Sunday, December 2, 2012

10 Lessons I learned in my 20s: Part 2

As of late, I have not been very active on the blog. Between working full time and writing my masters paper I am a little over extended. To faithful readers out there, please note that I am planning for future posts. One will be on relationships in the development field. The other will be on cooking. While living in Somalia, I am going to try to make goat cheese and a few other dishes possibly. Cooking is not my strong suit, but it is something I want to continually improve. I also have an idea of posting a section from my master’s paper, particularly on participation in community development projects. Also a few guest posts from friends of mine are possibilities. I am open to more ideas from readers for the New Year. What topics are of interest to you? You can email me at

In the meantime, this is part deux of my take on what I learned during my 20s. I would like to reiterate that this is unique to me and that I am very open to learning the lessons of others . I also realized that I am still in my 20s. Maybe I just learn a lot. Perhaps by the time my 20s end I will have a new list of 20 lessons if not more. I am still learning some of these lessons and they are hard to absorb. Self-improvement is always challenging. Writing this is helping me with the rough edges and hope it is also interesting for readers. 

Lesson 6 of the 20s: Accepting that you have matured and life moves on
Grad school really made me feel like a bonafide adult. Undergrads are truly a marvel to behold and I say that coming from a good place. I was an undergrad and say this from a place of love but I never realized just how youthful it was. They were like young puppies living in a bubble full of youthful energy and idealism. I stopped getting carded around this time. I got stuck caring either way. Yet another casualty of the 20s. You want to hold on to that youthful undergrad spirit but as the same time you want to be a respectable adult, and mostly because people have started treating you like one. The idea of a career starts to become very important. Politics comes up and issues start to bother you: healthcare, the economy, and social security. I never really cared about these issues before yet they started to mean something to me. Reaching the point where I had no grandparents was also very hard to accept. Grandparents have a way of reminding you of your youth as you are in the initial phase of adulthood but not in the annoying way parents and their cohort do. I wonder how many 20 something’s wish they could pick up the phone hear their grandparents voices. For those of you that can please hold on to that. The experience of loosing someone close to you really makes you mature and also forces you to accept the constant changing nature of life.

Lesson 7 of the 20s: It is okay to accept empathy: at this point your skin probably is pretty thick
Halfway through the grad program and an economy that has crashed and I had to find a professional internship, known as a practicum in my circle. Imagine that after all this time a job that is finally in line with that degree you will be paying off for the next 25 + years. Welcome to the version of a mortgage for a 20 something.  This was the first time I received a whimper of empathy from my parent’s generation. “Oh I feel so bad for you young people. The economy is just so bad.” I have to admit I ate it up big time and wished it had come sooner. That would have relieved a lot of guilt from my early 20s.  At least I have that, ‘I am a grad student’ thing working for me. I landed my career internship after many many failed attempts but I decided that it was okay to continue accept that money some relative slipped in your wallet, a free meal or gift cards for groceries. After I let go of all the guilt I had for receiving assistance I was a happier person. It is okay to have failure to launch. At this point in life you are still investing in yourself and really hoping that in the future this will reap some benefits. I also realized that it was okay to be chasing after an elusive aspiration of what I wanted out of life. I never wanted to settle into anything only to feel stuck. By stuck, I mean doing work/living life on my own terms.  Even if that means scraping the bottom of a sardine tin and living off saltines then so be it. I accepted all the offers of help I could and believe me it made a huge difference at this time…and I don’t feel bad about it. The other thing is letting the comments older folks send your way (the critical ones) bounce off you. By this I mean not let them get to you. Many older adults love to give advice during this time. My take on this was to just close my mouth and let them talk. My journey and reality is different than theirs was and my dreams and aspirations are very unique to me. Growing a thick skin is very important because you will need it for all the “advice” people give you.

