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Breaking into the field of international development: Michaela D'Amico's time with URCSF

by Allie Smith

Breaking into the field of international development work is distinctly challenging for recent college graduates. But with the right combination of honed skills, distinct passion, and good timing, some have secured these much-sought opportunities.

Michaela D’Amico, a 2010 graduate of Northeastern, is one of those talented people. Michaela recently returned from Uganda, where she was working with the Uganda Rural Community Support Foundation, an organization that provides sustainable agricultural training and support to farmers in the region through a variety of projects. Her work at URCSF focused on creating a multi-step micro lending model that is specific to the needs of farmers, whose incomes tend to fluctuate due to a variety of factors. Much of Michaela’s effort was focused on interviewing and gaining insight from potential clients in the community on how best to implement this program successfully; rather than beginning with an idea of what the lending program should look like, the project team prioritized asking potential borrowers how it would work best for them.

Michaela was also given the responsibility of leading a microfinance training workshop, where she had the chance to use skills gained in her studies at Northeastern. She recounts leading this integral part of the project as one of the most fulfilling aspects of her time working with URCSF: “It was extremely hard work but I found myself more prepared than I thought as I stood on stage answering questions about interest rate, collateral, and grace period, without glancing at my notes!”

The project was funded by HCD Connect and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. HCD Connect is a project of IDEO.org, a nonprofit that focuses on social innovation and working with nonprofits, social enterprises, and foundations. IDEO.org is also a project of IDEO, a for profit global design consultancy firm that works in the private and public sector. Both IDEO and IDEO.org use the HCD (Human-Centered Design) model, which was developed specifically for use by NGOs and social enterprises for their work in impoverished communities around the world. According to HCD their model creates effective solutions primarily by helping outside organizations ask the right questions, in the right way, to deliver services most effectively. Their track record demonstrates their success: the HDC model has been used by many impactful organizations, including the Acumen Fund, Heifer International, Micro Drip, and VisionSpring.

During her time at Northeastern, Michaela took full advantage of available international experiences. Her studies took her from Santiago to Cape Town to the Dominican Republic and Belize; before graduating she also worked overseas with Amazon Watch and El Frente de la Defensa de la Amazonía, where she worked on indigenous rights and environmental conservation, specifically with the 17-year ChevronTexaco lawsuit. She also co-oped domestically at Global Exchange and EF Education Tours.

Michaela’s advice for students looking to succeed after graduation– whether in the field of international development, or anywhere else– is to make meaningful connections with those you work with. “During my co-ops, I was able to create a network that is now invaluable. The word “networking” gets a bad rep — I didn’t grow this network by going to cocktail hours or meet and greets. I got it by asking questions, sitting in on meetings, and offering to join committees and projects. More importantly, I was getting to know every person and resource I came into contact with, and staying in touch after.”

She also encourages student-workers to “be an integral part of the office or organization’s culture. Make yourself liked and remembered. The value of this is immense, and I promise it will also be fun!”

Michaela continues to work remotely to help develop the pilot for the microlending program with URCSF while keeping an eye out for similar field research positions. “For now, I am staying put to work on my photography, website building, and video production for a few different organizations.”

You can read more about Michaela’s experience and other work at her website:  www.chasingubuntu.com .