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!

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: http://jasonjames81.wordpress.com–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

Notes from the Field: Capstone Returnee Tells All

Joanna London, in Kyrgyzstan

Joanna London, in Kyrgyzstan

Students in the International Development Studies (IDS) program at The Elliott School at George Washington University undertake a capstone project where students work on a real-world consulting project. Students have to form a group, typically of 3-4 people, seek out a host organization, conduct research, and implement a project. Joanna London is an IDS student who recently returned from her project, and agreed to tell us about her experiences and to share some photos.

OID: Tell us about yourself: what is your area of concentration? 

Joanna London: My concentrations are Gender and Development and Sub-Saharan Africa

OID: What made you interested in those areas?

Joanna London: Good question. I guess the shortest response is that I have had an interest in Africa since high school, but I wasn’t really sure in what capacity I would integrate that into my future plans. Then, during my undergrad, I was a research assistant for a project called WomanStats that examines the nexus between the status of women in a country and that country’s national security. I also worked closely with Valerie Hudson, PhD, on that project and took multiple courses from her. As she became a mentor to me, I continued to develop my interests in this area, though it wasn’t until a few years later that I determined that I was interested in gender issues in the development context, specifically.

OID: What made you choose your Capstone group? 

Capstone group outside the White House

Capstone group outside the White House, on the way to meetings at USAID for their Capstone project

Joanna London: The biggest feedback that I got from my IDS mentor and other 2nd years was that you may have to compromise somewhat on your region or topic of interest, but what is most important is to choose people that you know you can work with closely for an extended period of time without wanting to rip your hair out. Capstone can be stressful enough – you don’t want to have to deal with horrible group dynamics in the middle of it all. We chose a group from our main friends/study partners since the beginning of the program. We had also worked on various projects with each other in one capacity or another, so we were all pretty comfortable knowing that we understood each others’ strengths and weaknesses and that there wouldn’t be any surprises.


In Kyrgyzstan

OID: What compromises did you have to make, with respect to group formation and client preferences? Any advice for those just beginning this process?

Joanna London: Like I said, our priority was group formation, and then we determined that we would hash out a compromise on an area of interest. Luckily, we had a lot of overlap in our areas of interest and we all had pretty reasonable expectations. I just think it’s important to remember that in almost anything in life you are not always going to get 100% of what you want (in group projects, at work, in relationships, etc.) but that doesn’t mean that the experience isn’t incredibly valuable and enjoyable (and sometimes even better for you in the long run). I just figured that I would probably end up working on gender or in my region of interest, but I would be really lucky if it turned out to be both. Remember, you are not only working with 4 peoples’ interests, you are also trying to align those with the priorities of your partner organization. Once we decided on the focus of our prospectus (GBV and, ideally, Africa), we pretty much divided and conquered to research potential partners and everyone just naturally went toward the organizations where they had an interest or possible connection. We didn’t worry too much about client preferences until there was a solid conversation (aside from targeting those who would probably be big enough to help us financially since we didn’t have the funds to pay for ourselves).

OID: What did you end up doing for your Capstone Project? 

Communist Past, Democratic Future

Communist Past, Democratic Future

Joanna London: We are working with the Office of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID. Specifically, we are assisting them in drafting a gender integration toolkit for program design in complex crisis environments. Basically, under the auspices of the new National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, this department of USAID is trying to figure out the best way for their staff who are not gender experts (those programming in economic growth, democracy and governance, health, etc.) to take gender dynamics and implications into account when they design their projects and make sure that they are benefitting both men and women in the best way possible. This is targeted at countries that are being funded by the Complex Crisis Fund, a special fund set aside by Congress that is more flexible and can move quickly to implement programming in places that are experiencing economic, political, or social transition (not natural distasters or humanitarian emergencies). We did a thorough desk review and then we split up and traveled to Kyrgyzstan and Nepal (each team had a USAID staff member come with us, which was great since they did a lot of the logistics!) to ground truth what we had been reading and interview government officials, USAID mission staff, other donors, INGO staff, local NGO staff, and beneficiaries to get feedback about the best ways to make this toolkit useful. The trips were exhausting, but great. Now…we just have to write up the actual toolkit!

View from the market

View from the market in Kyrgyzstan

OID: Tell us about your Capstone experience: did it change your career goals at all? Do you think there is anything you would do differently, if you could do it again?

Joanna London: I don’t think know that the experience has changed my career goals drastically, but I have been incredibly impressed with the caliber of staff that we have worked with at USAID, as well as those that we met in the field. I also ended up falling in love with Kyrgyzstan and now have a special place in my heart for Central Asia (a little place next to the big place set aside for southern and eastern Africa). We spoke a lot about what we would do differently during the fall, but now it’s kind of hard to remember. I guess that’s a lesson: write down your feedback early!

