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Fletcher’s summer quiet continues, and there’s little of note happening in the Admissions Office, which makes me especially happy that I can still share updates from the Class of 2015. Today we’ll hear from Nathaniel Broekman who, like so many of our students, took an unusual path to, through, and beyond Fletcher.
It’s been an odd journey to arrive where I am today. Seven years ago this month I departed New York City, where I had worked for three years as a musician and audio engineer, to spend the next three years with the Peace Corps in Bulgaria. I left the music industry to begin a career in international relations, with the hope of finding my way into the field of migration or international development.
Contrary to the adage, sometimes the best-laid plans do not go awry. Which always surprises me. Just over one year ago, I simultaneously completed a Boren Fellowship in Istanbul and my Fletcher degree. I then landed in Washington DC, from where I write you today. One month ago, I was on a detail to the border of Texas and Mexico, interviewing mothers and children who had just completed the harrowing journey from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to request asylum.
I work as an Asylum Officer with the Department of Homeland Security, adjudicating the claims of asylum-seekers who have arrived in the United States. In doing so, my colleagues and I make the preliminary determination if an applicant is eligible for asylum under U.S. law, if he/she can be found credible, and whether this individual represents a risk to the security of our country and our community. Although the majority of my interviews are with applicants living in the mid-Atlantic states, the job has to date taken me as far as Atlanta and Texas. I am now preparing for an international detail to take part in our refugee resettlement efforts overseas, be it in El Salvador, Turkey, Nepal or one of a number of countries where refugees are unable to find a durable solution and hope to be resettled in the United States.
When I began this position, the word “refugee” was not yet gracing the front page of nearly every western newspaper, nearly every day. I soon found myself in the center of one of the most important challenges of our generation. There are more displaced persons on the planet today than at any other time since World War II. Many of them are looking to us for help.
Mine is not an easy job, for almost all the reasons you might imagine. But putting aside the emotional roller-coaster and the daily frustrations, I feel fortunate to take part in a program that grants the protection of the United States to those who have lost the protection of their own country. It is an honor to bring these individuals into our community and grant them the refuge they truly need and truly deserve.
The Fletcher School was an integral part of this journey. Most pointedly, my classwork in conflict resolution with Professors Babbitt, Chigas, and Wilkinson, and forced migration with Professor Jacobsen gave me a firm understanding of the global dynamics that brought us to this point, whereas classwork in various areas of international law with Professor Hannum immersed me in the system that gave us the internationally accepted definition of a refugee — a single paragraph from 1951, which guides our daily practice and determines, in part, the fate of millions of human beings. I also took advantage of the opportunity to cross-register at the Harvard Law School, to take a course on migration law with Professor Anker, which has had far more impact on my career today than I had imagined it would at the time. The education I received at Fletcher from these and other courses gave me not only the necessary legal analysis skills to make a proper determination on the merits of a case, but also the political and conflict analysis skills necessary to fully research and understand the dynamics in our applicants’ countries of origin. Furthermore, a summer internship with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Bosnia-Herzegovina and a seven-month Boren Fellowship in Istanbul, crafting my thesis on Turkish development and humanitarian aid, did not hurt one bit.
Beyond my coursework, Fletcher has brought me into a community that continues to amaze. I was taken aback at the enthusiasm that alumni have for helping their fellow graduates to develop a career. This is especially true here in DC, but was just as true while I was searching for work in Istanbul. Most importantly, many of my closest friends here and across the globe are either fellow classmates from my time in Medford, or alumni from previous years. We have even created a DC alumni branch of the Fletcher band “Los Fletcheros,” known locally as “Los Fletcheros Federales.” The only major difficulty has been scheduling rehearsals, considering the travel schedules of seven band members who work in international relations. Don’t get me wrong, I know that I’m also to blame, but the World Bank keeps sending our guitarist to West Africa at the most inopportune times.
It’s been an odd journey to arrive where I am today. I am not sure what I was looking for seven years ago when I left New York City, but I seem to have found it. And for that, I owe The Fletcher School and the Fletcher community a great deal of gratitude.
