02 September 2012 ~ 7 Comments

What advice would you give a soon-to-be graduate?

Last week I got this note below from a college senior looking to explore development work, and wondering what the best and most responsible way to do that would be.

I wrote him back some thoughts, and asked him if it would be ok if I shared this with LessonsILearned readers to see what advice other people might give. He said ok, so here goes!

I’ll post a comment with the response I sent him next week, but in the meantime, I’d love to read YOUR thoughts! What advice would you give a soon-to-be graduate? What books would you recommend, etc? Hopefully this can help Bill (name changed) and others!

Thanks, Bill for such a thoughtful email and for making your impact decisions so careful! I am looking forward to reading what the rest of you advise!

Hi Daniela,

I hope all is well.

I know you must be very busy so I will try and make this quick.

My name is Bill Smith and I am going to be a senior at in college in California. As I enter into my final year of undergraduate study and begin the search for a job or post-college scholarship I was hoping to gain some of your insight.

At this point let me first explain why I am asking you specifically….

Over a year ago my university sponsored me to “intern” (ok volunteer) at a local education NGO in Siem Reap. Before traveling to Siem Reap I was really excited to travel abroad, help those in need…mostly things of a personal benefit. I held these views until I began to research a bit deeper into the troubles of current volunteer practices.

After reading a few articles and watching two Al Jazeera specials on voluntourism and orphanage tourism, I began to really question my decision to volunteer in Siem Reap. I contemplated canceling my internship in order to avoid contributing to the negative aspects of volunteering/development work…etc

Since I already booked my plane tickets, I decided to pursue volunteering in SR but with the intention of entering the process as an educational experience. More specifically, I treated my experience as if it was a course focusing on the issues surrounding international development organizations operating in Cambodia.

This is when you come into the picture.

During the week I worked as a before/after school tutor, however I made sure to spend some of my free time and several weekends meeting trying to learn more about both the good and bad practices occurring in Siem Reap and other areas of Cambodia. I gathered information from three main sources: through meeting with and researching other NGOs, by living in a guesthouse where the owners ran their own education NGO and through online scholarly journals or blogs such as your Lessons I learned. In fact I actually met with two people from PEPY and they helped share some very insightful information about some of the work and philosophies of your organization. I believe I was there a week or two after you decided to leave to pursue further studies.

Which brings me to the present time.

As I enter my final year of undergraduate education, I feel a little lost in terms of furthering my understanding of the development practices and changes needed to make it more effective. I have stumbled across provocative pieces such as an old speech from Ivan Illich (http://www.swaraj.org/illich_hell.htm) but really have failed to find a more experienced or learned adult to really offer additional insight to not only the failures of current development work, but also insight into the innovation and organization needed for new development models.

After watching and reading your most recent blog posts I felt motivated to finally contact you. For some reason the “learning” before “serving” talk really resonated with my experience from last summer.

I think what I am trying to ask is: what are some paths or experiences I should pursue that would develop my knowledge and skills in order to more effectively help social change in the future?

I know this is a very broad topic that will require a multi-faceted approach and experts across almost every field of study. In an attempt to try being more specific: I am interested in understanding more about the relationship between politics, economics, culture and the causes of current “problems”. In addition to understanding more about the causes of current problems, I am interested in learning more about the role/strategies both individual development organizations and groups of organizations have in finding solutions to these problems.

Are there certain books/articles, fields of study (economics? Psychology? Etc.) I should read? Hands on experience? Applying for Fulbright versus applying for other jobs that would provide great business and management practice such as consulting, teaching? Basically anything where I could develop a higher level skill? Follow something I’m passionate about?

Thank you for taking the time to read at least a part of this rant. I apologize I didn’t keep it as short as intended. Whether or not you respond, I just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts on your blog. I really think you are sharing amazing thoughts, and a lot of people can and will learn from your ideas and the discussions you raise.

Thanks again and keep up the fantastic work!

