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Returning to our Faculty Spotlight series, today’s post comes from Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, lecturer in Human Security.  Prof. Scharbatke-Church teaches a series of intensive short-term classes, including Design and Monitoring of Peacebuilding and Development Programming, Evaluation of Peacebuilding and Development for Practitioners and Donors, and Advanced Evaluation and Learning in International Organizations.

Cheyanne ChurchColleagues sometimes ask me why I stopped working in peacebuilding to be an evaluator.  I respond by asking: how is determining the dynamics of a conflict and its actors, and the ability of an intervention to catalyze change, anything but peacebuilding?  Understanding how change happens in complex conflict and fragile affected states, be it on issues related to corruption, rule of law, or conflict, has been the focus of my career as a practitioner-scholar.  In my opinion, this is the crux of all forms of international development and peacebuilding.

As a practitioner-scholar I purposefully straddle the theory and practice communities.  The issues, challenges, or questions I identify on the ground when working with partners such as the UN Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO), ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), or the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) directly feed my research and, by extension, my teaching.  Real cases are always part of class discussions to bring to light the complexity of issues.  In addition, through my organization Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, students have the opportunity to engage in projects that are committed to catalyzing significant change on strategic issues.

Equally, my academic work influences my practice as it enables me to not only stay current, but to critically assess the potential value of theory against real challenges.  For instance, I am leading a project, funded by the Department of State, that seeks to operationalize new approaches to corruption in the justice sector in conflict affected states.  The impetus for the project came from teaching a course on Corruption and Conflict where it was clear that the proposed solutions in academia were not bounded by the practical realities of the contexts in which these responses need to be implemented.

The courses that I teach at the School are unique in a number of ways, primarily because they emphasize skills development and are offered in a three-part series taught in an intensive format.  Working daily with students who are exclusively committed to the course creates a unique classroom experience characterized by camaraderie and a dedication to understanding how and why change happens.  This camaraderie and engagement often lead to long-term relationships with students.

As a result I am fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to work with and learn from the alumni of my classes.  Fletcher alumni now include a growing cadre of professionals who call the discipline of evaluation their profession.  At the 2013 American Evaluation Association conference, over 30 alumni were in attendance in their professional capacity.  They are found working throughout implementing actors and donors in the international community.  I am proud to say they are advancing the practice of evaluation, from which the School in turn benefits, as they act as guest speakers, offer topics for capstones, and establish internships.

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Although the majority of students start their studies and go straight through the relevant number of semesters on campus, plenty of students opt to pursue a dual degree or exchange program, or even take time away to work.  Jessica Meckler, who started the MALD program in September 2013, is doing just that.  Here’s her story.

Jessica M & kidsOne of Fletcher’s greatest strengths is its often-lauded flexibility.  Many other students have talked about the variety of courses and concentrations that allow students to personalize their degree to fit their professional goals, so there isn’t a need to elaborate on that.  However, the opportunity to take a leave of absence from Fletcher is another particularly useful aspect to the degree program that I would love to see highlighted more.

There are many reasons to take a leave of absence from your graduate studies: fellowships, scholarships, internships, and job opportunities.  Some of my batch mates have taken a semester off.  Others, including myself, have taken the entire academic year to pursue additional experiences that expand upon our Fletcher studies.

I am currently living and working in Pune, India as an American India Foundation William J. Clinton Fellow.  The organization that I have been placed with for my 10-month fellowship is the Akanksha Foundation, an educational NGO that runs schools and after-school centers for children from low-income communities in Pune and Mumbai.

I decided to apply for the fellowship in December 2013.  Throughout the course of my first semester, I had become increasingly aware of how my limited experience in the field affected my ability to connect the theories and skills we study at Fletcher with the reality of international development work.  I was encouraged by several professors to pursue a field internship for the summer, and with my interest in Design, Monitoring, and Evaluation (DM&E), Prof. Scharbatke-Church was candid and helpful in explaining ways to supplement my previous experiences.  I figured that if a summer was a good idea, why not a full year?

The application process for the AIF Clinton Fellowship was a lengthy endeavor.  I submitted my written application in January 2014 and was interviewed at the end of April.  I did not learn that I would be joining the 2014-2015 AIF cohort until June, when I was already living in Dhaka, Bangladesh and interning with BRAC for the summer!  I was extremely grateful for the ease with which Fletcher students can apply for a leave of absence.  It made the process of preparing to move to India while in Bangladesh a little simpler.

Jessica MecklerOne chronic worry that arises often when I talk to people about my time off from school is the idea of falling out of the “student mode.”  While in a way this fellowship is a break from the hectic schedule of all Fletcher students, I see the work that I do at the Akanksha Foundation as a crucial aspect to my Fletcher education.  In Pune I am assisting with several curriculum and program assessments, curriculum design, system creation and implementation, and teacher training.  My work draws upon the skills that I learned during my first year at Fletcher, such as the ideas and principles from the DM&E modular series, and I have greater clarity regarding my goals for my second year at Fletcher.  There are specific skills and courses, such as Nancy Hite’s Survey Design in Comparative Political Economy and Jenny Aker’s Econometric Impact Evaluation for Development, that I will focus on when I return to Boston.  Additionally, I am using my year away from Fletcher to continue a project – which will hopefully double as a significant portion of my capstone – that I began in Dhaka.

Although only four months have passed since moving to India, I am confident that my work here will have a profound impact on my future studies and career.  Taking time off was invaluable for me, and it has given me the time and space necessary to contextualize the onslaught of new ideas that a year at Fletcher brings.  While it is very strange to imagine Medford without the familiar faces that I have come to associate with Fletcher, I am equally excited to return to school in September as I am to stay in India for six more months!

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