Lesson 8 of the 20s: Find yourself, then be yourself and DO YOU!
After a certain point when you hit the ol’ quarter life crisis at 25, you start to get determined. I even started a bucket list. It wasn’t to prove anything to myself, I just felt like I was getting caught up by life. My inner voice said, ‘I want to run a marathon’ ‘I want to work on myself.’ Soon enough I made a plan to actually do those things. I got in shape, was sleeping better, and improved my diet. I wanted to get it together when so many of my peers were still learning lessons I had already made it through. I moved yet again, for Grad school, and I never felt better or more comfortable with myself. This probably was the umpteenth time I had done this. Transitions are hard, and I started not caring and embracing my adventurousness. Whenever I encountered a freshly minted 20 year old that would ask me for advice not only did I smile but I smirked. I realized that you cannot give advice to people yet to learn their own lessons. I realized that the youth of the early 20s, for all its greatness, is very na├»ve and being more experienced makes you stronger. In the workplace, I felt uncomfortable among the 30 something’s or older you obsess over “how young I am.” Age does not define maturity necessarily. I felt the temptation to ‘prove myself’ then I realized that it is never worth changing so people around me are comfortable. If they are unhappy then let them hold on to their own insecurities. It took me up until I was 25 to actually realize that I finally felt comfortable with my life, my successes, failures, my personal background. This was completely unconscious as well. I started to carry myself with such confidence. Unfortunately, I did hit a low in Grad school, as is normal, but my self acceptance was still there and is stronger every day. When I wake up each day I am confident with who I am and I walk with my head held high.

Lesson 9 of the 20s: Choose a partner who you care about and IGNORE what others think or say
Facebook is the best and worst of my generation and most 20 something’s are addicted. I suffer from a partial addition. I remember the first of my fb friends that got married (now divorced). It seems as though this has the domino effect during the 20s. Personally I am not on a timetable for life’s millstones to happen. I notice many of my fb friends seem to me. This lesson of not rushing ‘the one’ is very important to me. Divorce/separation is an awful thing (esp. when children are involved), marriage/ partners should take a while to find. Rushing a relationship can not only bruise your heart but bruise your offspring. Do not get me wrong there is love in all this. The first of my circle of friends was married last year at 26. They are an amazing and very happy couple. There are others planning as well. Key with this is that these close friends have taken the time to get to know their partners. Not only that, I feel that they really choose who was right for them, not who everyone else envisioned they be with. As I edge closer to 30, this is what I have learned. I am not rushing. I am finally in a relationship where I am comfortable to just get to know the other person without rushing. It was not planned and I was in awe of it for a while, yet here I am. Never thought I would be with someone like my current partner but I really enjoy being in this relationship. It is effortless and makes me feel so light. I really do not care what others have to say on my personal choices. If they have a problem, it is their problem. Take this lesson and apply it to your own relationships, both romantic and non-romantic. You will see the difference.

Lesson 10 of the 20s: Enjoy the Roller Coaster Ride
My 20s, as well as my life, has been one long roller coaster. Even though times can be hard, I try to find good in all of it. I feel like I am finally coming into my own person, which has taken me 27 years to do! I feel a deep sense of happiness, self worth, and validity that I never had before. It was a change on the inside and it took going through all these lessons to finally get to this point. I strongly recommend that each person take time to go through life’s lessons instead of avoiding them and hitting a wall later on. Lastly, the advice I give for today is to do something good for yourself.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

10 Lessons I learned in my 20s: Part 1

What is it about being a 20-something? This question has truly plagued me for most of my 20s. I stumbled upon an article entitled “10 signs you are a 20 something,” a few months ago and it hit the nail on the head. I wanted to run far away and even clicked the X on the right corner of the screen but it was too late because I had already control + c’ed the link and of course read it.

10. You take the phrase "permanent residence" lightly. (Check)
9. You feel like you're in a second adolescence. (Check)
8.  7. You can practically recite the script at H.R. orientations. (Check)
6. You've considered moving home to live with your parents -- or currently do. (Check)
5. Sometimes you react, then think (Check)
3. You consider all your life options still open. (Check)

