewalk stands from Bolivian pastries to A/V cables to all 3 seasons of game of thrones in Spanish. Speaking of the Spanish, in Bolivia there are a few differences which mainly stem from the heavy indigenous influence especially from the Quechua language. For example, while most Spanish texts translate avocado as “aguacate,” in Bolivia it’s “palta”. Also many people here don’t roll their “rr”s instead they pronounce it like “sh.” An interesting phrase I hear a lot is “no vés” used as a filler generally to mean something like “you know/see what I mean?”, or like the Canadian “ey?”

View of the Cristo de la Concordia statue from Jason's house

View of the Cristo de la Concordia statue from Jason’s house (this is the largest statue of Jesus in the world)

OID: Are you happy you decided to spend your summer outside of DC and what do you think will be the best part about this experience/has been the best thing so far?
Jason James: Spending the summer in the field with the actual people that development is supposed to help rather than at headquarters in D.C. has been a great decision so far. I wanted to get some practical experience closer to the ground and I’ve been able to learn a lot about different people and communities and what they think of my future profession. Many of the people I’ve encountered have very mixed views (much like myself). Only a couple of people I’ve met seem to believe making a lot of money is important. They see the need for investment from outside but they are keen on protecting their way of life. Apparently, this was one of the reasons McDonald’s didn’t fare so well in Bolivia. For the next two months, I’m looking forward to learning more about the lives and perspectives of everyday people and seeing where I might fit in and be helpful.

OID: Do you think this experience will help you, once you start looking for a job?
Jason James: I didn’t have any real previous development work experience nor had I been to Latin America, so this internship can’t hurt. If I was the HR person reviewing my resume I would definitely look very favorably on this experience. Regardless of future job prospects, I can see myself packing my bags after graduation and moving here. With all the people I’ve gotten to know and will continue to meet, I’m sure I can find some meaningful opportunities for development work here.Can’t get enough of Jason James? He has his own blog, which can be found here:–find more of read more of his adventures, and see even more photos of beautiful Bolivia!

Summer in Abuja: An Interview with Anne Sprinkel

Anne Sprinkel in Abuja

Anne Sprinkel, in Abuja. Behind her, you can see the new, large,  houses being built everyday.

1. Tell OID about yourself: where are you from, what made you passionate about development, what is your area of concentration?
I’m from Richmond, Virginia, but I was beyond lucky to be able to travel both during and after college, and I’ve spent a good amount of time in Latin America. Travel has undoubtedly been one of the foundations of my interest in the field of development. I was a Sociology major in college, so my natural inclination was toward this kind of study. I knew I wanted to be in development by the time I started my Peace Corps service in Guatemala, but my work in rural preventive health, HIV/AIDS, and community development really cemented my passion for this line of work.

ngafricaMy concentration is Humanitarian Assistance, which is a bit of a departure from my background. I found myself drawn to the pace, the intensity, the unique nature of the problems that arise, and the challenges that relief work faces in its relationship with long-term, strategic development.

2. Where are you this summer and what are you doing?
I am currently in Abuja, Nigeria, as Mercy Corps’ Peacebuilding Program Support and Development Intern. As such, my deliverables are centered around supporting the implementation of programs (everything from counting baseline surveys to attending partners’ meetings) and program development (concept notes, research, country strategy, etc). In addition, I’m getting to take advantage of this being a new office for Mercy Corps. Administrative tasks, like checking the major hospitals in the capitol to have Standard Operating Procedures if a staff member comes down with cerebral malaria, are things that I can support.

3. How did you get your internship?
While talking with a fellow intern at my previous position, she offered to pass me the name and contact information for the Mercy Corps Intern Coordinator in Portland. I jumped at the chance, and after applying for a few positions which the Coordinator presented to me, Nigeria’s Country Representative made an offer first.

I will say that NGOs seem to be a bit behind the curve on finding summer interns for positions abroad. I knew I wanted to be back in the field for the summer, but I had a hard time finding positions that closely related to my concentration in time to apply for funding. That being said, it’s understandable – fewer NGOs, donors, or UN agencies are willing to send interns to high security, unstable, and/or the risk prone countries where I was interested in applying.