Just as, two weeks ago, I wrapped up the updates from the Class of 2010 with posts from Luis and Hana, this week I would like to return to the Class of 2015. Today, we’ll learn what Peter Varnum, a good friend of the Admissions Office, has been doing since he graduated.
Time at Fletcher flies. The pace of life is often so stressful that it is easy to lose sight of the return you’re actually earning. Obviously this comes in the form of your lifelong friendships and network; it’s a main reason we all chose this place to continue our education. But, amidst readings and papers and presentations — and world-renowned guest speakers, lectures from the Dean, and student-organized conferences — we often forget the other reason we chose Fletcher: it’s among the top international relations schools in the world.
Never has the stellar education been more evident to me than in my first year post-graduation. I moved to Geneva, worked briefly for the World Health Organization in its mental health policy unit, and am now consulting with a small, international B-corporation called Vera Solutions, which works at the intersection of data and development. (Side note: Fletcher allows you to work at the “intersection” of basically anything and anything. We build bridges.) Often dubbed the “DC of Europe,” Geneva is rife with IR- and development-types who love to throw around jargon and number of countries visited slash worked in like they’re all badges of honor, trophies of who knows the most, who’s done the most. But I appreciate my Fletcher brethren here, and there are a number of them: those who can hang in those conversations, but don’t feel the need to tout their accolades. Those who hold a room when they speak. Those with whom you can have a drink and laugh at yourselves.
When you’ve turned in your thesis, and walked across the stage, and at some point found the nerve to click on one of those emails giving you an update of how much interest your student loan has accrued, you have time to breathe a little. And that’s when you look back and realize just how much you’ve learned at Fletcher. You learn from the courses you take, sure — but I would argue you learn more from your immersion in a space that brings together such interesting, diverse people. I often chat with my own classmates, as well as prospective students, about what I call “Imposter Syndrome,” which I felt quite frequently at Fletcher. You’re in class (and at house parties) with future diplomats, foreign service officers, magnates of international business, and leading academics. Not to mention polyglots who may as well have designed Rosetta Stone. I often used to ask myself how I wound up there.
But if Geneva has taught me anything, it’s that, despite my hideously accented Spanish (and just plain hideous French), those experiences have made me fluent in the language of international relations. And not just in a professional setting; I now read the news with a more nuanced understanding to go with a critical eye that I like to think we all have entering Fletcher. I feel comfortable voicing my opinions, and confident that they are informed. I feel more like — and excuse the cliché — a productive citizen of the world.
Navigating ambiguity is at the heart of international work — at the heart of life, really. I believe my Fletcher education has made me nimbler. I do not hesitate among the flutter of languages in the UNICEF cafeteria, nor while chatting with the Director of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse at WHO, nor while having that drink with my fellow Fletcher graduates. A year or so ago, when I was hunkered down in Ginn Library, procrastinating by dreaming up ideas for a creative Fletcher Follies video, I often wondered whether it was worth it. These days, that uncertainty never crosses my mind.
The second post for this week, and the last for the Class of 2010, comes from Hana Cervenka who, like Luis Marquez (writer of yesterday’s post) has a focus on monitoring and evaluation.
As I am writing this, I am just back from facilitating the traditional potato run for kids during the celebration of Norway’s national day in Jakarta, Indonesia. In the next few days I’ll be drafting background documents and talking points in preparation for the bilateral human rights dialogue between Norway and Indonesia, planning a joint Nordic midsummer party, preparing for an upcoming ministerial visit, following up on grants to partners working on good governance, and quite possibly hopping into a few unexpected meetings as well. This is all part of my job as a diplomat at the Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta, where I have served since 2013. I can’t imagine that any school could have prepared me better for this career than The Fletcher School, where writing academic papers, carrying out an evaluation for a real-life organization, discussing the theory and practice of law, economics, and politics, and learning bhangra for one of the Cultural Nights are all equally natural parts of everyday life. (To be fair, I did not learn bhangra, but many of my friends did!)
