These views are personal and do not reflect official USAID viewpoints
You’re currently employed by USAID. What’s it like to work there?
I am the Program Officer for Pakistan at USAID Washington. I help the USAID Pakistan mission evaluate and assess their programs to see if they are successful. I also lead the DC portion of the development strategy for Pakistan, harnessing lessons learned to make our strategic approach stronger, and making sure we fit into the larger U.S. strategy.
I do this by working with various US entities in DC, such as the State Department, to make sure that what we’re doing is matching their programming and their strategic lens.
My day to day is talking with members in the interagency and key stakeholders in DC, and making sure this information is conveyed to my colleagues in Islamabad.
Had you always been interested in the region, or in foreign affairs in general?
Yes. In college, I took anthropology and cultural anthropology, but I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do with those subjects. I’ve always been interested in human rights and trying to help people, so I went back to school and got my master’s in International Relations. It was then that I started to realise that a lot of the questions we ask in International Relations (for instance, to do with conflict or with the inclusion of women), are the same as the ones you ask in anthropology. You’re trying to figure out how everything is connected, and the causality of those links. I realised anthropology and IR were speaking the same language, but in International Relations, I could look for a way to solve the problems.
During grad school I worked for a small human rights organisation in Ireland, which was focused on youth within the Traveller (an itinerant population in Ireland) population, and how to empower the youth to be successful within mainstream Irish culture without giving up their own traditions. I was the first American most Travellers had ever interacted with, and going to Traveller camps shed a light on disparities within sub populations in Ireland- people had no access to running water, electricity or education.
After that I was hooked, and I’ve been in International Relations ever since. I don’t have a regional focus but I have a speciality, which is strategy and conflict.
How did you get to that focus on those particular areas?
I went to grad school at Trinity, in Ireland, and what appealed to me about their programming is that they wove a lot of conflict resolution and state building into all the coursework, because of what happened in Ireland, and the influential Good Friday agreement in the North. I started to focus in on conflict. I did my dissertation on Muslims and integration of women in Ireland, and although that wasn’t directly about conflict, it was about looking at different communities, and how they work within the wider whole of the nation state.
When I started working, I did conflict analysis and assessments for USAID. I realized that researching complex environments was fascinating, but somewhat useless if the work did not build into a strategic vision moving forward.
Strategic thinking and planning is something I learned purely from the working world. A lot of strategy is thinking critically, asking if something makes sense, and prioritizing key sectors or area based on this reasoning - as well as making sure that the right people are always at the table.
What’s the culture at USAID like? Is it an enjoyable place to work?
I really love USAID. The people who work there want to make the world a better place. Almost everyone comes to USAID because they believe in the Mission to help other people in the world, so I think that really brings a certain kind of person. You’re not bringing the power players or someone who’s just there to advance themselves. My colleagues are always looking to help out others in other countries, and that is reflected in the workplace and how we help each other. If I’m working a late night someone always offers to pitch in and to help, and I think it’s rare that you find a culture like that.
I also love it because there’s a lot of people who came from non-traditional work backgrounds. At USAID, we have a ton of technical expertise, from agriculture to media to science and technology. So, you have people who came from Silicon Valley and then people who worked for a big farm organisation. Not only do I love it because people are kind and smart, but you really can just sit and learn a lot. In every meeting, I’m always surprised with what people are saying, or the vantage point they’re looking at a problem from. It’s exciting to me. I really enjoy it.
Do you get to travel for work?
Yes. I see my job as a support role to the mission and the embassy in Islamabad, so whenever they need help on something, from strategy to evaluating or designing a program, I go out there. It depends on the year, but I spend around a fourth of my time in Islamabad. It’s a great way to get out and connect with the country you’re working for and with.
Where do you see your career going in the future?
I’m open to many different paths moving forward. I started off my career thinking that it was going to be linear, and I always thought I needed a next step, but the great thing about my career so far is that every step has allowed me to see new opportunities and new challenges - and I leap at any chance I get.
Looking forward, what I love the most about my job right now is connecting with different people and looking at different cultures, even within the US agencies. USAID is very different from the State Department and the White House, so making sure that we can all talk to each other and understand our goals and successes is important. I’ve really enjoyed that aspect of my job, so hopefully I’ll be doing something where I can facilitate better communication between different US organisations and international organisations- whether that be a role in the UN or the White House.