To say that my 20 something journey thus far has been intense is an understatement. Not only have I globe trotted for most of my twenties but I have also had too many jobs to count. Like most twenty something’s living, I suffered from what I call “failure to launch syndrome.” Personally, I have felt lost and in transition for most this decade. I was still a bright eyed undergraduate when I started my 20's and the world seemed so big, idealistic and ready for me to take on. College was a great time in my life and I look back on it with nostalgia. Not only did I meet some of the best friends I have but it really helped me find who I was and come to terms with my identity. Unfortunately, it also forced me to rethink the career I thought I wanted. At that time I envisioned becoming a foreign correspondent and exposing the social injustice of the world. I admit it was very Anderson Cooper like of me. After a few internships in the media industry pre and post graduation, I knew this career was not enough for me. I quickly opted for the more hands on approach and joined the Peace Corps as a 22 year old. It’s weird when you reach 22-23 because you are legally an adult and you start to really feel like it. This scared me terribly. The student loans started coming in and here you are at home still not on the path you envision before finishing your last semester. Now don’t get me wrong, I did not join Peace Corps for these reasons. I had been volunteering in development for years at that point.  On the other hand I was happy to actually leave the US. The pressure from my peers of “settling in to a career and life” really ate at me. Adult’s way past their 20's had no idea how awful it felt to hear ‘So, what’s next?’ a million times and look at you like you are lost. It was quite depressing.

Lesson 1 of the 20s: Figuring out life takes time and more than you thought it would

At the time I was trying to be patient with myself to step into my next move. I first applied to Peace Corps in 2006, as a 20-year-old undergraduate junior.  Then my 21st year started. I was on top of the world at graduation. It came and went, then fall came and finally winter started. I felt so lost as the possibility of Peace Corps seem to fade with time. Then I got a large envelope right before my 22nd. During my first 6 months of Peace Corps I had an epiphany that development was truly my calling after years of volunteering. After looking at job prospects and speaking to those in the field it dawned on me that I needed to further my knowledge. That is when I first thought of graduate school. Never in a million years did I even think I would pursue a master’s degree. For the first time I also felt ‘old.’ The village I served in had a marrying age of +/- 15 so when I met other 20 something’s they were married with at least 1 child.  Back home a few friends were in serious relationships but nothing close to kids. Still being around women my age with children really got my mind thinking in that direction and the idea of a biological clock entered my mind.

Lesson 2 of the 20s: Do not rush life’s big moments, especially when you are not ready for them
Lesson 3 of the 20s: It is okay to spend your life savings and be adventurous

These lessons complement each other. My child hood made me so nostalgicDuring the Peace Corps I came more obsessed with looking older. I swear I thought I was aging. It’s laughable I know. Looking back I even laugh at myself. During Peace Corps a girlfriend sent me an article saying that women needed to start using anti-aging cream at 24. Talk about being scared straight. I gave up after one tube of preventative aging cream without even noticing if my imaginary lines where gone and stuck to finding a good moisturizer. In your twenties you start to care slightly more about your health. A 20 something body starts to feel the all nighters and bad dieting habits. Eating all that college ramen an processed cafeteria catches up with you. I spent the better part of my free time in Peace Corps trying to learn to cook and without all the western specialty foods/gadgets.
A lost 20 something in Ireland
I had only been in one serious relationship up to that point, but whatever gave me the idea that I was ready for a family and marriage was really unrealistic. So I did what most 20's do when they have no idea what’s next. I used what savings I had, and a chunk of my PC readjustment allowance to travel with my best friend. I saw parts of Morocco I have never seen during my PC service, and then I went to London, Kenya and Ireland. I was very weary from all the travels but this truly was the most exciting few months of my life. I did not want to stop this trip but money got really tight.

Lesson 4 of the 20s: Believe your mom when she says everything will work out
Then I went home and reality set in. After deferring my loans during Peace Corps I was crippled with debt, living at home, and again almost close to giving up on grad school after a series of setbacks. I failed to get into my top school and I was waitlisted by my replacement top school that I discovered the same day I got the rejection letter. I tried for months to snag a job. My resume was not impressive to anyone in America or the world it seemed. I used the time to volunteer as I had done for most of my life anyway and get back into running. I excelled at both and they distracted me long enough. I also used this time to bond with family. I felt adultish because all they were using adult jokes and I was included in adult conversations.

