Archive for May, 2009

How much oversight for study abroad?

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

The talk of the NAFSA conference today is an article in USA Today looking at U.S. student safety while studying abroad and the oversight of study abroad programs by universities and providers (it’s the first thing everyone saw when they opened their hotel doors for their complimentary newpapers). A quick overview of the article: the lack of central oversight for international education programs is a major impediment to increasing student safety:

Though most college students who go abroad — nearly 250,000 in the 2006-07 academic year — return home without serious incident, nobody knows exactly how many students end up hurt because nobody is required to keep track on a national level. Nor are most programs required to disclose incidents to the public.

The difficulty with a “federal standard for liability,” though, is that “such a law would effectively ‘kill overseas programs’ because no school or provider would be able to guarantee student safety”:

Higher-education officials don’t question the importance of safety abroad but argue that it must be a shared responsibility.

“This is one of those situations that is an impossibly difficult tradeoff,” says Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the non-profit American Council on Education, which represents higher education in Washington. “We want students to study abroad … and we want them to be safe. But if we wanted to send students to places where we were sure nothing bad could ever possibly happen to them, we probably wouldn’t send them anywhere.”

What does everyone think? How much responsibility do universities and providers have for student safety abroad, since it’s impossible to guarantee? And how much can or should be chalked up to “bad things happen” and students could be assaulted in Kansas City as well as in Kingston? Is there a middle ground?

The BIG Guide to Living and Working Overseas

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009


Keeping with my so-far predominant impression of the NAFSA conference—i.e., that it’s big—it was delightfully ironic to come across The BIG Guide to Living and Working Overseas by Jean-Marc Hachey on the shelves of the NAFSA bookstore. Actually, I was glad to see it there if for no other reason than to remind me that I’d been meaning to write about it as a resource for some time but have kept neglecting the task. Marty Tillman, career advisor at Johns Hopkins-SAIS (and author of the review of Working World in International Educator), introduced me to the book and touted it as a great resource.

My initial impression of The BIG Guide is that its title is not false advertising—it is a huge book. But it looks to be packed with useful, practical information (perhaps even an ovewhelming amount of information). If you’re looking to get abroad for your work/career, you might want to check it out.

The key to winning a Nobel prize is to have no idea what you’re doing

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009

Muhammad Yunus is a charming man. As the keynote speaker at the NAFSA opening plenary today, the Nobel Peace laureate admitted that “the one reason I could create Grameen Bank is because I knew nothing about banking…I could do things others couldn’t even think of.” When those who were working with him mentioned that what he had tasked of them they had no previous experience with, Yunus brushed away their concerns: “If you know it, you can’t do it.” Like I said, charming.

If I’m permitted to stretch just a touch, these remarks remind me of something I feel very strongly about when it comes to determining the future course of your career: go with your gut. You can’t possibly plan it all out, so why even try? Instead, pursue those things to which you are intractably drawn, and then see where it all leads you.

One other tidbit from Yunus’ talk, for recording now and for reflection later: in describing the model for Grameen Bank, Yunus drew a distinction between “charity dollar” and “social business dollar.” The charity dollar, he said, is one that goes and never comes back. The social business dollar, however, goes and comes back and has an endless life and, if used right, can become an institution. I wonder how this insight relates to the very deep discussion that’s been going on RE: international volunteering, voluntourism, and the merits of a volunteer paying for his or her volunteer experience. It’s too late to figure out now, but even my tired mind tells me there is at least some connection….

And one last thing: I would throw up some pictures of the conference proceedings, but my old, busted camera isn’t allowing me to download for some reason. So if forced to describe the scene in words, the late hour compels me to do so in only one: big. The plenary session hall in which Yunus spoke was like an airplane hangar; the exhibit hall has more buttons and fishbowls of candy than one should ever see in a lifetime (browse the list of exhibitors for a who’s-who of international education, exchange, and study abroad organizations); and the outdoor “LA Live!” opening reception was like a massive block party for which everyone was issued matching name badges and tote bags.

“The world’s common language is broken English”

Tuesday, May 26th, 2009


Waiting for my sessions here at NAFSA to get going, I ponder the WashPost’s contemplation of the translation technology revolution: “How big a deal will it be to culture and society to have a cellphone that will allow you to talk to most of the world’s 6 billion people?”

To this day, if you want to get a translation absolutely right, go find yourself a talented human. “Nuclear power,” says Kevin Hendzel, a spokesman for the American Translators Association, when asked of areas where you want tremendously good human translation. “Negotiations for disarmament. The pharmaceutical industry. Zero-error work with millions of dollars” riding on the outcome. Hendzel has served as an interpreter on the presidential hot line.