You’ve mentioned strategy – what other skills make you good at what you do?
Really coming to the table every time knowing the most I can know about country context, U.S. policy and how our organization fits within this policy. It’s important to always see outside of your immediate surroundings - to think big and to question everything.
The biggest struggle, at least for me, is making sure that you’re thoughtful, whilst also making decisions. Knowing the point where you’re saturated enough to move forward is very important, otherwise you become paralyzed by data. If you don’t make decisions at a critical time, you lose your ability to have impact on the very thing you’re thinking about. I don’t think you learn that in school. You learn it as you go. The scary and liberating thing about work is that it’s not always perfect – but it has to go forward.
Do you have role models?
Absolutely. I think my entire career is based on my role models and mentors around me. Watching how my mom and my sister balance their work, ethics and personal life has been really important. They have always pushed the envelope. They’ve taken risks and have not been ashamed of who they were. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from both of them is to keep a strong sense of self and to never let a problem absorb who you are and the decisions that you make. My dad is also a huge role model for me. He taught me never to accept something because someone of power has said it. He always told me to think critically, and be unafraid to speak my mind.
And then throughout my career, I’ve always had strong women colleagues or professors who have taught me how to think critically, especially the head of my graduate school program. She really pushed me to realise that observing is not enough. She taught me that it’s okay to be messy, as that’s when some of the best thinking occurs.
Do you have any advice for people who may be looking up to you and aspiring to a similar career?
If you work hard and think critically, that will get you a long way, but more importantly, be persistent and be diligent and don’t take no for an answer. Be bold. As women, we tend to sell ourselves short. In my first job, I really wanted to do some conflict analysis even though it wasn’t in my job description, so I offered to stay after work and do it for free. I worked hard and asked the right questions and it became part of my job. Be tenacious and push yourself. Most importantly, find the right people to ground truth what you think and motivate and inspire you. The most important value you have, especially when you’re young, is passion. The people that I admire the most in their careers are those who have somehow been able to safeguard that passion, because things aren’t always fun. We all have the paperwork part of our job, but you should ask yourself every day why you are there - and make sure this answer pushes you forward.
Aside from the paperwork, what do you find to be the biggest challenges in your work life?
There’s always the work/life balance, which is a challenge for everyone, especially if you’re passionate about what you do. Then there are those times when your work is hard, or you have to deal with difficult personalities. We can all experience demotivation at those points, and I think my biggest challenge is to push forward and come out of those experiences with a positive attitude.
What have you found most surprising about your field of work?
I’m surprised every day. I’m surprised that you’re able to innovate all the time, even in bigger government structures, and I’m constantly surprised by the different perspectives offered.
I’ve also been surprised by how expansive our community is. USAID is just one government agency, but then there’s the rest of the US government, the UN, and the donors we engage with. We have a synergy with all of them, and so when we look at the problems in Pakistan, we aren't working alone to solve them. There’s a whole international community to build off of. I’ve been surprised by how we look at our programming holistically and ask how we can complement one another. Throughout my career, I’ve seen more and more how we influence other organisations and they influence us, and I think that’s been incredible.
When you’re hiring someone, what do you look for?
Technical skill, and critical thinking. If you can come to work every day willing to ask the tough questions, you’re adding personal value to that organisation.
Between academia and work, the biggest leap is figuring out how to take your knowledge and apply it, so I look for people who have been able to do that. I like to see people who have managed to apply their skills and get their hands dirty.
You studied at Miami University and later at Trinity College, Dublin. How did you find them? Would you recommend your courses and colleges?
Miami was a large liberal arts school, so it had a large selection of courses. I took classes in everything from Biology to Astrophysics to Classical Studies to International Relations. That gave me respect for different areas of study, and I ended up majoring in Anthropology, which is a very holistic field. It was a good way to get a flavour of different ways of thinking. Science teaches us how to make decisions based on evidence, and my liberal arts classes taught me how to think critically and creatively, and to step back and look at the bigger picture.
What my grad school gave me was a focus, that ability to hone down and think about conflict and human rights, and to think critically. The value of Trinity College, Dublin was that there were people from all over the world in my class with very different perspectives. The head of my class, for example, was an Israeli, born in Palestine and living in Ireland. There were people with such diverse backgrounds and skills, and they really pushed you to improve.