Summer in the Sahel

At this time last year, all I can remember is the fear and intimidation I felt about finding a summer internship.  The second years and career resources team provided us with encouraging facts like "you'll apply for 50 and hear back from one!" or "if you're not already looking, you're already behind!"  Undergrad was already looking like a joke compared to the reading load at LBJ; on top of that we were supposed to spend hours each week scouring the web for the perfect summer internship.  Naturally, I put it off until the spring.  This is ill-advised (remember, you're already behind!), but I got lucky and DID land that perfect internship with the Peace Corps in Senegal.

At the end of May I was brought on as a Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) intern and stationed in the beachside capital of Dakar.  I had no experience in Africa and zero French skills, but was looking forward to a change from my usual Latin American-centric world.  My background pre-LBJ was in grant writing, journalism and linguistics, so I was eager to mix my prior knowledge with skills picked up in classes like Analytical Methods, NGO Project Design and International Development.  As I walked through the doors of the office on my first day, I was greeted by the familiar faces of President Kennedy, President Obama and even LBJ's very own Oliver Gaines, a former volunteer, adorning the walls and reminding me of my mission.  The internship was not to be your typical "get this, copy that" job.  My boss tasked me with conducting an M&E needs assessment, streamlining Senegal’s data collection system, creating a baseline health survey and designing templates for external reports.

Through my internship, I not only gained experience in program analysis; I got to "test drive" a job in development and put myself in the shoes of those I hope to one day help.  To complete my tasks, my boss sent me out into the field to interview Peace Corps volunteers around the country, from the dusty streets of Diourbel in the Sahel to the blossoming grasslands of Tambacounda in the interior.  Along the way I met agroforestry, agricultural, health and community and economic development volunteers from all walks of life.  Some were young college grads wanting to see the world and learn about foreign cultures, and others were mid-career professionals fulfilling a lifelong dream.  Some came from quaint small towns, others from bustling big cities, and a few were globe-trotting dual-citizens who had never lived in the United States. Despite their differences, they all were committed toward bettering the lives of those around them.  My time spent living, eating and working with these volunteers allowed me to see the Senegalese way of life and experience a fraction of the challenges they face every day.  I did not have the typically cushy ex-pat life: during the hot season I slept under stuffy bednets without air conditioning.  In the rainy season my electricity and water would frequently cut out and the next day I would find myself walking through murky sewage-water-filled streets.  Washers and dryers were only for the wealthy; I hand-washed my clothes at home.  Internet was a luxury only found at work.  However, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see what life is like for the "bottom billion," which should ultimately help me create more effective development programs in the future. 

I would encourage all first years to seek out internships that not only fulfill the LBJ internship requirement, but that also inspire you, challenge you and push you beyond your comfort zone.  These experiences could reaffirm your love for the field or let you know it is not the right fit.  They could also provide you with important connections to help you to land that post-grad job.  Thanks to my on-the-ground experience in Senegal, I am now certain that I want to work in program evaluation and already have contacts at places like USAID and Millennium Challenge Corporation to help me get there.  So hop to it and find that perfect internship.  You’re already behind!

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