The trouble with meticulous, culturally sensitive human translation, of course, is that it is slow, pricey and rare.

Suppose you are willing to settle for blazingly fast, cheap, “good enough” translations. Especially those aimed at languages spoken by the rich, multitudinous or dangerous. Enter the new generation of machine translators that in the last year have begun to open broad new vistas.

It seems like there are many situations in which fast, “good enough” translations would be benficial: combat/conflict zone situations and the translation of web content to make it more broadly accessible to users of many varying languages, to name two. But would having a cell phone that can translate any language on the fly be a good thing, from a cultural exchange standpoint? It would certainly make some situations abroad easier (i.e., trying to hack out the details of a cab ride or a market negotiation in an unfamiliar language), but that might in turn deprive us of some of the best experiences abroad—those awkward, difficult, but often enlightening cultural-linguistic encounters. How many students studying abroad would increasingly use their cell phone as a crutch instead of really learning the language of their host country? How many vacationers abroad would use their phone rather than hack out even rudimentary phrases?

Like every new technology, we’ll adapt and figure it out. But this particular technology seems to have some pretty far-reaching implications, both positive and negative, for our fields.

A blockbuster event in the City of Angels

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Question: if you’re at the Staples Center in LA this week and run into flocks of beautiful, famous people, are they attending: a) Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Lakers v. Nuggets, b) the NAFSA 2009 Annual Conference & Expo, c) WWE Smackdown, or d) a Dane Cook show?

Yes! B is correct (at least for the purposes of this post): the NAFSA annual conference, off to which I am headed in just a few hours! NAFSA is the largest gathering of the international education and exchange field each year, drawing anywhere from 8,000-10,000 participants. I’m a NAFSA newbie, so I’m not entirely sure what to expect, though I’m told that the exhibit halls are just absurdly huge, that I should bring more business cards than I possibly think I could go through in a week, and that the Wednesday night reception sponsored by the Irish universities association gets pretty ridiculous.

Not sure what the status of blogging will be throughout the week, but I’ll definitely jump on for at least a few links/thoughts, and hopefully provide some updates and photos from the conference. I’m also hoping that the other three above events, all of which are taking place at the same time NAFSA is underway, will result in some legit celebrity sightings, better than the kind that happen in DC where our idea of seeing someone famous is running into John King on the Metro (though I do love his Magic Wall).

Happy Memorial Day.

“Things they don’t teach you in graduate school”

Monday, May 25th, 2009

According to Chris Blattman, currently in Liberia, “how to respond to a former rebel general that you don’t necessarily need his ‘protection’ for your survey and help in ’sensitizing’ the communities.”

Blattman’s mobile dispatches from the field are entertaining and instructive. Follow his project coordinator on Twitter too.

Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view, ctd.

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

Thanks to everyone who chimed in on our discussion, started last Sunday, on “voluntourism” and international volunteering. The post generated some passionate and lengthy feedback, so I want to revisit the topic, both to round-up what’s been said as well as to allow myself a few more thoughts.

First, a few organizations that entered the discussion and that international job seekers might be interested in checking out:

  • VSO: “the world’s leading independent international development organisation that works through volunteers to fight poverty in developing countries;” based in London
  • Cross-Cultural Solutions: “specializes in short-term volunteer abroad programs in 12 countries;” based in New Rochelle, NY
  • GlobeAware: develops short-term volunteer programs in international environments that encourage people to immerse themselves in a unique way of giving back;” based in Dallas, TX

Now, to the meat. My goal in starting a dialogue with Alanna RE: voluntourism was, quite simply, to find out more about it. I wanted to learn why an experienced development practitioner (Alanna) viewed voluntourism so negatively. And based on her view of the concept, I also wanted to revisit my initial opinion (I wrote many months back: “Voluntourism strikes me as not only a way to give back but also a means to gain short-term experience working abroad”) and determine if I was perhaps off the mark.

The first aspect of my post that some readers took issue with was nomenclature: “voluntourism” vs. “volunteering.” A few mentioned that voluntourism is in fact not volunteering at all—commenter Steve Jackson suggested they shouldn’t even be “mentioned in the same breath.” I’m respectful of Steve’s opinion, as well as his position as a skilled VSO volunteer, though I’m doubtful of this assertion. I wasn’t purposefully trying to conflate the two terms, or to use them interchangeably. But I did view, and still do, voluntourism as a form of volunteering, which for better or for worse I think many people would consider it to be (the original SF Chronicle article that spawned my first post on voluntourism defines voluntourism as a way in which one might volunteer, not as a wholly separate concept).

