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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 .