It has been a whirlwind five-plus years since I left Fletcher. First, let me backtrack a bit. I still remember the feeling I had when studying for my undergraduate degree in international relations at the University of Oslo. It was part delight and euphoria that the subjects that interested me most — international affairs, conflict, peace, development — were now what I spent all day studying. At the same time, a part of me was frustrated, questioning whether all these theoretical studies were actually going to be helpful out there in the real world. That frustration is part of what led me to Fletcher: I was sold the moment I discovered that The Fletcher School was not only top-notch academically, but that it also placed great value on combining theory and practice, and that true interdisciplinary, problem-solving cooperation between scholars and practitioners was part of the School’s DNA.
Fletcher really delivered on all its promises. My time at Fletcher was a lot about good governance and monitoring and evaluation, with a bunch of gender thrown in. There were also a few classes which may not have “fit in” with my grand career plan at the time of becoming a development/human rights/governance practitioner, but which I value today because they helped my versatility and understanding of other related issues.
The monitoring and evaluation classes I took at Fletcher were particularly important in helping me start my post-Fletcher career. My summer internship was an M&E internship in Malawi (with an NGO started by a Fletcher alumna!) and right as I graduated, I got a fellowship with DPK Consulting to help develop the monitoring framework for a USAID funded rule of law project in Jordan. From there, I moved to Khartoum in Sudan (then still one country). I spent six months as a trainee at the Norwegian Embassy there and loved it so much I pretty much refused to leave. It was such an interesting time in the country’s history: the south Sudanese people decided in a referendum that South Sudan would become an independent country six months later. There was no way I could leave. I was hired by the organization set up under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement to work on the negotiations that were ongoing on the terms and practicalities of the secession. I managed a grant in support of the negotiations, trying to have civil society voices heard and supported in the negotiations (led by the African Union) in any way needed. Book tickets, charter flights, fix hotels? Check. Type up negotiating positions that were hand written? You got it. Take minutes from the negotiation meetings? Sure.
Right around the time South Sudan gained its independence, I was accepted to the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ diplomatic training program. I continued working on Sudan/South Sudan in my first year at the Ministry as part of my on-the-job training. I then had a six-month full-time training in all things relating to Norwegian foreign affairs followed by another on-the-job training, this time on the Asia desk in preparation for my first posting in Jakarta. Fletcher has been helpful every step of the way, academically of course, but in many more ways too. The Fletcher alumni community is always there, ready for equal parts serious and fun adventures. We even have a small (and completely unofficial!) Norwegian MFA Fletcher club including (in addition to me), my 2010 classmate Hilde, along with Jonas, F11, Torbjørn, F12, and Ina, F13. I don’t know where I’ll go for my next posting, but I do know the Fletcher network will surely be there, wherever I may be!
One could argue that I should run the Five-Year Updates in the year leading up to each class’s five-year reunion. Yes, I could do that, but for whatever arbitrary reasons, I decided instead to have the alumni write after the completion of a full five years. Still, what with my asking and them being busy, time does slip by. So this week, I’m closing the blog book on the Class of 2010, now a full six years post graduation. The first of the week’s alumni posts comes from Luis Marquez, who wrote to me that, “I hope this five-year update helps show prospective and incoming Fletcherites that the Fletcher Community is truly unique and continues to be a big part of your life years after graduation.”
Six years ago, having recently graduated from Fletcher, I was fortunate to be connected to the head of the Social Sector Department at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Kei Kawabata, F77, and to Eric Roland, F06, who informed me about a potential opportunity working with the IDB’s Gender and Diversity Division. While I had not been looking for work in the Gender Equality space in particular, it only took a moment of introspection to realize this was exactly the type of work I was looking for post-Fletcher. At its core, gender equality is about ensuring more effective development and smart economics. Having focused my studies and thesis on ensuring that development interventions achieved social impact, this was a perfect job for me, and Fletcher had prepared me for it.
The path to Fletcher
Before deciding to study at Fletcher, I was working in New York at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and was unsure about which graduate school to attend. It took a chance encounter with a Fletcher alum, the late Ben Sklaver, F03, whose passion for the school was so palpable that it was hard to see how there was any other choice (see more about Ben’s story here and about the Clearwater Initiative he founded here). This passion, I would soon find out, is unique to Fletcher graduates and hard to replicate. Before our short chance encounter was over, Ben made one simple suggestion: to make sure I took classes that gave me hard skills I could not get from “reading The Economist.”
