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Speechifying on Decisions and Career Development

In Career Development, Growing Up, International Development, Peace Corps on January 20, 2012 at 9:07 pm

This is the text of a speech I gave at the UCDC Winter welcome reception tonight, 1/20/2012.

Good evening everyone! Thanks Melody for that great introduction! I’d also like to thank the alumni volunteers Sarah and Paulina, and also Lexi Killoren for inviting me here tonight to speak with you. I learned that today was her last day with UCSD. I’m excited to be here and to be reconnecting with UC San Diego after 15 years. My parents still live in Carlsbad and I’ve passed by UC San Diego over the years, things have changed a lot – you’ve got new buildings, new colleges, even UCDC wasn’t yet an option for me back in the early 90’s.

And, by the way, I’d like to say that UCSD made me try something new again, I wore a suit all day on Casual Friday! Thanks for that. But I’ve also decided not to wear a tie, in honor or Friday.

I was invited to speak to you about how I got into my career and field. I’ve been thinking about this since I was invited to speak, and you can draw a direct link between my time at UCSD and where I am now. The stage was set for me, but the spark for what was to come came to me while I was exploring my options one day back in the mid 90’s. What I’ve learned is that building your career is based on making key decisions based on what is most important to you. I’m going to talk to you tonight about the decisions I made that brought me to where I am now.

I always knew I wanted to help people. I think this comes from my father, who has devoted his career to developing cancer drugs for pharmaceutical companies. My mother also volunteered at my elementary school extensively while I was growing up, eventually spending 3 years as the PTA president. This was an early influence on my career.

I also have always been interested in working internationally and learning new cultures. This is also due to my father, a scientist who always had international colleagues on his teams and over to our house for dinner all the time. I liked the different cultures, accents, styles, and languages. This probably played a small part in attracting me to international development.

As Melody mentioned, I work in the International Development field. What does that mean? Well, generally speaking, it encompasses all material and technical assistance to disadvantaged people in developing countries. Like any industry, international development is segmented and you can specialize – We can help build roads to facilitate more commerce, reconstruct housing after a disaster, provide hygiene training to reduce infant mortality, and help make local government more responsive to their communities. I have colleagues who are doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, as well as anthropologists and journalists. Then you have someone like me.

I’m what you would call a generalist. I never majored in a technical field – in fact, one of the reasons I ended up where I am is because a Peace Corps recruiter feigned interest in my Political Science studies at UCSD.

As many of you know – UCSD has one of the best medical schools in the world. In the early 90’s when I was a student, it was clear that computer science and engineering degrees were going to pay dividends – but I just couldn’t find any interest in those fields. I had no idea what I would do with a Political Science degree. I just liked studying foreign policy and other cultures. I thought that maybe I would become a Foreign Service Officer, but I hadn’t really heard my calling.

So one day, I happened upon a grad school fair at the Price Center. There were two tables there I came across that ended up being important later on in my life – the Peace Corps and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. The Peace Corps recruiter, when I told him my major, said, “Really? We could use you!” And I was just naïve enough to really love hearing that and gathering all the brochures. This was before the web had caught on so information was scarce… I also spent a few moments at the Monterey Institute’s table – it seemed like an interesting place, you learn to work internationally and you have to be proficient in a language before you graduate.

Those two UCSD experiences parked themselves in the back of my head waiting for another day. I graduated in fall of 1995, moved up to San Jose, and got engaged to my wife Andrea. I got a job working at a computer store where I worked my way up from shipping and receiving to corporate sales. At 22, I had a job where my colleagues were both in their 50’s, one of them putting his daughter through college. I was on a track that I wasn’t enjoying, but I learned two important lessons – that it’s liberating being sincere, and that I would never enjoy selling something unless I believed in it.

I decided that selling computers wasn’t my calling; I wanted to get out of it as soon as I could. I always knew I wanted to go to graduate school so I started to look into that option. I remembered the Monterey Institute from that career fair back at UCSD. I drove down and visited the campus, where the dean told me that with my relatively, ahem, mediocre grades, that I’d need to do something else international to be a competitive applicant, “like the Peace Corps, “ he said.

My wife had already had her epiphany and had, apparently, secretly filled out most of our applications and had ben waiting for me to come around… in fact maybe she was collaborating with the Monterey dean I spoke with… regardless, once we learned you could serve as a married couple, we decided to join the Peace Corps in fall 1996.

