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Alumni Essay: Alissa Johnson '01 (International Studies Major)

"So, what kind of job are your going to get with THAT degree?" Yes, I got this question too, from my silver-haired granny, from smug friends with accounting job offers, and even from a nosy stranger on the No. 7 bus. I graduated from Whitworth in 2001 with dual degrees in French and cross-cultural studies. I was interested in economic development and humanitarian work but I wasn't really sure how to translate that interest into a job that would feel meaningful and pay the bills. I had spent Jan term in Kenya during my sophomore year working in field medical clinics and although I didn't realize it at the time this was an early introduction to both planning and managing an aid project on the ground. I spent my entire junior year abroad in complete language and cultural immersion on the island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, which I specifically chose because it was a non-English speaking program in the developing world. But post-graduation when I began searching for positions in humanitarian or development organizations I quickly realized that to be a viable candidate I needed to gain more international experience and develop practical management skills. Although there may be other ways, the Peace Corps is probably the simplest way to get solid oversees experience in a structured program but I felt that it wasn't a great fit for me, so after graduation I worked for a few months teaching ESL while putting together a Fulbright grant proposal in the evenings. In the fall I submitted my Fulbright application and moved to Seattle to take an internship doing corporate public relations with a big advertising firm. I was introduced to strategic planning, effective business communication, and the dynamics of a team-driven organization -- a structure that is ubiquitous in the business and non-profit world but which I hadn't had much exposure to at Whitworth. When the internship was complete I freelanced teaching French and temped with various businesses to survive. I was actually working in construction project management (wearing a hard hat while 13 more stories of luxury Belltown condos went up) when the letter came announcing that I had received a Fulbright grant to Burkina Faso. That first year out of school wasn't easy, but I've been surprised at how the skills I learned (not to mention the ability to fend off construction workers with good humor) have been applicable since. So if you find yourself having to take positions right away that don't seem directly related to your ultimate career path, don't despair. Referring to his disparate and seemingly unconnected early experiences, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, told graduates at Stanford's 2005 commencement, "Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later."

It hasn't been 10 years yet, but looking back it's already clear that my Fulbright grant was critical in shaping my future direction, although not in the way I had planned. I went to Burkina Faso to research the West African film industry, but while there I also taught English at the University of Ouagadougou and volunteered with several NGOs using radio and theatre to advocate for social change and public health improvements. It was ultimately global public health, especially infectious diseases like HIV, tuberculosis and malaria that would capture my attention and fire my imagination.

When I returned to Seattle I spent six months researching global health NGOs, devouring stacks of books, knocking on doors, and talking to every person working in the field who would meet with me. Rather than taking a higher level job with just any global health organization in Seattle, I chose to identify the premier organizations and seek any level of job I could get in one of them. I would really emphasize the power of networking - it was through word of mouth that I heard about and ultimately acquired an entry-level position at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network at the world-class Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, working on clinical trials conducted in 15 countries of potential HIV vaccines. If you take this route, you may need to readjust your self-image and expectations. I went from being a Fulbright Scholar to being the lowest paid administrative assistant in the entire organization. If the reality of an entry-level position is not glamorous, don't be too disappointed. This is an opportunity to work hard and absorb all the information you can about the organization and the field and determine what it takes to be successful in the kind of position you would really like to have. Seek out a mentor -- smart managers will make time if you are professional in the way you accept and complete even mundane tasks and are proactive about taking on any project available. They can help you clarify your direction and identify the gaps in your skills and experience. In my case, one of the things I lacked was formalized project management training, so I enrolled in a nine-month project management certificate program at the University of Washington. At the time I'm not sure I appreciated the irony of spending 14% of my already low salary to fill in the practical skills gaps left from my expensive liberal arts education. Reflecting back now, it would have been more prudent as an undergraduate to have taken statistics, economics and management courses rather than completing two unnecessary minors. The project-management and team-based problem-solving skills I gained in the UW certificate program were immensely practical, and before I had even completed the program I was offered a position in another organization as a project coordinator overseeing myriad HIV/AIDS research projects and activities.

A graduate degree is a requirement for most non-profit sector jobs above the basic administrative level. In my current position as a program coordinator I am very unusual because I don't have a master's degree. If I hadn't been an internal candidate with a known track record of successfully managing projects, I'm not sure that they would have considered me seriously for the job. I would suggest that you make sure the advanced degree you pursue includes practical coursework in management, administration, finance, etc. To effectively manage a specific relief project (or an entire non-profit organization) you need a practical skill set as well as an understanding of the theory behind why you do what you do. Many organizations in the non-profit sector are actively seeking staff with MBA's, so this may be something to consider. Seeking out programs that cover both policy and practical logistics (grant writing, putting together budgets, project management, etc) might also be useful.

That said, waiting six years before going to grad school has been a very good decision for me. I am applying for Ph.D. programs in health economics this spring and feel confident that the experiences I have had will be very valuable in informing my studies and shaping my career options when I complete my degree.

So if you don't have a good answer for granny yet, don't worry too much. Take advantage of all the interesting opportunities (jobs, internships, lectures, professional organizations, travel) that present themselves and be open to ideas and alternatives you come across that might be different from what you first thought you'd be doing. Five years ago I wasn't considering HIV/AIDS work, but it turned out to be a real passion that allowed me both to make a living and to have a rich and meaningful work life. I wish the same for all of you.