December 10, 2011

All I want for Christmas...

... is you to be happy and other people to have better lives. How about that? So I decided to start a fundraiser for Somaly Mam Foundation. Somaly Mam is a sexual slavery survivor. She was sold to a brothel as a child, but heroically managed to escape. And when she did, she promised to herself that she will work to help those who were left behind. And so she founded Somaly Mam Foundation. Now - if she can do this, if she can get over what she had been through and work to help others, what's our excuse not to? None, exactly. 
And so I'm asking you, dear readers, to help me help her. I started a fundraiser whose goal is to raise $500 by my birthday. I'm not celebrating my birthday if I don't manage to raise the money. Will you help? Not me, but the 1-2 million children who will be sold to slavery within the next 12 months

Ok, let's do this. All you need to do is to click on THIS LINK which will bring you to my CrowdRise page and donate, or share the page with your friends.

Thank you!

Not really unemployed, but still searching. So what have I been up to?

I feel like I have abandoned this blog, although I never meant to. The truth is that I was hoping that soon, I'd have great news and interesting updates to put here, advice for job searchers, exciting things related to my job. And don't get me wrong, I love my job! It's fun, I work with great people and I get to do great things. 
I was thrown into the water without having been taught how to swim literally the very first day I showed up at work. Without having any idea how things work, I was sent to a meeting on the power of 1% (of the U.S. federal funding) my first day and asked to write a blog post about it (and you can read it here). I was tasked with organizing MCHIP's presence at several conferences and believe me - at first, I didn't understand half of the things I was asked to do. However, I did everything I was asked to do and more and looking back, I realize how much I've learned in such a short time.  (Not to mention the fire in the office on my third day at work...) 
And so I have worked on coordinating MCHIP's presence at:
  • The APHA Annual Meeting, where we also held a special event on the quality of care for mothers and newborns) that I helped to organize;
  • That same week, we held a special event on Continuing U.S. Investments Made in Global Health: Why It Matters More Than Ever, from which I also wrote a blog post for MCHIP (read it to see what Congresswomen ended up coming to our event!).
  • Then there was ICASA, mHealth Summit and more conferences coming.
  • I also organized all our World AIDS Day 2011 activities. We were lucky enough to be joined by Susi Wyss who came to read her story Eggs (and whose book I highly recommend). We were also  Facing AIDS with, and posted a ton of information online, including this blog post by one of our staff in South Africa.
  • Which brings me to another big part of my job - social media management! That's right, I'm pretty much in charge of MCHIP's Facebook presence and Twitter account. So like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter to learn something new about global health every day. Who knows, maybe you'll be our 1000th follower? (Because that's how far I got MCHIP's Twitter! :))
  • And just a couple of days ago, another blog post written by me became the blog spotlight for now.
And that's what I've been up to. My job is part-time, but there are days when I spend 11 hours there. And then I come home and look/apply for jobs because, unfortunately, my job isn't permanent and it won't sponsor my visa. So that's what my life is about. 

August 19, 2011

Summing up my time in Pittsburgh in 2011 so far

I got back to Pittsburgh in February. I wasn't able to work for about a month as I was waiting for my work permit to arrive (I got the actual card from the Office of International Services much much later, but that's another story) and then I went back to my old job because it made sense in the short run. 

After that, I got a job at the University Center for Urban and Social Research. I learned some new skills - mainly interviewing to be precise - and once again, it made sense. In my free time, I was interning with Tickets for Kids Charities, a great organization with great people working there whose mission is to create "opportunities for underprivileged children to experience arts, cultural, educational, sporting, and family entertainment events and activities in their communities and nationwide." I loved this internship for many reasons. I enjoyed working with the TFK staff. I loved being a part of something this great, something that puts smiles on so many kids' faces. I learned new things. (I also got free tickets to John Legend's concert... :))

In the summer, I worked at the Pittsburgh Summer Dreamers Academy, a summer camp for kids from Pittsburgh in-city public schools. I did know something about Pittsburgh public schools, but I learned much more through this program. (Not to mention that working with kids teaches you something new every single day.) Through dealing with a class of 20 second and third graders, some of them with learning disabilities and emotional issues, I proved to myself that I can manage pretty much anything. It just takes patience (and trust-building). The first day felt like going through hell, but I knew - and I told "my" kids - that they could do much better. By the end of the program, they proved me right. I knew that I learned from them, they learned from me, and I'm going to miss them (hoping that they will miss me a little and that they will remember that there was someone who really cared). This experience also made my desire and dream of working in the development sector to provide affordable, accessible and high-quality education to children everywhere in the world even stronger. Because I believe, maybe more than ever, that it all starts and ends with education. And poor education isn't a problem just in the developing world...