Lesson 5 of the 20s: The fast track is not for everyone so try Plans C-Z
Then it all hit me. I was 25 and having a quarter life crisis. All my best friends were scattered all over the world, perhaps entering their version of phase II of the 20s. My facebook friends status updates read: engaged, married, and it’s a boy/girl. Here I was at home, no job, and no +1. The high of college and living abroad had well worn off. Nothing seemed to go the way I envisioned it. Then I finally got my chance. I had applied at 24 to graduate school and after 11 months of waiting someone finally gave me a chance. Then the acceptance letter came 4 months into my job. Telling your boss this is not the ideal situation. Part of me felt as though I was betraying the hand that fed me and just when I began to pay off some debts and get my head above the water. No to mention all the career clothes I bought on clearance at Marshals. What do you do with those?

To be continued…but until then here are some secrets to surviving your 20's.

Monday, October 29, 2012

With Eyes Wide Open

In a few days, I will be transferred to the field office in Somalia. Now, I know what many think about this because I hear it on a daily basis.
“You are going where!?”
“Why would you go to Somalia?”
“Be careful.”
“You are so brave.”

To be honest this is slightly nerve-wracking. I am very aware of the security situation in the country. Adeso, the INGO that I am interning with, has a great security team that is very aware of the situation. Having previously lived in other countries, I understand the various precautions necessary to daily life in the global south. Frankly, I do not see it as any different as last year when I lived in Boston during my first year of grad school. Anyone who has been to Boston knows how Bostonians are not the friendliest people. Yes I generalize, but this is from my experience.  I started my internship in Nairobi, Kenya which is considered a hub of East Africa in my field as many multilateral organizations are based here. As in any big city, there is a risk of crime and precautions should be taken. If you read and all the State Department travel warnings you never would leave the US, as they paint a really bad picture of the world. Of course these recommendations should be considered but I do not believe they can protect a development practitioner or anyone else for that matter. Fact is, of someone wants to do you harm, anywhere in the world, they will.

Kenya is a relatively stable country to travel and work in and the exact same danger I faced in Boston I face here. Considerations such as: roadways, road conditions, excessive speeding, unpredictable driving habits, lack of adequate street lighting, and poorly maintained vehicles pose hazards. After riding around town the mini buses (matatus) are generally poorly maintained and recklessly driven. Not only that, matatus have a tendency to follow their own rules. Again this is possible anywhere. I cannot avoid a natural disaster happening but I can be aware of the rainy seasons in the areas in which I will be and use caution when traveling and making decisions for travel. I would recommend that development practitioners working in a country that is not their own consider that they could possibly be targets for thieves. I certainly would be say if I traveled for a visit to NYC as a Vermonter. I would recommend educating yourself on the conflicts in the region and current political discussions and remember that as development practitioners it is not our role to engage in any action that is not a part of our mandate. Personally, I always avoid discussion of sensitive topics and dress conservatively (as I always do), and respect religious and social traditions of others. Stay with me, I am getting at something.

This field is not for everyone.  I repeat:  this field is not for everyone. I feel that those entering it really need to know themselves. After that you should assess if you have the skills and/or experience to contribute to it. I had previous experience in development (not just a few weeks randomly spent abroad). I did not have the theoretical background, hints why I decided to pursue masters in this field. Ultimately, as I hinted at in the last post, a career is something you should be passionate about. I don’t see myself as anything else but a development practitioner, and want to make a positive contribution to my profession. So experience and knowledge, what else? Training's.  Most development practitioners jump at training's not only because they are useful but because you get to travel for them, meet other practitioners, share ideas and generally get re-inspired. 

I am going to Somalia and this is an area that I knew I was not prepared to work in. How can one prepare to work in a conflict/post-conflict environment? To begin with I prepared by taking relevant courses during my first year in residence of grad school. Before that I was already somewhat familiar with the culture and customs of the area. Personally, I really wish I was able to do the dual masters program at Heller but unfortunately I could only pursue one degree. After taking electives on conflict and coexistence I recognized the gaps. Do no harm (DNH) was one such gap. I had never even heard of it before my development, aid and coexistence course. So I applied for a scholarship to attend a training of trainers on DNH. Once I secured my practicum, I signed that I would abide 100% by the security guidelines set to insure my safety. I met with the security manager and other senior colleagues to discuss at length the situation in the field.  How else could I skills that would enable me to adapt to a conflict/post-conflict environment? Adeso was way ahead of me in this and I attended a very practical training called Heist (Hostile environment individual safety training).Heist is a training created in response to the extreme nature and level of threat INGOs operating in Somalia are exposed to. The purpose is “to better prepare NGO staff for working and living in insecure and remote environments through the provision of basic skills and techniques.” These skills are somewhat common sense but the training really just makes you more aware. Key elements of heist are: communications, weapon awareness, travel, problem solving, psychological preparedness, medical care, personal security, and incident management.  