Some of the key things I would say is that even though you need to make sure you are working on things actively, don’t be so stressed about the timeline in fall as long as you are making progress. We had the expectation that we should have a committed partner by the end of October, but some people don’t get back to you that quickly (or have to travel, or pass your info along to someone else, etc.). We were getting a little bit nervous, and then all of a sudden we had about 5 significant conversations going on at once. In the end, we were glad we held off because USAID didn’t get back to us right away and then we ended up committing right before break and signing our TOR over the holidays (and they have been AMAZING to work with!). The other thing I would recommend strongly is to gauge the appropriateness and generally try to bring up everything important in that first meeting, even the hard things, right away so you don’t waste the organization’s time. It is hard to get meetings with people and much easier to talk to them in person about things like the funding issue, travel approval, etc., so let them know about those possible complications in the first meeting so they have all of the information right away and don’t feel like you misled them (or they misunderstood you) later.

Capstone Meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Capstone Meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

OID: What do you hope to do now that graduation is just around the corner?

Joanna London: Oh, gosh. I hope to get a job! I also hope to read for fun a bit more. I also look forward to running into Elliott School alumni and IDS alumni in the field in the future (our POC at USAID is an Elliott School alumna and we ran into another IDS alumna in the field – it’s a great network out there!).

Reflections of the First Years

Lincoln Memorial on a rainy night

Lincoln Memorial on a rainy night

By Rachel Clement

There are several programs at The Elliott School (and other graduate institutions) which do not operate on a cohort system. For those of you who don’t know, the IDS program enrolls a certain number of students each year (typically 30-40) who move through at least one core class together each semester over the 2 year program.  In addition, they work closely together their second year to complete a Capstone project. (For a great example of Capstone work see last week’s blog post!)

I sat down with other members of my cohort to see how they felt about being part of such a tight-knit group, and about their respective moves to DC.  This year’s IDS group  consists of 34-students. I know that I was somewhat nervous when starting grad school this fall with regards to meeting my cohort. Choosing the right program is a hard enough decision but being stuck with 30 some-odd people for two years made it harder. I, for one, am happy with my decision. More than happy, in fact. From the first OID mixer in August to the camaraderie I felt during finals this past winter, my fellow IDSers have been supportive, engaging, and enlightening. When I read the biographies of the incoming class this summer from my home in Colorado I was amazed: my classmates comes from all over the world including: US, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Venezuela, Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia. Our cohort has worked and lived in over 15 developing nations and speaks over 2o different languages.

The White House

The White House

On Living in Washington, DC: Several people mentioned how exciting it was to be here this year, particularly with Inauguration. The IDS cohort includes people from diverse political affiliations – including Republicans (check out this picture of someone running into John McCain on the GWU campus!), Democrats, Liberals, Conservatives, and everything in between.  Regardless of party affiliation or nationality, there was a common sense of excitement regarding Inauguration activities and being in the center of it all.

Starting in May,the Sculpture Garden hosts Jazz in the Garden. When it’s too cold for music or movies al fresco, the Sculpture Garden is open for ice skating.  Beyond the many historical, cultural, and artistic things to see and do in the nation’s capitol, GWU students are always adding the latest information from development to their knowledge base. “I love going to all the conferences and talks with high level players in the field,” said Allison DeMaio.

Inauguration 2013

Inauguration 2013

Other interviews expressed enjoyment in studying at the Library of Congress, walking past the White House, and visiting the many Smithsonian Museums (for FREE!) during their leisure time.  Ashley McEvoy said, “all of the organizations  and places you might want to work are right here.” In addition there are weekly lectures and conferences at GWU and other institutions. During the summer, the city hosts Screen on the Green, where you can cozy up with friends and watch movies on the National Mall. Sometimes it seems like there is too much to do and too little time. We think this isn’t a bad problem to have.

On being in a cohort: “It’s nice to have a group that gets you,” stated Carmina Villa-Garcia. “Yeah,” agreed Ashley McEvoy, “at the end of the day you’re all there for the same reason. We all have this group we can come back to. We share classes and all care about other people, are adventurous, and friendly. We all have our own friends and interests but it’s nice to be able to count on the cohort. It’s really nice to be a part of a group that does things outside of school, too.” Allisson DeMaio put it this way, “We all have our own areas of concentration, and different ideas about how to do things, but we can talk through things and bring different perspectives to the table. We all have the same end goal.” Allison is taking a class at Georgetown right now, through the consortium system GWU is a part of. She says, “I love my consortium class. GWU has most of what I want to study but I love that I can pick up a specific skill elsewhere. Different schools specialize in different things and I love that I can go there and meet new people in the field.”

Although being in a cohort doesn’t make us pod-people, sometimes great minds do think alike (at least in terms of fashion):

Morgan Simon & Rachel Clement at a networking event

Morgan Simon & Rachel Clement at a networking event

Zahra Khan, Hillary Hartley, Kevin Robinson, & Simon Böhler after class

Zahra Khan, Hillary Hartley, Kevin Robbins, & Simon Böhler after class

What are your thoughts? Want to see more about a specific topic or interest? Email us at oid@gwu.edu!