I have created, raised fund for, organized (and soon am going to finish with a group of friends) a project that aims to empower children through arts. (Yes, I am talking about the Dream Big Pittsburgh project mentioned in the previous posts.)

And now I am on vacation. I'm housesitting my friends' friend's house, a farmhouse with a big garden, and so I have a plenty of time to eat veggies, watch butterflies and contemplate my future...

Ok, DC, here I come

Or not yet. But soon. Yes, I gave in, in a way. People have been telling me that I just HAVE TO BE IN DC to get a job and I've been against moving there for this all time. But now I am going... Do I believe they've been right all this time? Not really. But it's time to move again (yes, again - the third time this year; I've lived at more than 6 different places in the past 2 years) and since I don't have many more better options, I decided to give DC a try. I am more than ready to admit that I was wrong and they were right, believe me. Getting a job would be such a great relief. But, while I'm going with an open mind, I'm also not leaving my down-to-earth attitude in Pittsburgh. I need to be realistic about this - the job market is tough and I am a foreigner, which seems to be a disadvantage. But I can do this! See you in September, DC!

July 31, 2011

What is the previous post about?

It's about a new project I'm working on. It's called Dream Big Pittsburgh and its website with all the information can be found here). As you know, I currently work at the Summer Dreamers Public Academy. I work at Faison Elementary and the other 4 instructors and I decided to do something not stated in the curriculum, something that we believe is a really great project that can have two great results:

1. empowering our students; and
2. beautifying the Homewood neighborhood.

Your help is more than welcome!

July 21, 2011

Support for AIDS orphans in Ghana - policy paper

"There are between 130,000 and 230,000 AIDS orphans in Ghana and their numbers are expected to grow. It is estimated that 20 to 26 percent of all orphans and other vulnerable children in Ghana have been orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. The HIV prevalence rate is relatively low (1.9 %), but the problems caused by the HIV epidemic in Ghana are exacerbated by other factors, such as stigmatization and discrimination of people living with HIV/AIDS and their families and urbanization and subsequent breakdown of the extended family system. Children are among the most vulnerable population groups affected by HIV/AIDS. Their quality of life declines dramatically as a result of parents (or other family members) contracting or dying of HIV."

This is the result of my research project from Ghana. A policy paper on support for AIDS orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS. Feel free to read, comment, criticize, but don't use it as your own. You can read the entire paper here

PS: Google Documents changed the formatting slightly so if you're interested, let me know and I can send you the original copy.

July 20, 2011

Save great teachers! The children need them! We need them!

July 4, 2011

Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story | Video on

A great talk on how our perspectives are formed and how dangerous it is. This is exactly why I sometimes cannot read the news. Imagine that you want to work in the field of international development and all you read is the disastrous stories... If you were to believe it's all just bad, you'd give up on trying to help people.

July 3, 2011

Job interviews

I know I owe you more comments on my "favorite" interview questions, but here is a related post. Honestly, reading these things make me wonder what the point of HR is. Sometimes it seems that it's a job for the meanest people whose only goal is to make other people feel miserable.

What are your thoughts when you read about these (supposedly the craziest) interview questions?

PS: My natural reaction would be "I don't understand why you're asking this question." But being honest is usually not the best strategy... about that later, though.

June 19, 2011

Job interviews and interview questions, part 1

This post is a follow up to one of the previous posts that includes this comics. And it's a great coincidence that the first question discussed in this comics is 

Where do you see yourself in five years?

One of my favorites. Hopefully not answering such questions anymore? I ended the last post with talking about plans. This is pretty much a question asking about your plans. I'm not a planner, I'm more of a dreamer. Being either is fine, as far as I am concerned. But I just don't know, and cannot know, what the world is hiding from me and is going to reveal in the course of the next 5 years. So my answer would be... 

I don't have plans, I have dreams and values. I hope that in 5 years, I'll have a job I love, a job that will challenge me and a job that will give me the satisfaction of knowing that what I am doing is helping someone in need. 

Does it matter in what position? I can work for a great NGO as a field worker, I can work for a for-profit organization that does business in developing countries and helps to improve people's lives by creating jobs, I can have my own organization... Either is fine, as long as it feels right and as long as it leads to the ultimate goal - improving the lives of others, making other people happier. 

So - where do I see myself in 5 years? I see myself putting all my knowledge, experience, skills and enthusiasm into doing what I believe in, anywhere, anyhow. Is that not good enough? How is having a specific 5-year plan better when there are things you cannot influence (or at least not that much... like getting the job you're interviewing for...)?

And that's question number 1 from my perspective. I'd love to know what your thoughts on this are, so feel free to share!

The current state of affairs

It's been a while since I posted anything but I do have a few things to say now so I'll try to update you on my situation.