I am an advocate of furthering knowledge in any profession, and training's/certificate programs allow for this. So it is with eyes wide open that I go to Somalia, knowing all the risks. No, this does not ensure that I am going to be safe just because I have done my best to prepare, but it does mean that I have done my homework. There is no such thing as 100% safety, just as freedom has many different definitions. And that is something that everyone should keep mind wherever you happen to be.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Development: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Every career has two sides. There is the good. A teacher nurtures and assists someone gain knowledge. A nurse fosters the healing process for patients. A development practitioner makes positive, and hopefully sustainable, changes in the lives of the vulnerable. The other side is the challenges faced. Perhaps for the teacher a student just is not getting the material. For the nurse a prognosis could be complicated, for the development practitioner maybe project funding was cut. The ugly is possibly the worst part of a person’s career. Dealing with standardized testing and failing students for the teacher, nurses’ dealing with a standardized health care system and for us development practitioners the list of the ugly is long.

The big picture is how I like to see my chosen field. With most development initiatives results are hard to track and it may take years to gauge impact. These days development has a role alongside government initiatives. Many argue that development is hindering the role that the government is responsible for. I believe this to a point but also see the need/place for development, but I digress. Aside from the highs and lows of any profession there are those colleagues that you just wonder about and often ask yourself, “why in the hell did they choose this career?”  This post is dedicated to one of the ugliest sides of development.

Development has been a field dominated by white males, and now even more increasing by white females.  Often these practitioners are in countries where they are the minorities. Race and nationality are aspects that do matter in this field. For an example I recently read a post from the Center for the study of African economies (CSAE) entitled, “White man’s burden? How the presence of foreigners can change behavior.”  See: csae/white-mans-burden/presence-of-foreigners.The post articulates how a researcher completing his field work in Sierra Leone received 'special treatment' for his identity. If you do not believe me regarding my estimations, do a google image search for aid/development worker and you will see who google thinks is in this profession (not to mention some poverty porn).

Part of my issue with this posting its ugliness, and how blatant it is. As a non-white development practitioner that has at some point in my life benefited from a social welfare initiative, I find this revelation baffling. Personally, I feel that I can relate at some level with those that the development initiatives I am involved with are attempting to reach. No I do not understand 100%, but enough to see things from a different angle.  What motivates people to become development practitioners? Is it guilt, adventure and fame, etc.? Or am I generalizing too much and some people do genuinly care and are good at this work? In my experience, I have found mostly the first to be true. The latter are few and far between. The author goes on to say, “This is an experience shared by researchers and expat aid workers who try, but fail, to ‘fit in’. The sad truth is that foreign development researchers and practitioners bring with them a whole set of perceptions and expectations.” Development practitioners, whether expats or nationals, rarely can understand what the lives of the people they are trying to help are like. No amount of integration changes who a person is and the experiences that they have lived. This is probably the only point of this “sad truth” in which I agree with in this post. The rest is a complete ploy to make you feel sympathy to the challenges a white person faces in the field.

I do not apologize for the next sentences. I feel no empathy at all for these sort of practitioners. (I do not mean racially, yet the mentality) In fact, they are missing the entire point of their work and probably never got it in the first place.  I have commented but my post was never placed on the site. This was my response: “While I agree that foreigners of Caucasian decent are treated differently, I would like to say that this issue is not solely about race. I believe we must also take to task the issue of privilege, perhaps even white privilege. I cannot to relate to your experiences as I am not treated that differently in the field, which is until it is made known which passport I hold. Even then I am identified by the origin of my family. While you may think this is positive, sometimes it is not as rosy as it sounds. I have been told 'that I get it,' the struggle that is, or when I disappoint people when they expect to meet the porcelain skinned, blue-eyed skinny rich ex-pat female. This brings me to another issue. Your post does not mention the role of the media, which has a profound effect on how the rest of the world views foreigners. Perhaps even explains how people view my identity when in the field.  Many foreigners have problems with the whole idea of White Man’s Burden.  I hear your point about research being skewed but I argue that that would also be true if an urban person or someone from a different ethnic group within the country where to conduct research. Also the idea of research itself is a very western concept and does not translate to a rural person of the global south. Do minorities in the U.S. or other global north countries act differently when you go to their neighborhoods? I think so. Privilege does that. I do not discount how hard it is for you in the field, because it is. I'm sure you have had your share of reverse racism. The only aspect of your post that I do not understand is what part of it is new information? Seems to me this is a much older debate. Again, I thank you for your post and I'm open for dialogue.”