Bill Smith

P.S. I would appreciate the opportunity to get involved in the Educational Hotel! I think that is a fantastic concept. I recently spent the summer in Thailand through another scholarship and two weeks traveling in Burma, while there I really saw the need/niche for affordable and informational education hostels/hotels.

  • http://twitter.com/bjrigby Brendan J Rigby

    Bill, what did you do for your undergraduate study? 

    My advice, with a pinch of salt, would be to make sure you have a discrete, technical background: education, economics, engineering, health, etc. But, balance out this technical expertise with more creative and reflective competencies. Practice empathy, reflexivity and creativity.  

    If you want to go onto postgraduate study, you can check out a post I wrote a while ago on WhyDev – http://www.whydev.org/so-youre-thinking-of-studying-an-ma-in-development-studies-think-again/ – There are some valuable comments from readers in there, relating their experiences. Also, check out Dave Algoso’s immensely popular (and right so) post on career advice for aid and development workers – http://www.whydev.org/career-advice-from-people-smarter-than-me/

  • http://www.leslieforman.com Leslie Forman

    Hi Bill (and Daniela!) 

    I agree with Brandon’s comment about a discrete skill you can offer to your field of choice. 

    I’d also add that I think you should think specifically about what (microfinance? maternal health care? education?) and where (Cambodia? Papua New Guinea? Bolivia? Mexico? etc.) and figure out how you can get field experience in at least one of those areas. If you’re especially interested in Bolivia, for example, you might be able to find a teaching job that will give you a visa and time to explore the other issues you want to focus on in development. 

    I’m very much a believer in starter jobs that can give you the opportunity to go to a specific place, and develop your interests from there. 

    Good luck, and feel free to contact me if you have more specific questions (especially if they involve working in China or Chile). 


  • Rachel

    Of course its not for everyone, but having done a Fulbright in Cambodia, I have to say it was an excellent way to do some “learning” before starting a project here. I was able to research and visit many different organizations and businesses before starting my own, which had a great influence on what I am doing now and how I run my business. There are lots of great ways to get good experience as you mentioned, but I do think the Fulbright program is an excellent outlet if you have in mind a specific field, or specific place, that you would like to find out more about. It is encouraging, despite all of the volunteers sent abroad, that the US government supports a program like this, which is specifically focused on learning and cross-cultural exchange. 

  • Sarah Vazquez

    Can’t wait to hear your response, Daniella! 

  • http://twitter.com/intldogooder How Matters

    My hope for Bill is that he continues with eyes wide open. Our sector needs more people like him that have embraced a curiosity about “what works.” I can certainly understand his sense of overwhelm, i.e. if it’s so hard, why bother?, but when partnerships do what they are supposed to, this is the best work to do in the world. 
    Getting partnerships right means staying conscious about power asymmetries. In addition to whatever discrete, technical background Bill develops as Brendan suggests, Bill must never forget the development of his “soft” skills to accompany and support whole communities, rather
    than overpower, co-opt, or ignore them. Not all communities are created equal – it’s
    time to stop romanticizing them (which is why disappointment can fester) and start building a skill set that
    will enable more meaningful engagement with the people that live in them. Does Bill know how to create a friendly, open, affirming climate where real
    listening and dialogue can occur? That is the only place where “solutions” have a chance of being found.

  • Shoeless

    Bill – the fact that you asked the question puts you well along the path already, to my mind.  I have a lot of time for the ‘Investing Time in People’ concept – the better you listen, the better the questions you can ask.  People will tell you how you can help them if you are patient enough and fortunate enough to be planted somewhere the need and your capacity happen to sync.  Skill sets are frequently helpful, but I wonder if the old model of master/ pupil in a longish term mentorship isn’t the way to rock it.  Just a thought – there are some real wizards in the game out there that I would love to shadow for a year or so.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for all of these great thoughts!  I posted the original email that I wrote to Blake in a new post here http://lessonsilearned.org/2012/09/advice-for-a-soon-to-be-graduate/ for anyone interested!