Where am I right now? I still live in Pittsburgh. I still live with my friend and pay rent in baked goods, the only change on this front is that we moved and now I have three roommates and a dog. Honestly, while I know that this isn't something to put on your resume, I cannot complain and I do know that this is one of the things that I'll one day be telling my kids and grandchildren about... How grandma lived for free in the USA when she was 27 because she had friends great enough to let her stay with them... And that's pretty cool, right?

What am I doing? Working part time, volunteering, looking for the "dream job" (if those exist; and yes, that means I still haven't found one), trying to enjoy my life every day (because in the end that's all that really matters - how do you help others to make their lives better when your own life sucks?).

What are my plans? Honestly, I don't know. I don't have plans as much as I have dreams. Maybe the fact that I have dreams instead of plans is the reason why I haven't given up yet. It's not easy, but nobody said it would be. My dream is to find a job in international development, a job in the sphere that focuses on improving lives of the "less fortunate" (depending on how you define being fortunate, of course)... It doesn't really matter what position it would be (although being in the field would be awesome, I'm not going to lie), as long as I feel constantly that it's worth it and that it's really improving someone's life.

As a matter of fact, talking about plans is a good transition to the post I actually wanted to write today - a post about job interviews and interview questions. So I'll stop right here and will continue soon.

Interview questions in pictures

This is how I feel sometimes...

May 30, 2011

I want to work with children

I know I haven't written anything in a long time here. There might be a new post coming soon. But I also think that everyone should watch this, if for nothing else, it'll give you one more reason why I want to work with children. They're the future. And if they get teachers like this one, we can feel better about the future.

Full of Life

March 21, 2011

Take the risk, and other advice

A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to meet with a "senior human-rights activist", a person who has spent a significant amount of time working in DC, both for the government and NGOs, and in Africa trying to make things better. He came to my alma mater to give career advice to students. And while I appreciate that he did that, I don't think he really thought about what he was doing. (I also appreciate the work he is doing. He might be the best in his field. But...)

I never thought of myself as a risk-taker. I actually never really thought about what my attitude towards taking a risk is. I just always assumed that things are going to work and I never considered anything I've done really risky. Well, until now. I think I knew that coming back to the US might be a risky decision. I knew that in the back of my mind and that is why it was so hard for me to make this decision. But nothing else really seemed risky to me - going to South Africa, Ghana... I never thought there was something to be afraid of, or worried about. But then I met this guy and he tells me "You have to take the risk! You can't just go for the comfortable options! Otherwise you won't ever get the job you want!" 

So I heard this and I know that many people would agree with him and would think that his advice is brilliant. But I just got angry. "Who are you to judge me from your (comfortable) seat? You don't even know me and you just immediately assume that all I've done was sitting on my couch, doing whatever is comfortable?" That's basically what went through my mind. And then I thought about it... And maybe for the first time ever, I thought about risk-taking in my life. And yes - this is very relevant to my job search process.

First of all, I'm not American (as you know). Therefore, coming back to this country for me means taking a big risk. A huge one, actually. I came to a country that has a higher unemployment rate than my home country. I came here to find a job. I have basically no money and I didn't have a job secured before coming here. As you know, I still don't have a job. But I still did it and I still think that this can have only two possible endings - either a great happy ending, or I'll call my parents one day and will ask them to lend me money (yes, how about getting more into debt?) so that I can buy a ticket to go home. Right now I have a place to stay thanks to a great friend of mine, but I have no idea what's going to happen in a month and half. No idea... Is that risky enough for you? Because while people keep telling me that I'm in the same position as all the other people who are about to graduate, trust me, I'm not. They have parents in this country, most of them just a few hour drive away. I don't. And thus, for the first time in my life, I realized that I actually am a risk taker. I just tend to underestimate everything I do and thus I don't consider most of the things I do to be risky. (By the way - underestimating oneself isn't the best quality when it comes to job hunt. Trust me. :))

"That man's" advice has one more part (or sub-part of the previous one) - "just pack your stuff and go to Africa. Take a couple more thousands dollars in loans and go. It doesn't matter what you're going to be doing there, you can carry babies in an orphanage for a year; people will still consider that as on-ground experience."
Now, don't get me wrong. I do think that on-ground experience matters (but people from outside of the US don't have the Peace Corps to do it so "easily"), but if what he says is true than I don't feel like entering that field. All I've done so far I've done without any country's government's help (yes, referring to the Peace Corps), without any organization's help (now referring to voluntourism). I wanted to go, I found a way, I went. I don't think it's such a big deal. But at the same time, there are things I'm proud of. I'm proud of what I did in Ghana because I know it was hard. So if someone tells me that my two Masters degrees and my - albeit limited compared to many, of course - experience mean absolutely nothing, and that the thing that will save my career is doing nothing if I do that in a developing country, then I don't think that's the way I want to go. Would't that be waste of my time? Am I the only one who feels that way? I have skills and passion to actually do meaningful things. I know I have a lot to learn still, but who doesn't? It is impossible to reach any point of ultimate knowledge in this field anyways.