Those who stridently oppose voluntourism as wholly unbeneficial and with none of the redeeming qualities we typically associate with volunteer work are welcome to do so, though I’m unwilling to join them in this assessment, largely because I’m reluctant to judge the intentions and benefits of a large group of people and programs that are not all the same. I guess I’d just rather discuss than assume.

All of which leads to the second issue that arose as a result of my post: what does it mean to pay for a volunteer experience abroad?  Or, what do we really mean when we say “voluntourism”?


Equal benefits for same-sex partners of American diplomats

Sunday, May 24th, 2009

I noted on Friday that, while the State Department ranked a high fifth in the ‘09 rankings of best places to work in the U.S. government, it ranked much more poorly in the subcategories of Pay and Benefits and Family Friendly Culture and Benefits (17th and 26th). In a heartening related note, though, I now see that State will finally offer equal benefits and protections to same-sex partners of American diplomats:

Mrs. Clinton said the policy change addressed an inequity in the treatment of domestic partners and would help the State Department recruit diplomats, since many international employers already offered such benefits.

A response to its poor benefits and family culture rankings? Possibly, but probably not. The long-overdue reversal of a shamefully discriminatory policy? Absolutely:

“At bottom,” [Clinton] said, “the department will provide these benefits for both opposite-sex and same-sex partners because it is the right thing to do.”

‘The Obama factor’ x ‘This economy’ = Tough times placing interns

Saturday, May 23rd, 2009

A friend of mine here in DC (a lawyer for a nonprofit that advocates for victims of international human trafficking) tells me that this summer will be a tough market for internships. A friend of hers, whose organization places students in political, nonprofit, and other internships in DC, is “desperately” looking for available positions. According to him, this summer is one of the toughest he’s ever faced finding placements for his undergrad interns coming to the Capitol City:

I regularly encounter tougher-than-normal times getting all of my students placed in internships. Summertime is by far the worst, because DC internships are extremely more competitive in the summer months than during other times of the year. But even given that phenomenon, this summer is proving particularly challenging, primarily for two reasons:

  1. the Obama factor: It’s a brave new world. Everyone wants to be in DC right now. Applications at all of the agencies we work with have shot up by huge factors. When we met with the White House a couple of weeks ago, they said they received no less than 6,000 applications for this summer.
  2. the economy: People who would normally be entering the workforce right now are turning to internships to (a) beef up their resume a bit more and (b) try to wait out the job slump. The result: a ton of people running around with Masters, PhDs, and JDs snatching up the spots that undergrads would normally be viable candidates for.

I post this not to be discouraging but only to present the reality of the situation. There’s no one, right solution for overcoming this reality, but I will say: it’s not going to be enough to rely on your stellar resume and your well-written cover letter to get you noticed (not when there’s 6,000 others sending in a great cover letter and resume too). Rather, step up your networking, your volunteering, your informational interviewing. Work any and all contacts, no matter how obscure (your parents’ dentist happens to know someone who knows someone who works at a great international nonprofit? Who cares how tenuous the connection—pursue it). The best way to get yourself noticed amongst the throng of other applicants is to become a known quantity. Get yourself in front of the decision makers and make it obvious that they can’t live without you.

I recognize that this is not an easy thing to do. But I really believe that making yourself a known quantity and proving your skills and your committment, not simply relying on how they look on paper, is the best way to stand out from the masses.

Best places to work in the government ‘09

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

The long-awaited 2009 rankings for the best places to work in the federal government are out! Sadly, because he’s now out of office, the bureau that coordinates Dick Cheney Wrangling is no longer eligible for consideration.

The State Department ranks as the 5th best place to work on the large agency scale. It scored very high in such subcategories as Strategic Management, Teamwork, and Effective Leadership (ranked third in all of these), but not so high in the Pay and Benefits and Family Friendly Culture and Benefits areas (17th and 26th, respectively).

I thought USAID hadn’t even made the list, until I realized it was listed in the small agency category, where it ranked 15th. I was actually kind of shocked that USAID, a well-known agency with such broad programmatic reach, would qualify as a ’small’ agency. Maybe I’m naive (or more likely uninformed) but I always envisioned USAID as on par in size and scope with the State Department. Apparently not.

This misunderstanding was then brought into sharp relief when I later came across this little tidbit about the FY 2010 budget request for USAID:

The U.S. Agency for International Development’s operating expenses budget would jump to $1.4 billion, 60 percent over enacted 2009 levels.