Post Fletcher: Yes, M&E really is that useful.
I have spent the last six years post-Fletcher promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Latin America and the Caribbean through multiple positions at the Inter-American Development Bank. Currently, I am leading the gender mainstreaming, research, and women’s economic empowerment strategy for the Multilateral Investment Fund, the innovation lab of the IDB Group. The strategy is focused on finding innovative solutions that can be scaled up through the public and private sectors. This work ranges from developing market-driven solutions to provide women-led emerging businesses with access to finance to developing a gender equality diagnostic tool that will allow companies to benchmark themselves against their peers, based on the United Nation’s Women’s Empowerment Principles (WEPs). Professor Scharbatke-Church’s monitoring and evaluation course has come in particularly handy when developing gender indicators to ensure our projects contribute towards closing gender gaps. Professor Wilson’s microfinance course helped me to challenge notions, such as that microcredit was a panacea to help the poor, and to think about developing human-centered products that take into account the needs of the final beneficiaries.
As a Mexican, I am proud to see that my region, as well as the IDB, has made significant advances in closing gender gaps over the last two decades. However, a lot of work remains. I am pleased to see how the Fletcher alumni community has developed a niche around the gender equality and development space. While I am one of few men in the world of gender and development, every day more men are taking note that this is not a women’s issue but rather a development challenge that should matter to all of us, regardless of sex. Fletcher men like Brian Heilman, F10, and Sebastián Molano, F11, are both relatively recent Fletcher graduates who are working on changing traditional masculinities and gender roles. We all join a long line of Fletcher graduates (exceptional women like Elizabeth Vasquez, F96, CEO of WeConnect International, and Anna Lucia Mecagni, F05, of Women for Women International) who are working to ensure men and women are afforded the same opportunities to improve their lives.
Most importantly, I am very proud to be part of the Fletcher community.
With the Class of 2016 about to graduate in only about a week, it’s getting to be time for me to wrap-up the Five-Year Updates from the Class of 2010. Today we’ll hear from Claudia Ortiz, who provided me with this short bio, in addition to her post:
Claudia Ortiz (Mexico) has worked for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) since 2013, when she joined as Regional Technical Specialist on Climate Change Adaptation in the regional hub for Asia-Pacific in Bangkok, Thailand. She is now based in UNDP headquarters in New York, acting as climate finance policy advisor and project manager of the Global Green Climate Fund Readiness Programme. Before UNDP, Claudia worked with the Climate Change Team at the Global Environment Facility of the World Bank, in Washington, DC.
Earlier in her career, she supported the development of Mexico’s first Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions for the cement and iron and steel sectors at the Center for Clean Air Policy in Washington, DC and worked at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Sub-regional Office in Ankara, Turkey, where she undertook research on energy policy and environmental issues in Central Asia.
It has been almost six years since I graduated from Fletcher. I still regard the opportunity to study there as one of the best in my life: it changed the way I see the world, transformed my career, and allowed me to meet some of the most remarkable people, with very diverse backgrounds. From the very first day of Orientation, students are constantly reminded that our most important allies are in the student and alumni community itself. Besides this backbone virtue of the School, students are also reminded (as in the Mission and Impact statement) that as international affairs professionals, we ought to be “committed to maintaining the stability and prosperity of a complex, challenging and increasingly global society,” — in other words (or, as I interpret it), we are meant to be “global citizens.”
As global citizens, we let go of nationalistic or self-interests. Rather we exercise collaboration and compassion, as we seek to become agents of improvement for the global society, including the most vulnerable populations in it. And, as global citizens, we are led by our never-ending hunger to explore, travel, and experience different cultures.
This concept resonates well for me with the cause to which I have dedicated my career since Fletcher graduation: to support developing countries’ access to international climate finance for initiatives, projects and programs that address climate risks. Climate change must not be regarded an “environmental” problem. To label it that way would be misleading, as it places emphasis on the risk being posed to ecosystems or natural habitats. In reality, it is the human species and human development gains that are most at risk and are being severely impacted by climate change in the form of food insecurity, forced migration, destruction of infrastructure, loss of livelihoods, etc. Climate change is therefore a global development problem which does not recognize political boundaries and one which cannot be solved by acting in isolation; international diplomacy has a significant role to play.