However, hearing this makes me, sometimes, wonder whether there's really nothing else for me. Whether I really have nothing to offer. But I don't want to give up.

March 13, 2011

The job search so far needs an update...

I am aware of it. Just a quick one for now. I moved back to the US. I've been here for a little more than a month now, got my work permit about 2 weeks ago and went back to my old job for now to get time to find a job while saving some money to be able to move somewhere once (if) I find a job.

How's the job search? Inspiring sometimes, frustrating other times... People seem to think it is easy - all you do is write cover letters and send resumes. Try to write more than three cover letters a day. And try to do that knowing that the people are probably not even going to respond. (And sometimes when they do, you talk to them and realize that you wouldn't want to work for/with them.) So when you get to this point, make sure there's something that will keep your self-esteem high enough, because this job search process isn't necessarily good for your self-esteem.

I've settled on three areas in which I'd want to work within the international development field. The major one is kids, and then women and HIV/AIDS. Of course, you can't separate them most of the time. (And by now I could probably give you a lecture on all the ways these topics are related.) But since the major area is children, I decided to contact all organizations in Pittsburgh that work with kids, to at least get an internship while I'm here. So far, I've met with one, tomorrow I'm meeting another one, so wish me luck. I bet there is some, somewhere. When I had my last interview I realized how passionate I get, without even trying, when it comes to working with children who haven't been so lucky in their lives as I - and many of you who read this - have been. Such work just makes so much sense to me.

And so I've been working on this - trying to get more relevant experience because finding the "real dream job" is hard. It's not that the jobs aren't out there. They are. It's just that there are probably too many people applying for the same position and without connections, it is hard. I met with an Egyptian lady who works for the World Bank the other day and she said - "There must be a ton of jobs in development, the world is falling apart." And I agree... She also listened to my story and told me that I should start my own NGO, that she thinks I can do it. I remember her words when my self-esteem goes down... :-) 

So what's the plan? Well, the plan is to find a meaningful job, of course. Which might work and might not. Nobody knows. I'm not giving up, that's for sure. I'm going to give myself some time limit, though, and meanwhile I'll try to save as much money as possible so that when the time runs up, I have enough money to move. Somewhere. Probably to Africa. And make things happen. (Me and my friend are going to come up with a project. We both love Africa and kids and we both want to do something that helps kids. We have ideas and passion and I believe we can do it.)

PS: I might write about meeting "a senior human rights activist" I met the other day and the only advice he has for everyone. About getting the work permit. And about the things that seem to matter when looking for a job and when living somewhere. Let me know if you have any questions or something you'd want to read about

February 24, 2011

How I got where I am - Part 4: I didn't just intern in Ghana...

I lived there. And here comes a story about why staying in touch with people you like is a great thing...

In February 2009, I attended a week-long seminar in Berlin. The topic of the seminar was Cultural Diplomacy in Africa and I'm going to be honest - I had no clue what that really meant, but I thought it's going to be good because there are going to be people who care about Africa. And that was true.

One of the people who care about Africa and who were in Berlin with me was Marcy. Marcy is from California, USA, but she studied in Ghana and at that time she was dating a Ghanaian guy called Tai. I really liked Marcy, she's smart and fun to be around, and so it seemed natural to me that she was one of the people with whom I stayed in touch.

How is this story related to my internship in Ghana? Very much. When I got my internship, I talked to Marcy about it, asked her what she thinks about the organization etc. I also asked her whether she has any tips on where I could stay with my limited funding. She did. She was so great that she basically arranged everything and so her family (Tai's family, but they got married about three days before I got to Ghana so it's now her family, too) became my family. And will be my Ghanaian family for ever. 

Me and the female part of the family - Doreen, Naa and Auntie Bea
When I got to Accra, a family friend picked me up at the airport and drove me home where I met Auntie Bea and Reggie, and later Naa and Doreen and Action. These people not only made my stay in Ghana much much better, they also helped me to understand Ghana and its people. They taught me what they eat and how they eat it, they taught me how everything works. They taught me that when someone tells you "you're invited" it means that you can just sit down and start eating from their plate (which is something I find absolutely amazing). They made me fried plantains when I got home from work frustrated and were proud of me when I first got home using trotros - the public transport - by myself. Auntie Bea would sing and have a beer with me and Action would always smile. Naa, my Ghanaian sister would accompany me everywhere and wouldn't translate marriage proposals from random guys on the street because she knew I didn't like them. (And I can't forget cousin Percy who'd always wake me up way too early). They were a real family to me - always will be - and living with them taught me more about Ghana than any internship could ever do. 

