I think it’s important to keep in mind field work is never as glamorous as it looks. I know I’m guilty of misleading people on my social media accounts too, but for every day I was off seeing elephants (a total of 3 days out of my year there), there are dozens of other days where I was simply hot and sweaty, trying to get work done before the battery on my laptop dies because the power is out.
|Name: Megan Henning
|Current Position: Leadership Facilitator and Motivational Speaker
|Qualifications (and University):
Master of Arts in Development Studies from The University of Sydney
Bachelor of Arts in International Studies from St. Norbert College
Years of experience (development/overall): 2
|LinkedIn Profile/Website Address: https://www.linkedin.com/in/megan-henning-52165b4b|
|Languages (and level of fluency): English (fluent)|
If you had previously pursued a non-development career, describe how you made the transition and the extent to which your existing skills were transferable.
After my undergrad, I’ve always been interning/studying/working in development. However, during my undergrad I had a job in the Leadership Development office at St. Norbert which has helped me in my current role as a Leadership Facilitator in an international organization.
When did you first start working in development what was your first role in this sector? Tell us a bit about the organisation that you worked for – what they do and where, how they work, etc.
My first taste of development came from a spending a semester in Uganda with a study abroad program called SIT (School for International Training) where my classmates and I spent the semester learning about development, visiting NGO’s and meeting NGO officials, Members of Parliament, and others involved in the industry.
Following this experience, my first official role in the sector was an internship I had with Joint Council on International Children’s Services in Alexandria, VA. I was the Partnership Coordinator. Joint Council was a coalition of organizations that worked for kids, the vast majority of them adoption agencies, and it was my job to reach out to all of our partner organizations when it came time to renew their membership, process their applications, and draft newsletters and events calendars.
We had a small team, about 6 people and only 3 were full time. Overall the organization’s main tasks were to advocate for laws that aimed to protect children being adopted from adoption fraud (parents selling their kids, etc), and providing a way for adoption agencies to easily communicate with one another. Unfortunately Joint Council shut down about a year ago due to lack of funding.
How did you obtain your first development role? Did you apply for it, and if so how many applications did you submit to get in? Was the role paid or unpaid?
The Joint Council internship I applied for using idealist. They required a resume, cover letter, references, and writing sample. Afterwards we had an interview over skype. The role was unpaid.
Do you consider field experience important for working in development?
I spent one year working in the field in Ghana. I know that organization definitely looked for candidates with previous international experience. Outside of that job, none of my positions have been working directly with international programs and so field experience wouldn’t have necessarily been required.
My current role with WE is to do outreach with youth to encourage them to become active global citizens. Most of my co-facilitators come from a background of youth engagement rather than development. WE does international development work as well, but the vast majority of that work is done in country and by local staff so my colleagues have backgrounds in things like business, communications, PR, or whatever role it is that they are doing for WE.
Did you have experience in the field before obtaining your first paid development role? If yes, do you think your field experience was essential to your job application?
I had experience studying in Uganda, and then working in Ghana for one year with Exponential Education. My job there was to coordinate peer tutoring programs and girls’ leadership programs. That job definitely helped me land my job with WE, but more so because I was working directly with youth.
Part of my job requires me to lead trips overseas and facilitate discussions about development with youth for whom the concept is brand new. For example, on a WE trip students would see first-hand what sustainable development looks and also be lead in conversations about breaking down the idea of “othering” people from different places and cultures. I’ve just started at WE so I haven’t had the opportunity to lead a trip yet, but I think my international experience will definitely help me when I do. While my international experience wasn’t a requirement, I think it was certainly a plus when they were looking over my resume.
How important do you consider networking to being successful in your field?
I think that networking could be a really helpful tool, but I have also never gotten a job or internship through networking. For Americans looking to work in Washington DC, I’ve been told networking is key. My job is based out of Minneapolis and WE’s headquarters are in Toronto, so I didn’t do any networking to land this job.
What do you see as the main advantages and disadvantages of the work you’re engaged in?
Answering this question in relation to my time in Ghana, I think it’s important to keep in mind field work is never as glamorous as it looks. I know I’m guilty of misleading people on my social media accounts too, but for every day I was off seeing elephants (a total of 3 days out of my year there), there are dozens of other days where I was simply hot and sweaty, trying to get work done before the battery on my laptop dies because the power is out.
Smart phones and technology make it easier to stay in touch with people back home, but there are definitely still times when it’s difficult. I was never able to skype as the connection would drop too much, so I found whatsapp calls to be most reliable.
I also really missed food at home. I loved the food in Uganda, but the food in Ghana was usually very spicy and all of it had either meat or fish in the broth, so as a vegetarian I got very used to eating the same few things every day. There was also a huge amount of freedom given up, as a woman I would not venture out alone after 6pm in Uganda and about 8:30pm in Ghana. Even things like printing became a challenge if I went to the print shop and suddenly the power cut (thankfully I eventually found a print shop with a wonderful staff and a generator.)
I loved my time in Uganda and in Ghana, but I think if someone is going out into the field for the first time that they need to have a realistic sense that they aren’t going to love it every day. Another thing to keep in mind is that field work is not one adventure after the other. A lot of it feels monotonous and often times frustrating. However, at the end of it all, I could not be more grateful to the experiences I’ve had in the field.
What advice would you give to somebody interested in pursuing a career in international development similar to yours?
I think it’s important to be realistic about what work in development actually looks like. As I just mentioned, field work has all sorts of challenges. From my various internships, work in your home country is often a lot of spreadsheets and paperwork. After working directly with youth in the field in Ghana, I decided that I didn’t want my next job to be primarily a desk job which meant I had to be a lot more flexible and extend what I thought it meant to work in international development.
My job with WE is going into schools, workshopping with kids to help them find issues they are passionate about and then finding ways to take action on those issues. More and more of work in international programs is done in country by local staff, so I would say to anyone wanting to work in development: remain flexible.
For those seeking to work in programs, it’s really important to be open to working overseas. And for those who want to work their home offices (DC, Sydney, etc), it’s important to know that most of those jobs are not specifically doing development work.
When I interned at ChildFund Australia, they had a small staff of people working on international programs (all with extensive international experience) and a staff of almost 100 doing all the other jobs like HR, accounting, communications and other jobs any organization needs to run.
At WE, it’s a similar story. So, for those seeking to work in their home offices, I think it’s important to be open to working for an international organization but in a role that doesn’t necessarily focus on programs. In my job, it’s a great compromise of being able to work in Minneapolis for an international development organization, but instead of working directly in international programming I’m workshopping with youth and helping them find what they are passionate about to create the next generation of development workers and global citizens.