I knew that USAID was underfunded and understaffed and that a goal of the Obama administration is to greatly increase its capacity, but damn. When your new budget will “only” be $1.4 billion (compare that with the $533.7 billion FY10 request from the Defense Department) and that $1.4 billion is a 60 percent (!) increase from last year…well, I guess you’re not as big of an agency as I thought you were. Maybe USAID’s best-place-to-work-ranking will improve next year once it actually gets some money to do some stuff.

Will job-hunt for food

Thursday, May 21st, 2009
DC job hunter Michael Volpe pulls out all the stops.

Good lord, it can be tough out there. From today’s WashPost, a pity-inducing yet somehow inspiring profile of a young Peace Corps alum’s quest to find gainful employment. With all other methods yielding zero tangible results, the intrepid, fearless, and apparently void-of-ego Michael Volpe has taken to the streets and Metro stations of DC with a bright orange sign around his neck announcing the fact that he needs a job:

He has applied, among other places, at the Department of Energy, the State Department, USAID, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and scores of nongovernmental organizations.

He walked into the offices of National Geographic with his résumé. They suggested that he volunteer as an usher in their movie theater.

Ouch. Perhap even more impressive than Volpe’s persistence and willingness to embrace such a “when all else fails” method of job hunting is his ability to overcome networking shyness—the article tells of how Volpe is “soft-spoken and finds it challenging to muster up the courage for a public crusade.” I count myself among those who find it tough enough to muster the courage to attend a regular networking event, let alone hang a sign around my neck in public. But kudos to Michael for recognizing two important yet often overlooked keys to networking: 1) sometimes you just gotta suck it up, and 2) stay open to the unexpected—who knows what kind of connection might be made standing outside the Metro with a bright orange sign around your neck.

International jobs on Capitol Hill

Wednesday, May 20th, 2009

Sitting through a batch of meetings and hearings this week on Capitol Hill (during one of which I was about six feet from Hillary Clinton as she testified—very cool), I was reminded of the many opportunities available for an internationally-oriented career as a Congressional staffer. Every Senator and Representative has at least one staff member (usually a Legislative Assistant or Legislative Correspondent) who handles the foreign affairs portfolio. These staffers not only engage deeply on international issues (the Af-Pak situation, the Israeli-Palestinian situation, DoS exchange programs, expansion of the Foreign service, USAID programs and potential reshuffling and restructuring, to name just a few that were mentioned today), but also get to travel with their bosses quite a bit (one staffer I met with recently had just returned from Haiti and was headed to Cyprus, while another was off to China for the sixth time in three years).

I’m less familiar with the international opportunities in the district/state offices, but they also exist. International travel is less frequent for the non-DC offices, I would bet, but opportunities to work on the foreign affairs portfolio would still be there.

Also, in addition to working for a Member, there also exist opportunities to work on the staff of internationally-oriented Congressional committees—for example, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (which fund the State Department and most government international activities), to name the most prominent.

Two good places to start poking around for (international) Hill jobs: Roll Call Jobs and Hill Zoo.

For all the language lovers out there

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Lexiophiles has you covered.

It’s not just what you’re going to do, but where you’re going to do it

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Richard Florida makes the case for choosing the city that you’d like to get a job/build a career in wisely:

Getting ahead in your career today means more than picking the right first job. Corporate commitment has dwindled, job tenure has grown far shorter, and people switch jobs with much greater frequency. The average American changes their job once every three years; the average American under the age of 30 changes their job once a year.

In today’s highly mobile and economically tumultuous times, career success also turns on picking a thick labor market which offers diverse and abundant job opportunities. For new grads, picking the most vibrant location is an important hedge against economic uncertainty and the risk of layoff.

Florida cites’s recent survey that lists New York as the most attractive place for recent college grads, followed by DC, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and San Diego. Florida’s own list of attractive cities (divided into large, mid-size, and small, then further subdivided by age group) matches closely, though offers more possibilities than just the big cities mentioned by CareerCast.

I’d be interested to get Florida’s take on how these cities, large and small, fare in terms of “internationalness”—meaning both the international engagement of the city in general, as well as the availability of opportunities to get an international-oriented job there. One question Sherry and I have often fielded (and were only able to address briefly in our book) is: many international opportunities exist in New York or DC, but I don’t live in New York or DC—what opportunities are there for me? We always suggest that international job seekers check out local universities, chambers of commerce, and the local political scene, all of which are inceasingly international in nature. But in terms of more specific opportunities, it always depends on the nature of the particular place, of which we most likely have limited knowledge.