The day when I was leaving, Action said to me:
"We never had anyone from outside of Ghana staying with us for so long. I was worried that it would be difficult for you. And for us. It's a very different culture. But you came here and it didn't take you a month to get used to it. It didn't take you even a week. You came here and the first day I knew you'd always ask about things you didn't understand and you'd try to do them the way we do. You got here and you were Ghanaian." 
That was probably the nicest and most important thing I heard in Ghana.

With Action and Reggie at a botanical garden
Apart from my family, there are two more people who must be mentioned here. Edem and Freddie. Edem who'd listen to all my complaints and frustrations, who'd call regularly to check on me, who'd connect me with people to make sure I finish my project, who'd support me as much as he could. And Freddie who'd discuss the issues of Ghana's politics and culture with me, take me on trips, take me out and introduce me to people, and make me laugh (and bake) constantly.

With Reggie and Percy (We got along extraordinarily well with Percy on that day :))
I went to Ghana to do my internship. But I left Ghana with more than just a finished research project. I left Ghana with a new family and that gives me one more reason to be involved in international development. Once you get to know the people you care about, once they are your family, you care more and more passionately.

February 19, 2011

Things that matter - being surrounded by like-minded individuals

Some of my friends are running the Pittsburgh Marathon (or half-marathon) on May 15 to raise money for the village of Tingo Pucara in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador where the Pitt chapter of Engineers Without Borders is about to begin construction of a water pumping system. 

If you're a runner in Pittsburgh, you can join the team. If you can't join the team, you can donate here (the team's blog).

I'm spreading the word because I believe that I wouldn't be where I am if I wasn't surrounded with people who care. (I could have called this post "How I got where I am - Part 3.5: My friends who care" :-))

January 28, 2011

How I got where I am - Part 3: Ghana and my internship

In June 2010, when British Airways’ employees were on strike, I flew from Prague, through London and Lagos, to Accra, Ghana. I was finally – for the first time since 2007 – going back to Africa and I was both scared and excited. The main reason of this trip was to spend 2.5 months interning at a Ghanaian NGO, whose name I’m not sure if I should say here... Let me just say that it is an organization that is supposed to promote women’s rights and fight against HIV/AIDS.

I found this organization on my own, through days and days of Google search and stuff like that, and it looked pretty cool. While getting the internship was definitely time-taking, dealing with all the formalities later wasn’t much better. I am not the type of person who likes e-mailing people with the same request a million times, but since I was applying for travel grants to be able to go and “my” NGO wasn’t responding, there was nothing else I could do. I probably should have taken that as a warning. Long story short – I got all the signatures I needed in the end. But I was also told in a very unfriendly way by the then president of the organization when meeting her for the first time that I should understand that people working in organizations like theirs are really busy and interns shouldn’t ask them to sign any papers at all. I remembered that encounter many times later during my internship on various occasions, especially when most of my colleagues were watching soap operas every afternoon at work.

But let’s go back a little bit… About 3 weeks before my departure for Ghana, I got an e-mail from the national coordinator of the organization saying that we should come up with a more specific plan for my internship. Great, I thought, they really care and it’s going to be good!  And so we made a plan. I received the Newman Award for Intergenerational Relationships to go to Ghana and thus I suggested researching the impact of HIV/AIDS on relationships within families, how they affect intergenerational relationships and how roles within families are changing due to HIV/AIDS. The coordinator agreed and assured me that this area needs research in Ghana and that it is perfect because they are just starting a project with HelpAGE Ghana and thus I can join them... It all seemed great. I wrote a research proposal and it seemed she read it all… It turned out only later that – if she actually had read it – this was probably the only time she ever read anything I wrote…

Excited about the internship I got to Ghana. I was happy to be back on the continent and I was happy to meet what is always going to be my Ghanaian family. I am pretty sure that if it wasn’t for them – definitely some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met – I might have left Ghana earlier because my organization turned out to be a very frustrating place. And commute happily 2 hours to work when you know that most people will do nothing the whole day. I at least always had my great family home at the end of my 2-hour commute back.