Currently each 500 Naira bill is worth a little more than 3 USD

Currently each 500 Naira bill is worth a little more than 3 USD

4. What are your initial impressions of Nigeria?
Nigeria is amazing. But I must preface my comments: I am currently living and working in the capitol, Abuja, which is VERY different than Lagos, and very different from rural areas. Furthermore, I’ve heard Nigeria is something else all together when talking about Africa itself.
Abuja is pretty clean, friendly, very green, and shows all the signs of immense wealth that hasn’t been shared with the vast majority of the population. Security is high here, for reasons related to the insurgency in the North and the general trend of kidnappings, robberies, and other crime. I’ve never lived in a country with a large Muslim population, so it’s been nice to learn a bit about the religion, its’ form in Nigeria, and its’ relation to Mercy Corps’ interfaith mediation for conflict mitigation and peace building projects.

5. Are you happy you decided to spend your summer outside of DC and what do you think will be the best part about this experience?
I am SO happy I had the opportunity to spend some time out of DC this summer. Like I said, I started planning to be abroad this summer even before I started the IDS program, and I’m glad I was able to make good on that promise to myself.

In the near future, I should get some field time doing conflict mapping, working with implementing partners, and meeting with local authorities in our project areas. That will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of my summer, but I also value my time here in the office. Working through the daily realities of a country office, seeing what program development means with an NGO, and having a chance to see HQ from the field’s perspective are among the things I’ll carry with me into my 2nd year of study. Apart from this, talking to aid workers from different organizations/donors/agencies that have been in the field for anywhere from 2 to 10 years has been great (well, maybe not great for any idealism that’s left in me, but always good for some perspective and a good laugh).

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

Public Service Event: Oral Rehydration Kits

Morgan Blackburn making oral rehydration kits

Morgan Blackburn making oral rehydration kits

On April 7th, OID partnered with OneBrickDC and Save the Children to create oral rehydration kits. Although this was OID’s first year volunteering, the event is now in it’s 7th year and created 20,000 mixtures to ship to children in the developing world, which will help to prevent life-threatening dehydration. Proving that GWU is a true community, Professor Fink took time out of her weekend to join in and brought her children, as well! She said of the event, “I really appreciate that this year’s OID board initiated a service project and hope that future OID boards do the same.  It was great to be able to do something meaningful and fun together.” Thank you to everyone who made it out to join in–and check the OID calendar; in addition to our end of the academic year festivities, we hope to include more volunteer activities in the future!

Morgan Blackburn, a first year in the IDS program, was kind enough to tell us all about her experience:

OID: First things first: Tell everyone a little bit about yourself: what made you want to get into development? What is your area of concentration or interest?

Morgan Blackburn: My focus is mostly humanitarian assistance with a little bit of climate change, which is directly related to why I’m studying development. I did my undergraduate degree in New Orleans and was there when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, so that had a big impact on my life and changed my trajectory — until then I thought I was going to be a scientist.

OID: What were you doing for the community service day?

Morgan Blackburn: OID sponsored a service day with Save the Children where we assembled oral rehydration packets. We essentially sat in a circle at a table and filled packets with a sugar-potassium-baking soda-salt mixture assembly line style. My job was to use a funnel to pour the powdered mixture into an envelope. The packets are then shipped to Save the Children programs all over the world.

Members of OID and Professor Fink (with her two children) volunteering

Members of OID and Professor Fink (with her two children) volunteering

OID: Do you feel like this was a good thing to have done? Do you think it made an impact?

Morgan Blackburn: It was a nice to do a service day, so personally it made me feel good to have done it but there was a lot of discussion at our table about whether it would have been better to assemble the packets in-country with goods from the country by local people or maybe not have packets at all and instead teach people how to make their own salt-sugar solution at home.

OID: What was the best/worst part of this volunteer experience? Would you do it again?

Morgan Blackburn: Actually I think the best part was chatting with other volunteers at the event. There was a retired Foreign Service Officer who had lived all over the world and been witness to some interesting periods in history and another man who’d made his career at USAID. I’d do it again if there were interest, but I have to say that it’s not the most stimulating work?

OID: Do you think there will be future volunteer events?

Morgan Blackburn: We’d like to have some more service events in the future, but there are none on the roster for the rest of the spring. I think we’re interested in doing something outdoors in the fall, like a trash clean up.