THE BLOG

Graduating Into the Great Unknown

06/03/2013 08:28 am ET | Updated Aug 03, 2013
  • Borany Penh Senior Economic Adviser, USAID Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs
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This is the time of year for caps and gowns. When young men and women graduate from college and begin to make their way into the Great Unknown of careers and adult responsibilities. I remember facing the unknown many years ago as I was about to finish graduate school. What did I want to do after such a huge investment in education? Academia seemed too removed and while I could do well in business, my heart was not in it. One day while thumbing through information at my university's career center I found an internship announcement to work in the field of international development. I had never heard of it, but the proposition to apply my knowledge and talents to help people around the world struck me as a worthwhile endeavor.

I still marvel at how fortunate I was to find the internship announcement because I had not in any organized way prepared for a career in international development. Growing up in small towns in the American midwest and the southwest before the internet was an everyday ubiquity, I had never heard of such a field and none of my mentors of the day had ever mentioned it.

These days international affairs is much more visible. This is in part due to the power of the internet and social media. The involvement of Hollywood celebrities like Ben Affleck, George Clooney, and Angelina Jolie have also helped make the field more "sexy." But it's also because the world really is much more inter-connected. It's incredible to see the speed and diversity of people, products, and ideas crossing borders. The inter-connectedness, of course, can present both enormous opportunities and challenges for countries be it economic, political, social, or environmental. This is why it is so important for the new graduate classes to engage in the world. Every new problem or new wrinkle to an intractable problem requires good people to help solve them.

How does one get into international work these days? There is not just one path because no one field or organization owns it anymore and that means many more opportunities. Professional associations in the U.S. now often have sister organizations in other countries. Cities and states conduct major trade missions to reach out to international investors. Social entrepreneurs are creating their own solutions to development problems. So even if your education and skill set is domestically focused, they can usually be applied in other country contexts.

For those interested in the more traditional organizations working in international development there are various entry points. One terrific option is the Virtual Student Foreign Service e-internship program hosted by the U.S. State Department. VSFS connects U.S. college students with foreign affairs agencies through seven-month virtual e-internships and crowdsourcing via micro-volunteering. My three outstanding VSFS e-interns this year -- Mohammad, Ogi, and Urjita -- were able to engage in economic research support even though they were at various times in France, England, Washington, and Minnesota. For interested students, the vacancy announcement for the next batch of student VSFSs will be available July 2 - 20 on usajobs.gov.

Beyond internships are the different possible careers through the major international development institutions such as USAID. Foundations and the major multilateral institutions like the World Bank are also major actors. But a very useful site that aggregates career opportunities from many different institutions and facilitates knowledge exchange on international development topics is devex. As most people in Washington know, its very important to network and being able to do it virtually multiplies the possible connections.

It's an accomplishment to graduate. Deciding what comes next is part of venturing into the Great Unknown. But whether it is a domestic or international field, science or health, etc. the world needs as many bright and committed people as there are problems. This is well known.