This blog post for the #WiAProfiles is an interview by Brittany Carlson, who spoke with a public health professional working in development who prefers to remain anonymous but graciously shared her time and experiences for the WiA Blog.
Brittany is about to finish her last semester at Azusa Pacific University. She is a double major in Global Studies and Biology with a Molecular Emphasis. She hopes to go to medical school or grad school to study tropical medicine/global health. She has an interest in global health, specifically in rural communities that have limited access to healthcare. Brittany loves watching Ted Talks, drinking coffee and scuba diving. You can connect with Brittany here on LinkedIn or by email.
An Unattainable Endeavor
In the world we live in, where options and limitations are at opposite ends of the spectrum and we seek to find the middle ground between the two, it becomes easy to be confronted with an entanglement of feelings as we, students who aspire to go into international development, near graduation. Excitement, fear, a craving for adventure, and an inclination towards security tend to preoccupy our minds as we prepare for the overwhelming job search in a broad number of sectors within international development. We wait for that “ah-ha” moment, where we suddenly have an epiphany of where our passions truly lie. A sense of direction calms our soul and allows us to pursue the field of international development with a clearer goal and a slightly more developed idea of our role. But what does it specifically mean to be a woman in the field? And can we, as women, balance work and have a family?
My interview with Mary (name changed) solidified my understanding of successfully entering the international development field, which involves a large learning curve. It takes time, experience, and dedication to develop the skills, knowledge, and understanding of the context in which one works. I hope women reading this blog find this as a source of hope and encouragement, knowing that career success and personal fulfillment can go together, despite the path fraught with challenges.
The “Ah-ha” Moment
Mary had her “ah-ha” moment during her undergraduate studies. A double major in international relations and social policy, she thought that her future career would fall somewhere between public diplomacy and social work. It was not until she ended up volunteering in the healthcare sector as a peer educator that she realized how much she loved connecting with people and working specifically within the HIV/AIDS education and reproductive health fields. This community engagement, along with a women’s health course, and her desire to work abroad, encouraged her to apply for the Peace Corps. After graduation she was posted in Cameroon.
After spending over two years in Cameroon, she realized that there was significant value gained in spending more than a few months in a country. She stated the importance of, “learning from the bottom up”. She elaborated that one must learn about the context and culture in which one works and taking the time to do that cannot be underestimated. She further explained that the Peace Corps is not for everyone, as you must be committed and be ready to face the challenges that come with working abroad in rural community development. But for her, she gained an “improved sense of understanding of public health and community development”. It was “a humbling experience to learn my limitations as a young American volunteer, working in a remote village”. She learned quickly that her role was to be a resource with connections to help facilitate a response and solutions from within the community.
This was the jumping-off point for her, and 14 years later, is still one of the most significant steps that led to her current position as an HIV/AIDS Adviser, posted in Central-East Africa. Mary is in a highly sought after leadership position and her experience “climbing the ladder” in the field of international development serves as a source of encouragement and empowerment for women pursuing a career of any kind. The values she was raised with, how she was raised, and significant women in her life served as sources of encouragement for her.
From the Beginning
As a young girl, Mary was told that she could pursue anything she desired. At the age of fourteen, she was sent to a private all-girls school. At first, she resented her parents for sending her there, but attending an all-girls high school ended up becoming a special time in her life. She felt empowered, as the school prepared the young women for future roles in leadership and nurtured volunteerism. She has had many women mentors in her life that have provided her guidance. Her mother remains one of her greatest supporters and role models to this day.
She followed her passion for global health by furthering her education and receiving a Masters Degree in Public Health at a leading U.S.-based university, where she received mentoring from both female and male professors. And although finding a partner and having a family has always been important to her, her career was always equally important. She followed in her parents’ footsteps and her internal drive to focus on her career first. Nine years ago, she met her husband – at work – they both were focused on similar international goals and passions and together have navigated their international careers.
The Unattainable Endeavor
When asked how she is able to balance a demanding job with her personal life, she spoke briefly on it, noting that true balance may not be possible, especially in a career in international development. One learns to compromise and negotiate in a way that works best, giving and taking between work demands, career goals, and family – at different times in life, one of these needs to take precedence and that is OK, it is the reality. She mentioned, however, that it is very important to learn how to take care, listen to yourself/your needs, and identify coping mechanisms to avoid burn out, which is important to be successful in a demanding career like international development.
Often times we as young men and women follow our passions and hope for an instantaneous spark of success. We walk out of college with the experiences that we have gained; the knowledge that has left us with completely altered perspectives and a deep yearning for justice and change. We may too easily walk out of university, bright-eyed and feeling ready to embark on our career, only to realize that we still have so much to learn and that it will take time to gain on-the-job experience and illustrate our capacity in our field.
In reality, post-undergraduate life is just the beginning of a long process in preparing yourself for a career in international development. It takes patience, perseverance and commitment. If you are committed to pursing a career in international development, you must learn to embrace the process. This includes using your resources to your advantage by seeking out mentors and by networking with individuals committed to the field. This further enables you to identify and understand your career goals. As a woman, one of the best things we can do is look to women who have already faced these challenges and learn from their experiences. In addition, consider a longer-term volunteer or internship opportunity that will build skills in, and an understanding of community/local development to provide a strong foundation for work in international development.
In closing, working abroad brings about various challenges, including numerous transitions, work schedule adjustments, homesickness, and cultural integration. Having hopes of climbing the ladder in international development as a woman adds a whole new dimension to the situation, making it more important than ever to remain focused on your motivations and to continually seeking wisdom from women mentors. The obstacles faced are not impossible to overcome, but often take time and energy. However, if you are the adventurous type, there are positives that outweigh the challenges. These include having the opportunity to learn a new language, experience a new culture’s beliefs and practices and expand your worldview. This can be exhilarating and remind us of just how unique and beautiful the world we live in is.