The trotro stop in front of our house
The street I walked every day to get to the office
 Back to my internship. The first day, when all we did was waiting around only to be told after 3 hours of waiting that nobody is coming, should have opened my eyes, but being a hopeless optimist sometimes, I still believed it was going to be good. Two weeks later, I realized that the fact that nothing got done during the first two weeks just meant that nothing was going to get done. Nobody cared. I am pretty sure that the excuse would be that they were waiting for money to come to start the project, but I would believe that that was the only reason only if I didn’t have to watch my colleague sleep on her desk at work (or on the couch, sometimes, which I actually preferred because at least I didn’t see her), or listen to another colleague’s explanation why he didn’t come to work (strike of the trotro drivers… to be hones, it’s still one of my favorite jokes coming from him).

And here you’re probably wondering if I got something done. Yes, I did. But only because I gave up on waiting on them to help me or connect me with people. I said – I’d love to meet with the Queen Mothers, they said “yea, you can, but they’re really hard to work with, you’ll have to pay them all dinner and stuff.” Guess what? I did meet with them, thanks to my friend’s former boss, and no, I didn’t have to pay anything. Actually, I met with Manye Esther many times (and just in case, once again, here’s their website).

Me with Manye Esther from the Queen Mothers Association
I was lucky to have my friend Edem around. He connected me with people, he helped me with interviews (as did my Ghanaian sister Naa) when I was interviewing people who didn’t speak English, he explained things to me about Ghana and thanks to him I was able to finish my research, although I had to change the topic. I had limited resources and wasn’t able to connect with enough people working in the field I wanted to research. In the end, I changed the topic to support for AIDS orphans and other children made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.

 I did research on a topic slightly different from the original one, but I did it. I did it despite my office’s attempts to make me do nothing and despite the fact they didn’t do anything they had promised. I did it because I am lucky to have great people around who believe in me and are willing to help. I did it because giving up wasn’t an option (I went to Ghana determined to make it worth it no matter what it takes). I did it because I believe that the people I interviewed matter. It was frustrating at times, sad at times (no school can make you ready to see the people you’re interviewing crying in front of you because their lives are so difficult and because you’re probably the first person in a long time who actually asked them about it), but it was worth it.

I learned a lot about the lives of AIDS orphans, people living with HIV/AIDS and generally about Ghanaians affected by HIV/AIDS in any way. They live tough lives – although the HIV prevalence rate in Ghana isn’t so high (about 2 %) compared to many other sub-Saharan African countries, it’s a very big issue that needs attention because of the omnipresent stigma and discrimination of such people.

And what’s the most important lesson I learned for my future involvement in the development field? Local, grass-roots NGOs are great because we need to know what the local people think, we can’t do much without them; however, before you go start working for a local NGO, find out what “working” means for the people employed there. Because just being local doesn’t bring about any change. Just being doesn’t bring about any change. They key word is do, not be. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret going to Ghana to work there at all. I certainly learned more than any class could ever teach me. It was a great lesson on the development field. And let me throw another cliché here – I learned a lot about myself, too.

And if you want to read more about my Ghanaian experience, you can look here, too.

Although I never thought it was funny when Percy woke me up at 5:30am, these two guys and their family made my stay in Ghana much easier. They're always going to be a part of my family.

January 13, 2011

How I got where I am – Part 2: South Africa

As I have said before, I studied in South Africa. Why? Because I had a South African roommate in Canada who studied Political Science like I did. She was cool and I thought South Africa would be a cool place to visit, so I wanted to figure out how to go to South Africa. It turned out I could get a scholarship. I applied for ISEP and I got it.

In January 2007, I believe it was the 19th, I flew Prague - London - Cape Town. I'm not going to bore you with all the visa troubles and stuff like that. I'm just going to tell you that driving from the Cape Town Airport to Stellenbosch was just shocking. The people from the University were asking us all the polite questions but I was speechless - the highway passes Khayelitsha, one of the many townships of South Africa, and I realized that I was just a European girl (I tend to say "spoiled" but I don't think I really was - unless being used to what people have here inherently means you're spoiled) who had no idea what tough life was about. It's one thing to read about it and quite a different thing to be right next to it. I couldn't believe it was possible that people lived there! Yes, that's how much I didn't know.

Khayelitsha as seen from the highway
And after watching the shacks that are homes to so many people, I got to Stellenbosch where I was going to live for 6 months. Stellenbosch is pretty. Stellenbosch is also segregated, although it's not official anymore. The university residence where I stayed was the most luxurious home I had throughout my student years. I shared an apartment with 3 other girls but we each had our own bathroom and we had a lady coming to clean our apartment twice a week. We were behind a fence, with security guards checking everyone's IDs when getting in. Behind security doors. It was still nothing compared to the house where my friend lived - huge and beautiful and with a swimming pool... and behind a wall. I knew that I was immediately labeled the privileged one (and well, I was, in a way), although I was myself shocked by the luxury in which a minority of South Africans live, and although I would never be able to afford to pay for the room I had if it wasn't for my scholarship. No matter what, it didn't feel right.