I believe the posting of Duncan Green (, “Do’s and don’ts on research -> policy and the state of Development Studies in Ireland,” mentions relevant aspects on research that the author should take note of.  I would also refer this author to see this post on racism and bias at,

In future posts I will elaborate on other ugly aspects of development. I would like to reiterate that every career has its ugly parts. The ability to persevere while dealing with the ugly probably means that you love what you do. I heard a recent quote that rang true. “Your career is what you are paid for but your calling is what you are made for.” Perhaps assessing whether your career is your passion is the first step to figuring out if you have what it takes to weather the ugly. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Nairobi Bucket List

Lately I stumbled upon a website that listed 101 things to do in Nairobi. As I will be here for another month before transferring to my field assignment, I decided to make a Nairobi bucket list, even though I do not plan to kick the bucket. The goal is not to hurry to do all of these items, but to make a plan. Sometimes the best planning is done by making a list and I decided to spare the walls as they are already full. If I do not accomplish them all this time around I hope for an opportunity to do so in the future.  I am also aware that this list will change as I become more familiar with the city. Also this is purely a Nairobi list. If I decided to make one of Kenya I would run out of space. I will update hopefully with pictures and videos. Take the journey with me. 

Culinary Inspired
1.       Learn to make Kenyan Nyama Choma/mandazi and put  my own twist on it
2.       Try Nairobi Ethiopian Food and visit an Ethiopian coffee house
3.       Try Nairobi Chinese food
4.       Eat at Burger Hut Nairobi
5.       Eat Carnivore Restaurant Nairobi
6.       Try more Kenyan Street Food (Be brave)
7.       Have a Tusker/Senator
8.       Drink the Micro Brew at Brew Bistro Nairobi (Preferably after finishing my Masters Paper)
9.       Buy Kenyan Coffee/Tea for family and friends
10.   Learn to make  Samosa, managu, ugali (brown and white)

11.   Visit Art Gallery Watatu
12.   Visit the Bee Center and get a wax candle
13.   Visit Kenyatta Market
14.   Visit Kazuri Bead Factory and eat without regrets
15.   Visit  Kitengela Glass
16.   Visit Banana Hill Artists
17.   Visit Maasai Market- And find purchase a nice print
18.   Visit Spinner’s Web
19.   Triangle Market (Blue Dukas)

Random Touristy
20.   Learn to Speak Sheng Sheng (Nairobi’s very own form of street slang)
21.   Learn a song/poem in Kiswahili
22.   Watch a Football Match
23.   Go to a concert of one of the many international/national artists that perform
24.   Be a spectator at the Nairobi Marathon
25.   Go Nairobi Mountain Biking
26.   Visit Nairobi Jamia Mosque
27.   Go to a service at All Saints Cathedral
28.   Visit McMillan Memorial Library
29.   Visit Railway Museum – Home of the Lunatic Express
30.   Visit Nairobi National Museum
31.   Visit Kenya National Archives
32.   Visit Kenyatta Mausoleum
33.   Visit August Memorial Park
34.   Visit Bomas of Kenya
35.   Visit Riuki Cultural Center
36.   Visit Kiambethu Tea Farm or any tea farm
37.   Visit Nairobi Arboretum
38.   Visit Ngong Hills Forest
39.   Visit Nairobi National Park
40.   Do Nairobi Safari Walk
41.   Visit Nairobi Animal Orphanage
42.   Visit an Elephant at Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage
43.   Stand as Tall as a Giraffe at Nairobi Giraffe Centre
44.   Visit Nairobi Butterfly Centre
45.   Visit the Maasai Ostich Farm (and maybe try eating it)