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!


Thank you from the OID Board of 2013

2013 OID Board

The OID board of 2013, (from left to right): Ani AvetisyanRachel Clement, Alejandro Guzman, Ashley McEvoy, and Morgan Blackburn would like to thank you all for voting for us, supporting and encouraging us, attending our events and reading our blog. We’re moving on, but OID shall live on. Please come to the celebration ceremony and election results party on Thursday, November 21st (RSVP here) and stay involved by submitting your thoughts to and attending the future events, film screenings, and discussions the new board sets up. Thanks again, everyone!

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!