How I started a career in International Development with practically no experience.

Was it my dream to work in a behemoth ivory tower that moves Billions of dollars a year into contracts, grants, and agreements for the sake of improving access to basic services and rights and responding to the world’s most pressing disasters every year? Not quite…

The American education system is interesting that way. Diversify your studies, diversify your extracurriculars, and eventually, you’ll figure it out. Yes, I am still figuring it out– but for those who are set on working in one of the international development ivory towers, here’s how yours truly worked her way in and made an 8 year and counting career.

Time overseas isn’t as critical as we think…Your Cross-cultural Competence is

I didn’t study abroad or join the Peace Corps. I did, however, experience partnering with a marginalized community to jointly address challenges of access to basic services like routine health check-ups and trash collection. This experience made up of 10-15 day stints in the Dominican Republic throughout my undergrad years, prepared me to relate with my future international development colleagues. While international experience is helpful, what matters most is that you understand who you are serving, the power dynamics at play, and the root causes of the issues you’re trying to solve. Working in international development is equally as much about ensuring that all voices are heard equally in the field, as it is about effectively communicating the why’s and the impact of your work to the money bag holders.

Instead of focusing on the lack of experience abroad, a bit of introspection was critical. Reflecting on the myriad times I interpreted technical jargon for hospital visitors in my high school volunteering days or worked with limited English proficient parents while summer school TA’ing, reminded me of my cross-cultural competence. My own upbringing in a bi-lingual, bi-cultural home was also huge. During trips to my family’s native Colombia, I observed and reflected on the country’s approach to basic service provision. And here at home, I got my first taste of being a personal assistant while in high school, managing my home’s bills when one of my parents became the caretaker for the other and interpreting jargon-filled documents for my mom. The diversity of experiences I had before entering the workforce helped me thrive inside an agency grounded in establishing partnerships at a global scale.

Relationships Rule Everything

I also leveraged my network, and my scopes of work thoughtfully and strategically. Before entering the workforce, I kept in touch with my academic advisors and learned as much as I could from the peers who graduated before me. Asking them the though questions and pressing folks to give me the cold hard truths about working in development prepared me, not just for the interviews, but for the challenges. Once I got into the ivory tower, building my network at all levels helped me thrive. Befriending not just my fellow new hires but also those with institution memory helped me understand the Who’s, their priorities, and how to best rally the troops. And taking on more than I could chew, from day 1 ultimately helped me pivot to a role on our emerging infectious disease portfolio, despite not having an MD or a Ph.D. in Microbiology.

Be a Sponge

Yes, I was assigned the traditional Security training, but I also went out of my way to take as much of the free training available. Unwittingly, I prepared for future roles by picking up skills beyond my scope of work. Attending as many brownbags, joining working groups, and doing everything I could to diversify my understanding of our behemoth workplace helped set me apart. By slogging through the lessons filled with dry contracts and agreements jargon, while taking advantage of the ‘soft skill’ honing opportunities, I also built on the emotional intelligence critical to surviving the bureaucrazy. Training focused on how to have difficult conversations, negotiation, and managing across all levels gave me the confidence to speak up when things could be improved and to ask for help when needed.

Learning when to lean on others is perhaps one of the greatest lessons post eight years in this line of work. Activities related to controlling malaria in a small town can be just as complex as making sure a batch of ventilators make it to their target hospital. And these challenges require complex, multi-expert teams, working together. I’d say this is one of the greatest perks of this career. This work requires consistent collaboration, friendship, and healthy doses of self-reflection–all of which can be achieved with a little bit of digging and persistence!

Ready to talk specific opportunities and start applying? Contact me here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *