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Today I’m introducing the second student who is participating in the Student Stories feature in the blog. Maliheh Birjandi Feriz is a second-year student pursuing Development Economics and International Environment and Resource Policy as her Fields of Study. Like Mirza, who told his story a few weeks ago, I asked Maliheh to contribute to this blog feature simply because I’ve enjoyed getting to know her. I hope blog readers will find her story interesting.
I received dual Bachelor’s Degrees in Industrial Engineering and Petroleum Engineering from the Sharif University of Technology (known as the MIT of Iran), and a Master of Business Administration from the same university. One of the best things about an engineering career is the wide range of projects you can work on. I’ve done everything from computer programming to simulate an oil reservoir, to a system-dynamics analysis exploring the impacts of deforestation on household income. Although it might sound unrelated, the analytical skills I acquired in engineering came into play as important factors in explaining my success in business. Through my experience working on practical projects, I learned that engineers who turn into organization managers and leaders need not completely give up their technical creativities; a high ranking manager can also be a technology expert, and in fact, this combination of expertise is well suited to the rapid pace of innovation and global competition. As an entrepreneur, I launched my own management consulting firm, and tried to sell multidisciplinary services in a market that was then blind to environmental values, and also ignorant of young women entrepreneurs, which brought me enormous cultural challenges.
Through running my own business and face-to-face conversations with senior-level managers, I became aware of my then very local perspective on environmental systems, without a clear connection to the broader regional and global efforts. However, finding a graduate program in which I could enhance my knowledge of global environmental issues, and at the same time interact with people who can see both sides of this interdisciplinary spectrum, was not an easy task.
This was my motivation for applying to the Fletcher School. I came to Fletcher intending to leverage my experience on environmental policy-related issues and reorient it through an international lens, but I found that my coursework had an even more profound impact. In my previous degree programs, disciplines were kept strictly separate. At Fletcher, I found that the pieces fit neatly together through an interdisciplinary approach. With an opportunity to select classes from several disciplines simultaneously, I was able to uncover my own competitive advantage, which will shape my career for the rest of my life. Moreover, I have taken advantage of this multidisciplinary environment in different ways to sharpen my skills in research, leadership, teaching, writing, and communicating with others.
At Fletcher, I found people were genuinely interested in different cultures. To declare oneself as Iranian was not an unusual thing. From my first visit to The Fletcher School, and seeing the flags of all countries (including Iran’s) around the Hall of Flags, I realized that it is safe here to say, “I am an Iranian.” Not only did I feel completely comfortable with my classmates, but here I was also exposed to a very diverse environment.
Now I am in my second year at Fletcher. I spent last summer as a consultant at the World Bank, and I am preparing applications to PhD programs. Although only a little more than a year has passed since I first enrolled at Fletcher, I feel like I’ve gained ten years worth of perspective on how my academic and professional experience will fit together in the future. I don’t think I could have gained this perspective in any other way.
Those who have been reading the blog for a while and others who have scrolled through the archives may remember Manjula, a rock-star 2012 graduate. When we talked in the spring, Manjula agreed to my request to follow his story a little further, especially since he is continuing work started at Fletcher (as described in the spring’s blog post). Recently, he sent me the first of what I hope will be a series of updates. He wrote, “My post-Fletcher life as a social entrepreneur dedicated to Educate Lanka has been a challenging journey, but a very exciting one at the same time.” And he listed some of the highlights of the four short months since he left campus:
- The “It Only Takes Ten” campaign to raise funds for Educate Lanka was successfully launched and has made significant progress.
- Our story was published on USAID/State Department’s Diaspora Forum.
- I presented a speech at the U.S. State Department’s South Asian American Employee Association Cultural Diversity Event.
- VEGA (Volunteers for Economic Growth) presented me a Diaspora Volunteer Award and partnered with Educate Lanka.
- Our project on Global Giving was a success and is ongoing.
- I was interviewed for a Sri Lankan television (Young Asia Television) program.
Manjula and Educate Lanka are still benefiting from the support of his former classmates. Last spring, Fletcher students, faculty, and staff recorded two videos to kick off the “It Only Takes Ten” campaign. The videos are similar, but I’m going to share both anyway.
Many languages, One Meaning
and Many Countries, One Meaning
Quite a few Fletcher students have a goal to establish a nonprofit, and it’s an inspiration to all of us to observe Manjula’s work. He tells me that he has a few more projects lined up for the coming months. I’ll be checking in with him so that I can provide an update toward the end of the year.
As I wrote yesterday, today we’ll start an occasional series of posts profiling students and their paths before and during their Fletcher years. Mirza Ramic is a first-year MALD student. He immigrated from Bosnia, and listed for me the other places he lived before coming to the U.S.: Croatia, Italy, Czech Republic, Tunisia, and Egypt. For his undergrad studies at Bowdoin College, he double-majored in Government and Legal Studies along with Eurasian and East European Studies. Here’s Mirza’s description of how he ended up at Fletcher.
Applying to graduate programs is not meant to be easy. The application process itself requires that you showcase your ability to take initiative and tackle new challenges. Of course, not everyone will be successful — or more specifically, successful at gaining admission to his or her dream school. For me, “success” was realized only after bitter disappointment. This is a brief vignette about the lows and highs of that often turbulent process.
My journey to Fletcher began in 2009. At the time, I was a full-time musician.
I was traveling the world, meeting wonderful people, and spending most of my days at home with strange instruments. Things were going well. Still, I was fully aware that my passion for music had its career limits, and that the demanding travel schedule would not allow me to pursue other personal interests. As an immigrant to the U.S. and a transnational nomad for most of my youth, an international affairs program seemed like an ideal choice for me. I visited Fletcher for an information session, and was immediately fixed on the MALD program.
I didn’t apply that year because my music career demanded all the attention I could offer. I would wait until the following year, when I had more time to devote to assembling the “perfect” application. I was convinced of my abilities, of my personal story, professional experience, and future aspirations, and of my willingness to work hard. In fact, I was so sure of myself that I only applied to Fletcher. In January 2011, I submitted the online application.
The day I received my rejection letter from Fletcher was not a good day. It was cold and rainy, and I was already tense in anticipation of a hectic travel schedule. I was disappointed with myself and suddenly doubtful of where my life was going. The next few months would be filled with adventure and an opportunity to experience the world from a unique perspective, but upon my return home, I would be facing difficult questions. I realized that if I was to reapply next year, I would need to work much harder at convincing the admissions committee of my potential.
A couple of days after my flight from Singapore landed in New York City, I composed an email to the Office of Admissions requesting application feedback. Though not all IR graduate schools will provide it, receiving feedback is quite a wonderful way to pinpoint the parts of your application that need improvement. (Of course, it is up to you to implement these changes.) When I received my response, I printed a copy of the e-mail. I stared at it for a while, feeling overwhelmed and less convinced of my abilities than the year before. Much work needed to be done to be successful in applying to graduate school.
The next five months would test my academic, writing, and organizational stamina. I enrolled in two night classes while working full-time, increased my participation in relevant community activities (including managing a United Nations World Food Program USA fundraising campaign), continued traveling and performing as a musician, and submitted applications to Fletcher and seven other graduate school programs. I entirely rewrote my essays and recruited friends and co-workers to provide advice for improving my application. I carefully and stubbornly followed the feedback that Fletcher provided. A successful application very much depended on a deep personal commitment to every step along the way.
Fall and winter of 2011/12 was one of the most challenging periods of my life, and was followed by two long months of compulsive e-mail checking. Unlike before, this time I was absolutely terrified of rejection. I could not fathom receiving another e-mail that opened with “We regret to inform you….” I also could not envision applying for a third time — this would almost certainly be my last shot at getting in. While I was excited about hearing back from the other programs I applied to, Fletcher remained my top choice, and I knew that I would attend if was I to be admitted. Still, my convictions guaranteed nothing; the matter was now out of my hands.
The day I received my admission offer from Fletcher was a good day. It was sunny with clear skies. I thought back to my feeling of disappointment exactly a year before. Then I remembered the application feedback that I received. I had needed to make a daunting list of improvements, and I had nearly given up on it. Now, all of that was behind me, and the top of Packard Avenue was directly ahead. At 9 am on Monday, August 27, I would officially be a Fletcher student.
Last spring I started thinking about an aspect of Fletcher that I never tried to cover consistently in the blog — the individual stories, and pathway through Fletcher, of our students. In truth, the issue was always making time to do the research and writing — I’ve always found our students to be interesting, and I enjoy chatting with them. Presenting them in an engaging and accurate way would take more than just a chat, though, and year-after-year, I felt it was a project that was better left undone than done poorly. But this year, I’ve decided to take it on. I asked a few students if they wanted to work with me, and two have agreed so far. If time allows, I may add more.
So tomorrow, one of our first-year students, Mirza Ramic, will introduce himself by describing his long path to Fletcher. Mirza and I met very briefly two years ago, when he came for an interview. Then we were in email contact for a year or more. And then we finally re-met in September. The long history explains why I asked him to work with me in writing about a “typical” Fletcher experience. (Typical in that Fletcher students take so many different paths to, through, and from Fletcher.)
I should note that I offered to do the writing, but Mirza chose to tell his own story. I’ll be checking back with him throughout his two years in the MALD program. Sometimes he’ll write and sometimes I will. I hope blog readers will enjoy this new feature.
In April, after I wrote my last post from the Hall of Flags, I was emailing with Manjula Dissanayake, one of the students featured. A week later, we sat down and he described the incredible path he has followed from his pre-Fletcher days to now. With Commencement just around the corner, I’m featuring Manjula’s story.
It all starts in 2007, when Manjula was working in finance in the DC area. He and his roommates had previously raised funds for Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, but they felt they could do more. They decided to focus their efforts in the area of education, forming Educate Lanka. Before long, Educate Lanka was occupying so much of Manjula’s time that he decided to dedicate himself to the effort, starting by pursuing graduate study in development and social entrepreneurship, either through an MBA or an international affairs degree. An application process later, he enrolled in Fletcher’s MALD program in September 2010 as a Board of Overseers Scholar, and quickly got to work on building his own intellectual infrastructure to run the organization, which currently has a core volunteer staff of ten, and a larger pool of about 40 to draw upon.
I should pause here and describe Educate Lanka. The organization’s main activity is securing micro-scholarships of $10 to $20 for students who lack funds but have a high potential to become future leaders, by connecting the kids with sponsors from around the world. 100% of the sponsorship funds go to the students. There are no administrative expenses (this being a fledgling organization), but if something comes up, funds are raised through a separate fundraising process, which also generates some scholarships for students without sponsors. Currently 275 students are receiving scholarships. A total of 350 have received funds, about 30 of whom have completed school (though a few left school and the program). There are over 400 sponsors in 15+ countries. Once they are in the program, the kids are funded through their undergraduate studies, starting as early as fifth grade (age 10). Over 12 million Sri Lankan Rupees (about US$100,000) has been awarded.
Back to fall 2010. Manjula settles in, registers for courses, etc. Good things started to happen pretty much right away. The first was that Educate Lanka was selected to receive the funds raised through Fletcher’s annual Asia Night event. That same semester, Manjula drew support from Empower, a project of the Tufts Institute for Global Leadership (IGL). And Educate Lanka took third place in the Tufts 100K Business Plan Competition. Not a bad start for one semester, and at that point Manjula started to think Educate Lanka had the potential to become a larger organization.
In spring 2011, Manjula took a microfinance class with Kim Wilson, and cross-registered for a Harvard class on education and social entrepreneurship with Fernando Reimers. Both professors offered advice on complementary models for Educate Lanka, and on how to make the organization more sustainable and scalable. Should it continue as a 501(c)3 (non-profit)? Or should it turn into a blended social business? Also that semester, after attending the Harvard Social Enterprise Conference, someone referred him to USAID and the State Department, because he works with the Sri Lankan diaspora community, which led to an invitation to speak at the Secretary’s Global Diaspora Forum.
Come summer 2011, while also interning in the Education Investment Group of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, Manjula was a finalist in the MassChallenge competition, as a result of which he received mentorship and guidance. Toward the end of the summer, he used a fellowship from IGL to travel to Sri Lanka, visiting the north and east of the country, where Educate Lanka wasn’t yet working. He returned with a sense of how to achieve near-term organizational expansion in Sri Lanka, including a corporate partnership model.
Meanwhile, Manjula’s roommate, Sadruddin, was thinking of replicating the model in Bangladesh, and had received a good response to the idea. He hopes to pilot the project by the end of this year. (Here they are together.)
Back at Fletcher in September 2011, Manjula reconnected with Prof. Wilson and Prof. Reimers, who together mentored him and helped him to think about global replication and to add a corporate partnership model to Educate Lanka. An MIT class on Development Ventures required him to take his ideas and act on them. He received another IGL/Empower fellowship to return to Sri Lanka during the winter break. And he continued entering business plan competitions. He was one of two finalists in the MIT 100K Elevator Pitch Competition.
His Fletcher classmates sent more funds Educate Lanka’s way from 2011 Asia Night proceeds, and Manjula was one of a small group honored as a UN Volunteer of the Year in Sri Lanka. Also helpful, more Fletcher students were jumping on board, including a group that wrote a consulting report on the concept of distance learning in Sri Lanka. He received additional funding from the Center for Emerging Market Enterprises, and IGL is committed to supporting Manjula, even after graduation.
In spring 2012, Manjula was a semi-finalist at the Harvard Social Entrepreneurship Pitch Competition. And this semester also found him in two classes specifically selected to build his skills set. Along the way, he needed to write a thesis and do the other things expected of Fletcher students. Oh, and he attended Clinton Global Initiative University in March, and was an Echoing Green semi-finalist. In preparing to graduate, he created his own Fletcher Field of Study: Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in International Development. (His second field is International Political Economy.)
I asked Manjula to reflect on his Fletcher experience, which seems to have been uniquely successful in connecting him to the local academic community. He said that he came to Fletcher “with the idea to get more guidance, more advice” and to “test the model and see if it has legs.” He confirmed that he was able to do that through classes, the business plan competitions, talking to mentors, seeing the response of people who believe in the Educate Lanka model (including some who want to replicate it elsewhere in South Asia and in Africa), and talking in panels and at conferences. All of this pushed him to move Educate Lanka toward a sustainable social business model while maintaining its core scholarship model.
What’s coming up after graduation? There are five or six fundraising events set up for the summer. The model will be starting up in Bangladesh, leading to “Educate World” in many countries. There’s a plan to start an online platform to arrange one-on-one mentoring for underprivileged kids, enabling knowledge-sharing between the developed and developing world (and also generating more traffic for the Educate Lanka website). The mentoring program would offer a new means of involvement for people who can’t contribute funds, and builds the community of people Manjula says are energized with “‘change the world’ spirit.”
Finally, Manjula took a minute to say “how much I appreciate all the support and backing I have received from my fellow Fletcher students, from all three classes (’11,’12,’13) with which I had the privilege to share my experience, as well as faculty, staff, and alumni. I owe them my thanks.”
I’m going to try to keep up with Manjula and Educate Lanka through the coming year, and I’ll report back on Manjula’s post-Fletcher path. Based on his success in the past two years, I’m guessing there will be plenty to write about.
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