Public Service Spotlight
Monitoring, Evaluation and Communications Advisor at Mercy Corps, Kenya
Tell us about your current public service work. Can you briefly describe your employment organization and position responsibilities, as well as any relevant volunteer or entrepreneurial activities?
I currently work for Mercy Corps Kenya, based in Nairobi. Mercy Corps is an international NGO with operations in over 40 countries. The Kenya programs focus on peacebuilding, famine response, and youth engagement. I'm currently running a small grants program that provides youth groups with funds for community development or economic livelihoods projects.
On the side, I run a popular development blog called Find What Works. I've had less time to blog since starting this job, but I still manage to post occasionally. Through the blog and twitter, I'm able to stay connected to active discussions on aid and development issues with other practitioners, academics, and policymakers around the world.
Please summarize your professional and academic background. What has been a highlight?
My professional background has been varied. Prior to Wagner, my work was entirely domestic to the United States. I spent several years doing grassroots political organizing on a variety of state and local advocacy campaigns. I also worked at a firm that provides strategy consulting to universities and hospitals. My undergraduate studies were in physics and philosophy. This has all been hard to explain to potential employers, but it has given me a set of skills and perspectives that are highly relevant to my current work.
When I started at Wagner, I used every opportunity I could to build up international experience, such as interning with Open Society Institute in New York during the school year, and then interning in Uganda and Kenya over the summer. The internship in Kenya was with Mercy Corps, and I continued my relationship with them by interning in New York, then working short-term in Kosovo and Kenya, before finally ending up in my current position.
What led you to pursue a master's degree in Public Administration or Urban Planning? Why did you decide to study at Wagner?
Grad school was very much a career transition for me. I needed to find a way to transfer the skills I built in domestic work into a new career internationally. Wagner was a great fit for three reasons: first, the international organizations in New York provided me with a lot of opportunities; second, the flexibility of the curriculum allowed me to determine for myself how to best fulfill my career goals, through classes at Wagner and other NYU schools; and third, (a bit unexpectedly to me) the diversity of the student body exposed me to a range of perspectives on development issues, which has greatly influenced my participation in the public discourse on these issues through blogging.
In your current position, how do you use the knowledge and skills that you gained at Wagner? Which skills do you use most frequently?
Program Analysis and Evaluation is a wonderful class that I think every student in the international specialization should take. Evaluation is a large part of my work, but even if that's not the case for everyone, this industry desperately needs more people who can think rigorously about structuring programs and building in the feedback mechanisms necessary to drive improvements.
Reflecting on your academic experience, what Wagner courses, professors, and / or projects had the greatest influence on your professional development? How?
In addition to Program Evaluation, the biggest influences on me were the classes with John Gershman and Paul Smoke. Through several different classes and my experience as one of Paul's capstone advisees, I gained a much deeper understanding of the political nature of development. This has influenced my blogging a lot, but it's even had surprising relevance to my daily work. The 'Big Debates of Development' can seem like they're abstract and irrelevant to the actual business of aid or development, until you find yourself trying to coordinate with local government officials or conform to international donor regulations. Suddenly the approach you take matters a great deal to your project's immediate success and the lasting impact that it has. I always have these issues in mind as I navigate through my job.
Reflecting on your time outside of the classroom (social events, orientations, trainings, etc.), can you describe one or two key moments at Wagner that impacted your passion for public service?
The single best thing I did at Wagner was get to know my classmates and professors outside the classroom. I remember sitting at Apple Bar after class one night and realizing that we had students from five different continents sitting around the table. Those moments were the most valuable personally and also professionally.
Are there any programs, opportunities or other aspects of the Wagner experience that you wish you had leveraged during your time as a student?
I think I made the most of it.