Today, it is evident that diplomacy driven by recognition of the universal threat of climate change, but also by emphasizing the needs of the most vulnerable populations on Earth, has succeeded in shifting the climate change paradigm. In December 2015, the diplomatic efforts of over 150 heads of state and their delegations resulted in an unprecedented Climate Agreement, reached at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. For the first time in history, there is global recognition that climate change is a common concern of humankind, whereby all the world’s economies need to act together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase resilience to climate change impacts. Decades have been spent in breaching the gap between achieving economic growth through the use of cheaper fossil fuels and the urgent need to enhance resilience to climate change, especially in the poorest countries. We are a privileged generation to witness a huge step in this direction.
As an officer of the United Nations, I function as an “international civil servant.” I am not to respond to any government’s instructions (or those of any other source that is not the UN) as I carry out my duties; rather, I am supposed to bring forward only the interests of the UN. Applying this principle has proven to be crucial for my work given that, for the past three years, I have served the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ghana, Benin, Colombia, Nepal, Fiji, and others, but not yet my native Mexico. I have realized that the only way to thrive in different cultures or contexts while achieving common social, environmental or development objectives is by maintaining impartiality and independence. This is, of course, challenging, as we are all calibrated to operate based on our own cultural norms, traditions, and pre-conceived ideas. I admit that only by living the experience itself have I been able to “adapt” quickly to unknown contexts, while still managing to get the work done.
Evidently, Fletcher was the perfect launching platform for my current job with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and my former position in the World Bank, another institution where staff uphold the same principles of impartiality and of a global mindset. Fletcher is a microcosm where the exact same principles are enforced, not only to excel in the very demanding, inter-disciplinary curriculum but also to succeed as a member of the ever-present Fletcher community. As students, we would consciously work, discuss, and even debate respectfully, without prejudice. We established long-lasting friendships with people we never imagined we would. I proudly say that Fletcher prepared us to confront the most compelling global challenges by making us realize that solutions can only be reached through diplomacy and collaborative action, because as citizens of ONE planet we cannot regard challenges to be the problem of “the other,” but rather, these problems and their solutions must be assumed as “our own.”
A couple of weeks ago, I highlighted the United Nations speech of Fletcher professor and alumna, Rachel Kyte. Shortly thereafter, another graduate, Cornelia Schneider, F06, wrote to make me aware of the signing ceremony speech of Dr. Cristiana Pasca, a 2014 graduate of the PhD program and 2006 MALD graduate, and currently the Environment Minister of Romania. Click on the photo below to watch the speech.
It’s always satisfying to see our graduates in action, and I also particularly appreciate how alumni watch out for each other, such as in this case when Connie took the time to make me and the alumni office aware of the great work her MALD classmate is doing.
Tagged with: CIERP
As we’re rapidly approaching the end of their sixth year since graduating, let’s return to the Class of 2010, whose updates I have collected throughout the year following their five-year reunion. Today we’ll hear from Eric Sullivan, a member of the very first MIB class.
Prior to joining Fletcher as a member of the inaugural MIB class in 2008, I was one of many whose paths were shaped by the September 11th terrorist attacks and the ensuing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was an Air Force ROTC cadet studying business and Russian at University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill on that fateful day. A little over five years later, I was a newly-minted first lieutenant supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom out of the former Baathist headquarters at the old Iraqi Air Force Academy. That experience, along with an eye-opening study abroad experience in Russia, raised my interest in international affairs and set me on the path to Fletcher.
I chose Fletcher because of the MIB program and the opportunity it offered to merge two core interests: business and international affairs. Although the MIB program was new, the Fletcher School itself was both well-established and well-regarded. I was particularly impressed by the School’s breadth of offerings, its reputation within the international affairs community, the success of its alumni, and the caliber of my future classmates whom I met at the Open House for newly admitted students. I had a truly enriching experience at Fletcher. What I appreciated the most was the ability to pursue my specific academic interests both in and outside of the classroom, with the benefit of a wide array of resources at my disposal through Fletcher and the wider Tufts community.