Even so, we both do try to suggest international organizations we happen to know in any given city. After the jump, off the top of my head, a few international organizations in each of CareerCast’s top 10 (minus DC and NYC). If you know of other international organizations in these cities, or in mid-size and small cities which are not typically thought of as international, (or if you know of a Florida-like study examining the “internationalness” of American cities), please pass any and all of it along.


Intl. development volunteering: dispelling the rosy view

Monday, May 18th, 2009

I mentioned on Saturday that I wanted to further discuss the merits of international volunteering. To set the stage, Alanna Shaikh (of Blood and Milk and Global Health) and I have had a somewhat lengthy, behind-the-scenes discussion of volunteering in international development and its relation to starting a career in the field. It all started with Alanna’s comment to my long-ago post on the notion of “voluntourism” (essentially a short-term, working vacation in which one volunteers abroad and pays an organization to facilitate the experience):

I have to say, I am not impressed by voluntourism. If you have actual useful skills that can help people, then you can be paid to work abroad. If you have so few skills that you need to pay someone to take you, then how much good can you be doing?

A pretty provocative comment, I thought. And even a bit harsh. How can she, or we, judge another person’s intent as they enter a volunteer experience? How do we know they have no skills to offer? We don’t know the circumstances which led them to the particular volunteer program they going through (whether they are paying for that experience or not)—so how can we judge the impact they will have or the benefit they will receive from the experience?

After pondering her comment, though, and then discussing it with her further, I realized Alanna was not being judgmental but rather realistic. It also occurred to me that there’s a general tendency in our fields (the diverse and varied whole of international education, exchange, and development) to view any and all volunteer work as positive—both on a resume and to the organization/project/people being served. But Alanna’s perspective blows that rosy view out of the water by saying “just because you mean well doesn’t mean you’re actually helping.” A cold dose of reality, and one that I think more people—especially more young people looking at careers in development—need to have. Our discussion went something like this:

I queried Alanna to expand on her voluntourism comment. I countered that volunteering is a great way to gain international experience and contacts in the field. In addition, those who volunteer are aiding a good cause and certainly are not without many skills to offer. Alanna countered my optimism with a view from the field:

I think it boils down to this: you cannot do good development work in such short stints. You can’t even contribute to good development work, because the learning curve is so long you’d be gone before you were useful. All you can do is be an extra pair of hands, which displaces local labor. The vast majority of respectable/major development agencies therefore do not use short-term volunteers.

Almost everyone you pay to volunteer with is either a little bit shady, or doing work that doesn’t have much impact. That means your contacts with them aren’t worth much. I am not the only one who holds this view; most everyone I have ever worked with thinks the same thing. I’ve done a fair amount of hiring and reviewing resumes, and for me, voluntourism generally counted against the candidate, not in their favor, and once again, I know I am not the only one who feels that way.

Here was a perspective on volunteer work I hadn’t heard before—a perspective that is not necessarily well or widely heard, I don’t think, outside the experienced development community. But I needed this to be fleshed out more, so I further queried Alanna:

—If short term volunteers are unable to make an impact on a project, what about long-term volunteers?  Are they often used?  And if so, what is the minimum amount of time needed in a certain place/on a certain project in order to make a positive impact on the project?

—I can see how “voluntourism” (i.e., paying for an altruistic experience abroad) could be viewed negatively—but how do you view volunteer work in general on a resume (not voluntourism but legit long-term volunteer work with a reputable development agency)?

—Should young people look for international development experience through long term volunteer work?  Or are they better served looking for internships or paid positions?

Alanna’s thoughts on these subjects went like this:

1) Long-term volunteers are useful. I’d say you need to stay at least 2 months to qualify.

2) You are right that people generally distinguish between paid and “legitimate” volunteer work, and regular volunteer work is viewed positively as field experience.

3) I’m a big proponent of just showing up to get in-country experience, though I think standard volunteer, internship, and fellowship programs are also effective. I actually wrote about these things once. Also, someone also recently commented on my blog and made the great point that you can also volunteer in your home country to build technical skills. Working with immigrants, for example, or women’s health would be skills that could help you get an international job.

I am still a proponent of international volunteer work for the main purpose of gaining international experience and even if there is no more specific strategic goal attached (i.e., I taught English in China, an experience which, while I don’t work directly with China-related issues right now, has played a big role in my movement into work in international exchange and has always looked good on my resume). But Alanna has really provided an impetus, I think, to look beyond the rosy picture of volunteering and view it more critically, both in terms of the benefit it will have on your career and the benefit it will make to the people/project you are trying to serve.