And then I joined a group of international students, through the International Student Organization Stellenbosch, participating in the iKaya Primary After-school Care Program. We'd spend every Wednesday afternoon with the kids from iKaya Primary School in Kaymandi (another South African township whose name means, very ironically, sweet home in Xhosa) helping them with English. Fridays were for sports. We also organized a trip to the Parliament in Cape Town (while it's only 50 kilometers away and not even 10 Rands by train from Stellenbosch, some of the kids had never been there before), or to Jonkershoek Nature Reserve, and spent an afternoon cleaning the area around the school (I spent at least 20 minutes chasing a 5-year-old boy who found a knife among all the underwear, bottles and stuff like this under one of the trees, trying to take it from him). The kids were from 8 to 15, but most of them knew about the hard things in life much more than any of us. Hearing about sanitation facilities, or rather the lack of thereof, was upsetting, hearing about how many girls get raped there was just more than I had ever really wanted to know.

Learning about plants in Jonkershoek
Someone wanna talk to you!
I also spent one afternoon a week in one of many Kayamandi crèches with a friend of mine, playing with kids and trying to - maybe hopelessly - give them the attention they should get as kids, but they were often not getting because they were born into such difficult situations.

While the activities at the primary school were organized through the university, and thus we had transport to get there, I had to walk to Kayamandi after my friend left - since I didn't have a car - to go to the crèche. It was maybe a 20, 30-minute walk from where I stayed, across the Kayamandi bridge, from the pretty world of little old European-like houses to a completely different world of almost no infrastructure, shacks and 20% HIV prevalence rate. I walked from my university residence where they were watering the grass even on rainy days to a place where people had no easy access to potable water. I liked the world across the bridge from where I stayed better, though. And for the lack of better explanations, I'll just throw a cliché here - I liked Kayamandi better because of the people. They were really friendly and after a couple of weeks of me walking through "their" streets, they'd say hi and how are you and I was happy to be able to join the people on the street on Fridays watching street performances (and South Africans are extremely talented so it was always worth it) and not feeling weird.

My Stellenbosch home 
A Kayamandi home

And that's why South Africa (and Kayamandi) will always be a special place for me. That's where I realized what it is that that I want to do. Playing with balloons with kids who'd never seen them, spending an hour drawing flowers with a girl who didn't want to try because she had never used crayons before and was scared that she couldn't do it... to finally watch her draw a flower next to mine. Things like that, only hopefully on a larger scale, but with similar impact on the individuals.


I saw more of Southern Africa thanks to this "study trip." I went to Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe after school was over because I knew that I wouldn't make it back to that part of the world any time soon. All these countries were great and beautiful. But it was also a great learning experience. 

The more difficult it was for me to go back to school back home again to study theories of international relations and Cold War events... Because how was that going to get the people out of the Khayletisha shacks?

January 6, 2011

How I got where I am – Part 1: I was gonna be a student forever...

I always say education is key to everything. I was lucky to be born in a country where education is free. I was also lucky to have a choice over what I studied, although I sometimes wish I knew better when making my choices: if I studied engineering or medicine, it’d be so much easier to get a job in development! But how could I know? I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was 18… I did know that I liked English. I also knew that studying only English wouldn’t be enough. So I applied to more schools, mostly for economics. But then a friend of mine told me – about 2 days before the deadline – that the School of Social Sciences at Masaryk University in Brno seems really cool, that they have a lot of international students… and so I applied to study Political Science and International Relations there. Long story short, when deciding what to do, my dad, who is a civil engineer, told me: “You can go study economics later, political science seems more interesting.” And so I moved to Brno to study Political Science and International Relations at the Faculty of Social Sciences and English Language and Literature at the Faculty of Arts. Three majors + a job to pay the rent = a sure way to learn how to prioritize and work well under stress.

In the course of the next 5 years, I finished my classes, wrote two Bachelor’s theses and got two Bachelor’s degrees. I went on and enrolled in two Master’s programs: International Relations and English Language and Literature. I dropped English after the first semester because I simply couldn’t find the passion needed to study 16th century English.
In 2009, I graduated with a Master’s degree in International Relations, although it wasn’t a walk through a rose garden either (which is what we say in Czech when something isn’t easy). I began my master’s program with a semester abroad at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa where I took classes at the Political Science department. I learned about conflicts in Africa, democratization in the context of sub-Saharan Africa, conflict resolution, and about the culture, history and politics of South Africa. I think that I had never been so serious about school before as I was in Stellenbosch. I loved my classes.

