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Interview – Alanna Shaikh, International Public Health practitioner

Alanna Shaikh

Alanna Shaikh

Alanna has been working in international development for about a decade, she has worked for NGOs, contractors, the US government and the UN. She has been an intern, a manager and a technical specialist in East Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East. You can learn more about her and her take on international development at her blog Blood and Milk. I caught up with her in Dushanbe, Tajikistan where she is currently a consultant for international development organizations, and asked her about how she got started in this line of work.

Nick: Tell me about what made you want to get into humanitarian work, and how you went about it?Alanna: I have wanted to do it for so long that I don’t even know why – I knew in high school it was what I wanted, and as an undergraduate I actually wrote a letter to UNICEF’s human resource department asking what they look for. They sent a very nice note back explaining the general educational background they wanted, and that they look for people with field experience. Not a lot of people get to live the lives they dreamed of as kids, but I am one of them.

Nick: So tell me about that process – what did you do at undergrad, and how did your job-search go?
Alanna: I graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in Middle East Studies, and realized there was nothing I wanted to do that I was qualified for. I applied for a lot of administrative assistant jobs and then found an overseas internship program at the American University in Cairo for recently graduated seniors. I applied and was accepted – so I went to Cairo to work for AUC there as the “head intern” in the Office of the University President. It was for one academic year, and I was paid $300/month and given a great apartment in downtown Cairo.

I spent the year learning to live in the Middle East, learning about university administration, and wondering what I would do next, since I already knew there were no jobs I wanted that I could get with my bachelor’s degree. I realized all the stuff I did want to do required an MPH, so I ended up in an MPH program at Boston University. I LOVED it. As an undergraduate I really studied and fought and bled to hold a GPA of 3.0, and then grad school was just where my passion was – I got straight As. I had to work, but the work was so interesting, it didn’t feel oppressive. I took loans to get through grad school, and I am still paying them now. My aim is to clear them by the time my 4-year-old son goes to university!

I didn’t have the usual post-school job search. After I had finished my coursework, while I was writing up my MPH paper, a classmate got in touch with me. His dad worked for UNFPA (the United Nations Population Fund), and since I was interested in reproductive and maternal health I had been in email correspondence with his dad (he had mentored me a little). His dad was at a reception in New York and met the Central Asia UNFPA director and told him that he knew a girl who might want to be an intern with UNFPA. He gave me the email address for the guy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. I basically just emailed a million times until he said I could be their intern. I was an intern for a year, and then got a job with a USAID-funded health project, since I was already there in Tashkent and knew the situation. At this point my only previous field experience was the year in Cairo aside from a summer in Kuwait City in high school and some family visits to Karachi.

I didn’t have any funding for the internship – I just estimated how much it would cost me every month to live in Tashkent, figured out how long I wanted to stay (six months), then I got a job, saved up the money, and got on a plane to Tashkent. There is funding for overseas internships, but most of it seems to be for graduate students. I actually ended staying at my internship for a full year, funding the extra six months with a US government fellowship that no longer seems to exist and a stipend that UNFPA found for me (they also reclassified me as a consultant at that point). I think I was on the budget as their English teacher! It was not a large stipend, and for six months my little brother actually paid my student loans for me (he’s a great guy!), but then his financial situation changed, and I deferred them.

But I got to Tashkent on my own, and I don’t think I could have gotten that fellowship if I wasn’t already there.

The internship pretty much launched my global health career – it led to the job that led to my next job and so forth. My first real job after the internship was as a program manager with a USAID-funded health project. It was a great job for me at that point – I did a lot of writing, which teaches you about the inner workings of development work very quickly. It also had more actual work than expat jobs usually do; I was involved in designing educational campaigns on health topics and writing focus group guides. I even did some training.

Nick: So tell me about the family – what are the issues in juggling those extra responsibilities?
Alanna: The hard part is not my son, actually, it’s being a two-career family! My husband followed me to three countries and left two jobs for me. Right now I am in Tajikistan for my husband’s job and taking on consulting work. It’s not what I would prefer – sometimes I have no work, and this week I accidentally booked myself 60 hours of work! My husband works for USAID, in conflict resolution and civil society, which also means I can’t apply for employment with any NGO that gets USAID money in Tajikistan – that’s everyone but Oxfam and the UN agencies. He and I met in the US – I was doing a summer language program in Uzbek at the University of Iowa, and he was studying Russian in the same program.

Nick: Are there any other factors that you think worked in your favor that you haven’t mentioned yet? Any other advice you would give to people looking to get into this line of work?
Alanna: Well, I studied Uzbek in grad school. It wasn’t field experience, but it showed commitment I think. When my friend’s dad was selling me to the UNFPA director, my Uzbek language skills made it pretty clear I was interested in Uzbekistan.

Nick: How easy was it to adapt to living overseas?
Alanna: Cairo was one of the most difficult cities in the world to live in for me – Tashkent is a piece of cake by comparison! Cairo is huge – its population is almost as big as Canada’s and it’s crazy dense. People talk to you all the time if you’re a woman and if you’re a foreigner – you learn to screen out approximately 80% of your sensory input – people who can’t do that go nuts. In Tashkent, I could stand a corner and look around, and no one would bug me – I could dress how I wanted – even if I looked foreign, it was no big deal.

Nick: Can you tell me a little bit about specific advice you would give to women trying to break into this line of work, especially if they are traveling overseas for the first time?
Alanna: A surprising number of men in this line of work are sexist, which I didn’t expect. I’ve had men who quite literally didn’t hear me when I spoke in meetings – they just weren’t tuned in to listen to women. When I was pregnant, there were people who suggested I should not be working, or I should quit when the baby was born. I’ve seen this happen to other women as well. It’s not a cultural thing either; I got this response from American men.

I just kept my head down and ignored it. If your boss is sexist, I think you have to just hang in there and try to tune it out.

Expect travel to be hard as a woman. Expect to be talked to, and to be judged – people will try to categorize you – is she an American woman like the ones in the movies, or a different kind? You want to be a different kind. I tend to wear very modest clothes for months, until I feel like I know the culture well enough to adjust.

I hate saying this, but you can develop a kind of invisible posture – make people’s eyes just kind of slide over you. I learned that in Cairo. Later, I went on a one week trip to Baghdad, and our country director complimented me on my ability to be inconspicuous at checkpoints. It was really just the practice from walking around Egypt.

Nick: What’s the hardest thing for you about this kind of job and lifestyle?
Alanna: I miss my family and friends in the US. My son just pines for his grandparents and aunts and uncle, and I hate being so far from them. Also, having to make new friends every couple of years can be exhausting.

Nick: Do you have any other tips or advice for people looking for work in this area?
Alanna: Study a language, one of the hard ones – it will help make you stand out. I think it shows that you mean it about wanting this career.

For some reason, this has become a field where entry-level work is mostly unpaid. That sucks, but it seems to be true. You pretty much need a master’s degree for all the fun jobs – different degrees come in and out of fashion, but I think it has become a kind of base level credential. A big name school will help make your resume stand out but if it’s all you’ve got, it won’t carry you. Your experience matters a lot more, I think.

Nick: Some people try to get a job by just traveling to a country and trying to make themselves useful – what do you think about that route?
Alanna: If you can afford it, I think it’s not a bad option – it takes a lot of the risk out of it for the hiring organization. They don’t have to pay to bring you over, and they know you can handle living there.

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