For example, in fulfillment of my thesis requirement, I wanted to find a way to connect my interests in social enterprise and human trafficking. With invaluable help and guidance from my advisor, Professor Nathalie Lydler-Kylander, I developed a business case study on Made By Survivors, an NGO that uses the power of social enterprise to empower and liberate survivors of human trafficking. With the aid of an EMPOWER social enterprise grant from Tufts Institute for Global Leadership, I traveled to India and Nepal to conduct research on several social enterprises employing survivors of trafficking and vulnerable populations. That trip resulted in a successful case study recognized among the winners of the NextBillion 2010 Case Writing Competition and used subsequently at both Fletcher and Harvard Business School. The wide web of support and unique opportunities available through Fletcher made such an outcome possible.
After graduation, I accepted a position as a Presidential Management Fellow with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, serving as a contract specialist at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center and spending some priceless time with family. In early 2013, I embarked on my dream job in the U.S. Foreign Service. My first assignment was to Moscow, Russia as a consular officer, where I adjudicated nonimmigrant and immigrant visas, and managed a portfolio with national security implications and numerous public diplomacy events ranging from a radio interview on a popular Moscow station to a roundtable discussion with future Russian diplomats and foreign affairs professionals. I also had the opportunity to support the Public Affairs section at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine during the landmark presidential elections of 2014. Though only a short two years in duration, set against the backdrop of momentous events in Ukraine, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, the imposition of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions, and the granting of temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, it made for a very interesting first tour.
Following my assignment in Moscow, I was ready for a drastic change of scenery and climate. I completed six months of Portuguese language training and I’m now assigned as a Consular Officer to the U.S. Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I’m currently working in the nonimmigrant visas section, conducting interviews for Brazilians who wish to travel to the U.S. for tourism, business, academics, and exchanges. Later this year, I will have the opportunity to work as a special assistant to the Consul General. The Summer Olympics is just around the corner, while Brazil is passing through a challenging period both politically and economically. My second tour in the Foreign Service seems destined to be just as interesting as the first.
I love hearing from alumni, and not only when they send me news for the blog. But if they happen to send something newsworthy, well, I’m certainly going to seize the opportunity to share.
On Monday, I was pleasantly surprised by an email from Atanas, a 2015 grad. He recently started in a new position at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, working on climate resilience. I’ll let him continue the story:
Last week I was lucky to be working at the Executive Office of the UN Secretary General on the organization of the Paris agreement signature ceremony, and on Friday, I witnessed first-hand this historic moment. I met a few presidents, including Colombia’s President and Fletcher grad Juan Manuel Santos, and had a brief chat with Leo DiCaprio who is UN Messenger of Peace and delivered a speech during the ceremony. It was certainly a day to remember.
But one of the most powerful experiences I had was listening to a Fletcher alumna who spoke on a panel in the afternoon of the same day — Rachel Kyte, who is the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) and Special Representative of the Secretary General. She talked only for five minutes but completely captivated the audience and, according to everyone working in this area, hers was one of the best speeches given in a long time.
I’ll plug in a few details about Rachel Kyte. She’s a 2002 graduate of the GMAP program and, also, currently a Fletcher professor of practice of sustainable development, associated with the Center for International Environment and Research Policy.
The forum at which Atanas heard her speak was “Taking Climate Action to the Next Level: Realizing the Vision of the Paris Agreement.” Click the photo below to hear her comments following a question at about 1:47:00.
I have a little something different to offer today. Remember Mirza? He was a MALD student who wrote for the blog in 2013-14 and 2014-2015, and since then he has been alternating work that builds on his Fletcher studies with a continuation of the music career he had pre-Fletcher, with the duo Arms and Sleepers (AAS). Recently, I read something he had posted on his Facebook page and asked if I could share it on the blog. It struck me as bringing together so much of what makes Mirza interesting — his personal history, his directness and honesty, his work as a musician, and the insights he will have developed at Fletcher. I’m glad he agreed to let me share his thoughts. Post-Fletcher careers in the arts are not typical, but those graduates who pursue them are not alone.
