Northeastern University

Kristen Paonessa

1.Why did you choose Northeastern?

Northeastern’s approach in providing a higher education to its undergraduate students intrigued me from the very beginning of my college search. I felt like it was unique and very pragmatic to participate in a 5-year program that naturally incorporated three, 6-month long experiential learning opportunities into my undergraduate career before obtaining a degree. Once I was accepted to NU and other schools, I found myself comparing every other school’s undergraduate program to the NU 5-year plan, and could not help but think that I would deeply regret not taking advantage of this different, yet extraordinarily practical college experience. Additionally, I was born & raised in a small town and craved the lifestyle of a Bostonian. With NU’s location being in the heart of a city that is alive with academia, I simply could not resist enrolling at NU. I can confidently say, as a 4th year student, that I still have never doubted my decision to be a NU husky.

2.Why did you choose this major, and does/did it seem like the right major for you?

My story of how I chose International Affairs as my major is quite unconventional. Most students usually have a strong passion or skill set that they seek to cultivate when they enroll at a university, or otherwise they choose to enroll as a general studies/undecided major. However, I was not leaning towards any specific subject, but knew I loved to travel, meet new people, and learn about different cultures. So what did I do? I utilized modern technology and simply googled: college majors + travel + people + cultures, and found a surprisingly detailed explanation of what an International Relations/Affairs major offers students in terms of course requirements and career options. The explanation was not for one particular university’s program, but merely a generic publication for all to view. I immediately liked this idea of majoring in International Affairs and thought it would be a good avenue to explore for my first year at whichever university I chose.

However, I was entirely sold on the idea of pursuing a degree in International Affairs at NU when I went to an accepted student’s day in the spring of 2009. I attended a presentation by Denise Horn & Esther Chou on the new summer programming that the IAF Dept. had been developing at the time called Dialogues of Civilizations (DOC). I remember turning to my Dad during their talk and saying, “Wow, I wonder how many of those I could do? How will I be able to choose which ones to apply for?” It was a program opportunity that had not been offered to me by any other university that I had been accepted to, and could not help but think it was brilliant.

International Affairs is definitely the right major for me, but since the academic curricula for IAF students at NU is very interdisciplinary in nature I know I will need to go on to earn a Master’s degree in the future. This is because it today’s society, a person must truly specialize in a field. Therefore, I plan to pursue a Master’s degree once I have discovered my exact professional career interests and a graduate program that will be able to provide me with all of the knowledge I need to achieve my long-term career goals (to be determined!).

3.Are there a lot of co-op options for International Affairs majors?

There are many well-established co-op jobs available for IAF students, as well as an endless number of job opportunities to develop on your own. Since there is a great variety of different areas to specialize in within the major—e.g. languages, geographical regions, economics, civil society, government, politics, multinational corporations, international organizations, etc.—it in the hands of the students to tailor their experiential learning opportunities to best fit their interests. With that said, however, it must also be noted that many of the greatest co-op options for IAF majors go unpaid or with a meager stipend. Consequently, it is usually up to the students to seek outside sources of funding or income to help financially assist their co-op experience. At times this can be very frustrating, especially when our friends in different majors consistently receive well paying co-op jobs. But in most cases this can be easily accomplished, especially since the IAF and co-op departments at NU know of many ways students can obtain funding in the form of scholarships, grants or other financial awards, or can encourage students to work a 20 hr/week co-op to leave enough time for a paid, part-time job. The resources at NU are available for finding funding and seeking advice, it just requires students to be independent, creative and tenacious.

4.What co-ops have you done?

My first co-op job was from July-December 2009 for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington D.C. This was during a time when political will was at an all-time high for legislative action on combating climate change. The Agency was swirling with exciting news about the upcoming UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, and I was learning a lot of interesting facts & figures from colleagues who understood the subject very well. Although I was not directly working for a department that was responsible for this climate change legislation, I was exposed to the intricacies of environmental lawmaking procedures (re: import & export of hazardous waste) as well as the difficulty surrounding the enforcement of both domestic and international environmental standards. It was particularly a great experience for me because I was working amongst a group of talented environmental lawyers who consistently challenged me to learn more about the world’s ever-changing environment, the problems that our governments and societies are facing, and what my generation must do to protect it.

5.Can you tell us more about your current co-op?

I am currently wrapping up my second co-op job in Phnom Penh, Cambodia working for a fantastic nonprofit organization (NGO) called The Harpswell Foundation. The Harpswell Foundation’s mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders. The young Cambodian women are selected based on a variety of criteria, primarily academic achievement and leadership potential. Once they move into one of the two dormitories that the Foundation provides for them, they pursue their undergraduate degrees at their respective universities in Phnom Penh and receive supplementary education from the volunteer leadership residents, who eat, sleep and work with them at the dormitories. Since there is no housing provided by Cambodian universities, these dormitories serve a basic need for Khmer women who are incredibly intelligent but lack the funds to provide for their own safe housing in the capital city.