My South African experience was so strong that I decided to change the topic of my BA thesis from relations between South Africa and Great Britain to South African townships, their history, their importance, impact on cultural and political life etc. (If you’re interested, you can read it here). It was so strong that coming back to the Czech Republic to return to theories of international relations and the focus on transatlantic relationships suddenly wasn’t appealing at all. I didn’t want to do that. I came back and kept telling people that I don’t care about this stuff because there are people dying in the world and we discuss 100-year-old theories! But well, every school has a different focus, I guess. I did my best not to quit school and still do what I was interested in. I picked my classes carefully, although the choice for me wasn’t that wide, and I decided to write my Master’s thesis on sub-Saharan Africa, the prospects of democracy in the SADC region and the impact of socio-economic factors on democracy, in particular. Finding a topic was easy, finding a supervisor at a school with a completely different regional focus, that was another story. I didn’t give up, though, and with the help of the academic advisor, I convinced Dr. Hlousek to be my supervisor, wrote it, defended it and was happy when Dr. Hlousek told me that he had learned a lot thanks to me (you can read it here if you want).

So I was done with school, but didn’t know what's next. I knew I wanted to “do good for people” but I didn’t really know how, the theories and my ability to name European political parties didn’t really help. And so I accepted the scholarship I was offered by the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and moved to the US to get a Master’s in Public and International Affairs (MPIA).
Not even a month ago, I graduated with MPIA. However, if you look at my transcript, you’ll realize that that’s not what I actually did. I think that I should be writing MID (Master of International Development) instead of MPIA next to my name, but these are just letters anyways. I finally learned more about development, what has worked and what hasn’t, HIV/AIDS, urbanization, education… the things I wanted to learn. Although there are many things I’d change at that school, I also think it was worth it, it was a good experience and I think I learned things I will use, one day. I also met many people with the same interests and many people who are extremely inspiring, which is more important to me than I’d ever think.

And that’s it as far as my education is concerned. I’m glad to be done with school, so no PhDs for me, at least not now. And if you expected “I have wanted to save Africa since I was 5 and that’s how I was choosing what to study,” sorry for the disappointment.

January 4, 2011

Hi, welcome and a little intro

I come from the Czech Republic. I like Europe because it's small and it's easy to get to places, but my favorite mountains are in Canada and one of the most important places of my life is in South Africa. Kayamandi, a South African township, is where I realized what I want to do "when I grow up" – I want to help people make their lives better. And so I moved to the US to learn how to do that, or learn as much as you can learn at school. 
Kayamandi. That's where it all began.
 In December 2010, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a Master of Public and International Affairs, major in Human Security. While this sounds like I should go work for the government, the truth is that I did more international development stuff than many of the real students of international development. To see how it works in practice, I spent the summer of 2010 interning in Ghana with a local non-governmental organization. That was eye-opening. Although I had no illusions about the work of NGOs and the world of development (read: I really didn’t think that all the people involved are idealists who care about the cause more than anything else), I still had days when I felt as frustrated as never before in my life. The I-came-here-to-work-for-free-and-you-think-I’ll-be-fine-with-watching-you-sleeping-on-your-desk-at-work-and-doing-nothing moments were more common than I liked. At least until I found a way to keep myself busy with making a website for an NGO that actually works (Manya Krobo Queen Mothers Assocation) or raising money to buy bikes for orphans. Or with the research on support for AIDS orphans that I went to do there (and that I would never finish without the help of my Ghanaian friends).

New bikes!

It was frustrating at times, but I didn’t give up. And I didn’t give up after seeing that even a thousand of NGOs (or at least it seems that there are as many in Haiti) can work and still do nothing. I finished my degree and I still want to work in development. For many reasons, I decided to get a work permit and I’m going back to the US, if all goes well. No, I’m not doing the rational thing – I’m not moving to DC “because that’s where everyone is and it’s best for networking.” I’m not doing that because I know I can’t go to all the social events and smile and pretend like I’m happy to be there when all I actually am is stressed and tired. My first stop is Pittsburgh mainly because that’s where I have my “support base” of friends and people who understand what I’m trying to do. The plan is to look for a real job from there. I don’t care where the job is going to be. While I love Africa, I can see myself working anywhere. All that matters is that the job makes sense, is fulfilling and allows me to see results (i.e. better lives for those who need them). And what areas? HIV/AIDS, education… but while I know I can’t do technical stuff, I’m otherwise open to pretty much anything because I think I do have knowledge in more areas than just these two. Urbanization, for example. Or better yet - get a job whose goal is to make sure kids get to play.

I already know it’s not going to be easy. I didn’t choose the easy path, but hopefully, it will be at least as rewarding in the end as it will be stressful. And what is this blog about? This is about the path I chose, about what I have to go through and about the results. It’s about an idealist who doesn’t want to give up and who hopes that there’s a job out there, in the international development world, that is the right for me.