My mindset when I went to Niger was that this was going to be like the “army for hippies” for me – something super difficult and life changing that would set me on my course, make me an adult, and get me to the next step, which at that time was going to graduate school. I figured that I’d have 2 years to experience new things and think about what I want to do. It ended up being so much more. I went to Niger with few expectations other than to expect it to be really difficult and hopefully I’d come out of it with some kind of life direction, and my marriage in tact! Which, I’m happy to say, it is, this April we’ll be celebrating our 15th anniversary.

A little bit about Niger – it’s one of the poorest countries in the world, in the last 10 years it’s actually held the bottom position in the UN Human Development Index a couple of times. At the end of the 90’s, Niger’s infant mortality rate was around 20 percent, the literacy rate was less than 10 percent for women; annual income was less than a dollar per day. It’s the children that really affected me – these kids had no control over where they were born, the choices their parents make, or the policies their governments put into place, all of which have had an effect on their current situation. I was born to middle class, educated parents who gave me every possible opportunity to thrive – I’ve had more luck than I needed, which living in Niger made clear to me. In Niger, I decided to devote my career to helping those whose parents couldn’t give them what mine could.

I know I have only about 15-20 minutes to talk, but to describe my Peace Corps experience in a nutshell… The poverty was shocking, scary, and one of the most profound things I’ve experienced in my life. We lived in two round mud huts with grass roofs in a small rural village of 50 Fulani herder families. We communicated in Fulfulde and I worked in the fields and gardens with my villagers. I managed a village-based literacy program and wrote a proposal that helped build about 10 garden wells. We extended for a 3rd year to become volunteer leaders and moved to a city where I spoke more French and was exposed to more traditional NGO’s and their work. My last 6 months, I worked for the Carter Center on Guinea Worm eradication.

It was really my last 6 months that focused me – I was the regional representative for the Carter Center for Eastern Niger. I managed the office, disbursed funds and drove all around the bush monitoring the program. When I realized that this was like a real international development job, I decided that this is what I wanted to do. All the things I’d come to care about were there: I was helping people in one of the poorest places on earth, working internationally, and speaking different languages. It was also a great bonus that my wife was right there with me.

After Niger, I worked as a Peace Corps recruiter while we lived in San Francisco and started a family. I got a Masters in International Relations from San Francisco State. One of the schools in my recruiting region happened to be the Monterey Institute of International Studies – MIIS as we call it. I had a chance to reconnect with that school and ended up re-enrolling in graduate school to get my Masters of Public Administration, which I finished in 2007.

Since early 2008, I’ve been working for IRD, where I’m finally working on the kinds of projects I’d envisioned all those years ago in eastern Niger. I actually got to visit Niger and our old village for IRD in September 2010, one of the best experiences of my life.

I want to tell you about where I work. IRD, which stands for “International Relief and Development,” is an international non-profit, non-governmental organization, or NGO. Our mission is to reduce the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable groups and provide the tools and resources needed to increase their self-sufficiency.

I’m a program officer, I manage and monitor programs being implemented in the field. In the last 2 years I’ve travelled to Iraq, Niger, Chad, Kenya, and most recently – Ethiopia, where I was able to help start up an emergency water trucking program benefitting over 20,000 people along the Somali-Ethiopian border.

Recently, IRD initiated our end of year campaign around the theme, “Why I care.” I loved the simplicity and sincerity of this question, and I thought it applies well to what I came to talk to you about tonight. All of you care about something. You care about your family, your friends, and your education. But in your time here in DC, many of you for the first time will be exposed to a new world – the professional work world. This is a great opportunity to learn about what you really care about – not necessarily the grand themes of market policies or governance – but about how you like to work, what you like to work on, and what you would like to learn.

So, the lesson I’d love you all to take away from me tonight is that seemingly unconnected events and decisions can end up shaping your life, in ways you could never have imagined. A random conversation here, a bit of advice there, all build up and start making sense after a while. Here you are in Washington DC, in the middle of your college career, trying to figure out what you’re going to do, who you’re going to be – some of you might be starting to stress out about it. My advice to you is to take it day by day, keep your eyes and ears open, be flexible. Make your decisions when you need to, based on what you think is important, and change course if you don’t feel right. Pay attention to what you care about. Never stop learning, and always have faith in yourself.

Thanks very much!

I’ll be happy to take your questions.

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