As a further introduction, today Mirza noted, “I have performed in Georgia the country and Georgia the U.S. state; Moscow, Idaho and Moscow, Russia; Athens, Georgia and Athens, Greece; (the) Mexico and New Mexico.” He definitely covers a lot of territory. Speaking of which, let me share his upcoming tour schedule. If you live or are traveling in any of these locations, I’m sure Mirza would be happy to see you. He has always welcomed Fletcher alumni, students, and even applicants to his performances in the past.
And with that, I’ll let Mirza share his story.
I’ve been telling this story at my shows on the current tour so I’ll share it here as well, especially as I am in northern Greece at the moment.
Being a musician and doing this for a living, I often feel conflicted about the importance and impact of what I do, compared to what’s happening in the world. I arrived at Amsterdam airport the morning of the Brussels airport bombings, and was traveling to Greece via Brussels airport last week. I am now in northern Greece about to play three shows, practically right next to the refugee camps where people have only one thing on their mind: survival. I’ve been on that side as well. When I left Bosnia with my mother in 1992, we only had survival on our mind, too. We were lucky to escape the war, but we wanted the world to pay attention to our struggles and help us start a new life somewhere else. Almost every country closed its borders to us, and hours (many hours) spent waiting in line at the Norwegian/Swedish/Canadian/etc. embassies resulted in nothing but rejection. We were lucky, once again, to be taken by the U.S. after years of trying.
Today, I am on the other side, doing something I love and something that I helped build myself. I perform music across the world, and even if I am only a small artist, I feel incredibly privileged and lucky that people are willing to pay me to come to their country and play a show. So as I am writing this in Thessaloniki, Greece, I feel weird because I think about some western artist who might have been performing in Croatia at the same time that my mother and I were traveling on ferries and buses with two suitcases looking for a better future. Now that western artist is me.
I keep saying that music is important, because it is. At almost every show I meet someone who tells me how much our music has impacted him/her. In Bristol, UK, a girl was crying after our show because she heard her favorite song live; in Chongqing, China, someone told me our CD was the first she ever purchased outside of China; in Guatemala City, the show organizer told me that our music opened his eyes (ears?) eight years ago to all kinds of new music he never knew about before; in St. Petersburg, Russia, a young girl told me that she has a heart condition and can’t go to loud shows, as per her doctor, but came to my show anyway and felt free for the first time in a long time; a girl in Poznan, Poland recently got sick and ended up in a wheelchair — she told me that my show was an hour during which she could forget about all the overwhelming negativity in her life; in Ukraine in the summer of 2014, I was thanked endlessly for not canceling my tour and for being one of the only artists to play in the eastern part of the country; in 2009, we wrote a song that was the first thing a newborn in Nashville, Tennessee heard; a guy flew on a plane in Russia for the first time just to come to an AAS show; and I continue receiving Facebook messages from young people in Tehran, Iran telling me how much our music has been influential in the city’s underground electronic music scene. These are not ego-boosters, but little stories that are important to me because they involve people’s actual lives, and it is unbelievably humbling to have any amount of impact in someone else’s life.
So I don’t know, I continue feeling conflicted because I’ve been on both sides — I’ve been a refugee who nobody wanted and I’ve been a teenager/adult who needed music to get through difficult times. As I play these shows in northern Greece over the next three nights, I’ll be doing plenty of self-examination and figuring out how to best contribute positively in this messy world, with and without music.
Returning to the Class of 2015, Owen Sanderson was a two-year Admissions Office regular, spending time in the office as a volunteer, a paid member of the Admissions Committee, and a good source of conversation. He was the first person I reached out to when I was looking for a helper for an APSIA graduate school fair in New York last September, and he’s the only student with whom I ever discussed options for engagement rings before he proposed. His post-Fletcher career is typical in that it’s atypical.
“Don’t try to be the smartest person in the room,” cautions Paul Bennett the Chief Creative Officer of IDEO. “The conventional heroic leader is a product of the past.” Cleverness is not a ticket to success at IDEO.
Paul is right. Despite the deep well of talent at my new employer, IDEO.org, I’ve observed that success here is fueled by one pervasive approach: a commitment to collaboration.