My role as one of a few leadership residents is a fundamental component to the everyday operations of the Foundation and truly a rewarding experience. The “extra education” that I have been providing to these girls include: 5-6 hrs/week of pre-intermediate English language teaching to 19 students; 2 hrs/week of leading current event discussions based off student presentations on articles from the local daily newspaper to strengthen the students’ critical thinking abilities; planning weekly leadership seminars or cultural events; and providing the young Cambodian women with a role model on how to build strong cross-cultural relationships (a genuine sisterhood) with each other and with other women from around the world.

This experience was made possible by NU’s Presidential Global Scholars Award, which granted me $2,000 towards funding this international co-op opportunity. I am fortunate that this fund was established the year I decided to pursue an international co-op because it is safe to say that I would not have been able to volunteer at the Harpswell Foundation without having received this award. I was very flattered to be a recipient of a financial award through NU, and I continue to hope that many other NU students who are eager to do an international educational experience receive the same amazing opportunity to follow through with their co-op aspirations as I did this past year.

6.What would you say about the overall co-op program?

It is difficult to put into words how large of a supporter I am of the Northeastern co-op program. The design of this undergraduate degree provides the flexibility for students to really experience so much before they graduate, and I think this wealth of experience is what sets NU students apart from all other university students in the US. The advantages for students who go through this type of undergraduate degree are huge! A co-op program not only helps students to better position themselves for an enjoyable professional career post-graduation, but more importantly allows students to receive a diversified education that undoubtedly transforms them into more well-rounded people.

On a personal note, the co-op program has thus far allowed me to figure out what I do and do not enjoy about each type of career path that I could travel down. For example, both of my co-op jobs have exposed me to different fields, personality types, geographical locations, rules and responsibilities, and have ultimately provided me with the opportunities to compare different workplace environments and different lines of work (e.g. a government agency 9 am-5 pm job versus flexible hours at a nonprofit organization). These short-term professional experiences greatly help me to decide how I will be able to find happiness with my work, and where I can best utilize my strengths and capabilities once I graduate from NU.

I am consistently surprised that more universities have not followed in NU’s path of incorporating short-term windows of time dedicated to experiential learning into their academic curricula for their students. For the betterment of our society at large, I hope that more universities will begin to implement similar undergraduate programs. I think it would allow students to gain the confidence they need of knowing what it is they want from a job before entering into a professional career, and consequently yield more productive workers and a more thriving economy and society.

7.Did you have any other "learning from outside the classroom" (service learning, student leadership, study abroad, research, or volunteering) that also enriched your time here?

There are four other exceptional experiential learning opportunities that have undeniably shaped my college career at NU. The first have been my two Alternative Spring Break trips through Northeastern’s Center of Community Service. In Spring 2008 I traveled to Fort Smith, AK to work on a Habitat for Humanity build, and in Spring 2009 I traveled to Biloxi, MS to do various Hurricane Katrina relief projects. During both of these trips I met some of my most dearest friends and knew that I wanted to be able to regularly volunteer during my undergraduate career.

The second has been my ongoing mentorship with an inner city girl in the Boston Public School system through the Greater Boston Big Sister Program. At a Northeastern career fair during my freshman year, I signed up for a ‘match’ with a representative from the organization and have been with the same girl since then. She is incredible, and the process of building up a young woman’s confidence and empowering her to change her lot in life has been very rewarding for me.

Thirdly, I participated in a fantastic Dialogue of Civilizations program to Mainland China with Professor Chris Gilmartin during Summer I 2009. Professor Gilmartin led us through an eye-opening tour of both urban and rural China and exposed me to a people and culture that are so exotic to that of my own upbringing. I fell in love with everything that Asia has to offer, and this trip definitely fostered a growing interest for me to learn more about this region of the world. I also met an incredible group of people. Traveling abroad with perfect strangers usually results in making fast friendships, but those relationships do not always last once the experience is over. With this group however, I know that I will always be able to call upon them if need be and I will know that they are all out in the world doing amazing things.

Lastly, I was selected by Professor Denise Garcia Lapon to join her and a small delegation of fellow NU students to attend the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark for a week in December 2009. As students of her International Conflict & Negotiation class her goal was to have us witness an international negotiation of a major world crisis (i.e. climate change) being conducted by political leaders, diplomats, scientists, civil society members and the public. Having the opportunity to sit in on plenary discussions, listen to lecturers who were experts in their fields, and be among the hype of a media frenzy was very educational, surreal and memorable.

All of these outside learning opportunities have undoubtedly enriched my undergraduate career at Northeastern University. What I am able to learn as a student inside of a classroom must be supplemented by real-world application in order to make it a comprehensive learning experience. I do not only want to define my college career as a success because of my GPA, but more importantly by my variety of experiences which have taught me an enormous amount about myself and the world around me.