I write as I embark on my fifth month at IDEO.org’s New York office. IDEO.org is a non-profit design and innovation organization associated with its celebrated Silicon Valley brother IDEO. As a Business Designer — a unique role that blends business sensibilities with thoughtful design — I have seen firsthand how collaboration inspires seriously impressive results. But this isn’t necessarily news to me, as group work is part and parcel of life at The Fletcher School.
Between 2013 and 2015, I spent two years at Fletcher preparing myself for a pivot into the design world. Unconventional? Perhaps. Effective? Definitely. I have always had a decent grasp of international development, having studied it at Georgetown University and having worked in the field for nearly a decade. However, Fletcher offered an opportunity to consider a contemporary approach to problem solving: Human Centered Design (HCD). HCD is a creative practice that focuses on people rather than process. The goal of HCD is to research, design, and build solutions, all while maintaining deep empathy for the women and men you’re designing for.
As a Business Designer I look to design solutions that aren’t just beautiful but viable in the emerging markets in Africa and Asia where IDEO.org works. Life as a Business Designer takes many forms — from conducting user research to considering a market entry strategy for a new social enterprise to building partnerships with local NGOs to ensure programmatic sustainability. It is exciting, fast-paced, and challenging.
So how did I navigate to this sweet spot between design and development? My journey started at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. CSIS was hands-down the best first job out of college. I highly recommend spending at least a few years at a DC think tank. You’ll learn to write. You’ll participate in incredible events. You’ll have access to world-class personalities. And you may even work down the hall from former statesmen Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski (I did!). Perhaps most importantly, it was through this job I also met my future wife. We get married in July—and I am positively joyful.
Following two years at CSIS, I sought to tone my quantitative muscles. Management consulting called. I spent three years at Deloitte Consulting, working alongside clients from USAID, the State Department, and beyond. I dedicated my last year at Deloitte to an internal project that examined the intersection of government, the private sector, and this new thing called social entrepreneurship. I cannot thank Deloitte partner Bill Eggers enough for exposing me to such interesting work.
After five years away from school, I felt the pull. Fletcher called. I distinctly remember visiting the Hall of Flags as a high school junior on a college tour with my mom. I remember being inspired. How was I to know that ten years later I would be a temporary fixture in the Hall myself, particularly during Social Hour — Fletcher’s weekly gathering of minds and hungry grad school bellies.
At Fletcher, I focused on reconsidering the international development sector, uncovering new, innovative ways to tackle thorny poverty challenges. I was attracted to courses like Kim Wilson’s Financial Inclusion and Bhaskar Chakravorti’s Strategy & Innovation in the Evolving Context of International Business. I refined my consultative approach in Rusty Tunnard’s Field Studies in Global Consulting — and then served as his teaching assistant during my second year. And I put theory to practice by spending my Fletcher summer in Nairobi, Kenya at the iHub, a co-working and innovation collective. While there I wrote my capstone on Nairobi’s tech ecosystem and then taught this capstone to Kim Wilson’s class in 2015. Both my internship and my capstone propelled me into my current gig as a Business Designer.
And so now I’m at IDEO.org. It’s tough. It’s dirty. But it’s oh-so-rewarding. Last month I spent two weeks in Kakuma, Kenya, a 24-year-old refugee camp with approximately 185,000 residents. Read that sentence again. A refugee camp. A 24-year-old, temporary place of sanctuary. But nothing is temporary in Kakuma. It is a permanent city. Our team touched down in Kakuma to rethink (and frankly, redesign) how refugee teachers access professional development services. With average class sizes of over 100 students and a serious lack of material resources to support teaching, these refugee teachers are eager for support.
I went to Fletcher to learn how to solve big, hairy problems like those I saw in Kakuma. I am at IDEO.org to solve them. However, a lone wolf won’t solve these challenges. As Paul Bennett said, the smartest person in the room won’t have the solution. Paul is not alone in this belief. He has advocates across the world, including in Kakuma. During our second week in the refugee camp, a teacher suggested that problems in the camp are never resolved alone: “We work as a team. No one is cleverer.” From Medford to New York to Kakuma, collaboration appears to be the name of the game.
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