Experiences in life are shaped largely by expectations. Attempting to predict outcomes in order to get some grasp on a future full of uncertainty may be one of our most natural tendencies. The unpredictability of the future challenges us, exposes our weaknesses, and can lead to self-doubt.
It’s hard to remember now what my expectations were when I took off from Logan Airport last July. I’m sure I expected that my experience would be full of challenges and triumphs, successes and failures, and it was. During the month since I returned to the U.S. I have been at Union, giving presentations to various classes, participating in events like question and answer sessions and Steinmetz Symposium, and trying to help prepare the next group of nine fellows. I have come to believe that while there may be no way to prepare fellows for the journey of self-discovery and exploration that they are about to begin, there are ways to prepare them to be successful at the work they are doing. To this end, I have compiled a list of ten tips for the nine fellows that will be heading to Ecuador, Uganda, Cambodia, South Africa, and India this July.
1. Be a sponge. Absorb everything you see and hear, and try to remember as much as you can from every conversation, road sign, and side comment. Ask questions! Every moment is an opportunity to learn more about where you are, the events that have shaped that particular place, the people who live there, and what you can do to help.
2. Do not fear failure. Before you leave you will be told often to be patient when you first arrive and to just listen; “don’t do anything at first,” some might tell you. But as passionate and energetic 22-year-olds it will be hard for you to sit on the sidelines for very long. In the case of Shelby and me, we jumped right in and made lots of mistakes. We failed often and made decisions we later regretted. But failure is as important to community development as success is. In fact, if you learn from failure, it can and will be a precursor to success. As a Minerva Fellow you should see your role as largely experimental and thus your failures as a productive way of eliminating possible solutions. I am adamant that we will need to fail a lot in communities like Estero in order to experience long-term, sustained success.
3. Practice self-assessment. In this kind of work one must always be critical of his ideas and initiatives. With any program you hope to develop, ask first whether the impetus for the program is coming from the people you are working with or from you. Before you begin implementing an idea, take a step back, talk with people, and make sure that the idea will actually solve the problem you are hoping to address. Always see if you can come up with a way to evaluate a project’s effectiveness and impact. And do not fear the results: even if they do not show what you had hoped for, you can always learn a great deal from these kinds of assessments, and it is never too late to go back to the drawing board. Patience is a virtue.
4. Make it your own. The Minerva Fellowship offers a different experience for each fellow. Of the more than 30 individuals who have participated in the program over the last four years, I bet all of us would agree that each has had a unique and different experience. The Minerva Fellowship is what you make of it, so take the next nine months to focus on your passions, hone skills, and figure out how you can make the most meaningful impact on the place you are living.
5. Success is undefined. The fellowship brings with it a lot of pressures. During the month of May the returning fellows help teach Hal Fried’s social entrepreneurship class, and each of us presents on the various projects we were involved with. I remember sitting in the classroom last year and being amazed by all that the previous fellows had accomplished. I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would ever be able to live up to the expectations that the previous fellows had seemingly set. Now, one year later, I’ve realized that there is no recipe for success in the fellowship. Not only is every placement different but every fellow is unique. In fact, your uniqueness is a large part of why you were picked for the program in the first place. So, as long as you approach this experience committed to making the most of your time, you will succeed in learning a great deal about yourself and the place you are living and in having an impact on the lives of others. In other words, all of you will succeed.
6. Good intentions are not enough. Anybody who tells you that poverty remains a problem because everyone in the developed world is too aloof or cold-hearted to care is wrong. Poverty persists not because there is a lack of initiative or interest with regard to the developing world, but because even the best-intentioned efforts often fail to have the desired effect. In some cases, well-intentioned projects may even cause more harm than good. So be wary of this and always try to anticipate what the outcome of a planned project will actually be (versus what you wish it might be).
7. Think long term. Though nine months seems like a long time right now, you will soon realize that it is a very short period of time in the lifespan of the places you will be living. Nine months will not be enough to achieve most of what you would like to accomplish, and that’s okay. Nobody expects you, or wants you, to go and change these places overnight. So always keep in mind that the projects you are involved with are much bigger than you are. Your goal should be to make it easy for future volunteers or workers in your position to continue along the path you’ve created. Sustainability is the goal, so you should always be preparing for the day when you will “take yourself out of the equation,” in the words of Amanda Wald.
8. “Do it.” Kate Murphy, Minerva Fellows 3, offered this advice to us this time last year, and I liked it. When an opportunity to do something presents itself, do it. Seems simple enough, but the point is that you shouldn’t hold back. The adventure you are embarking upon is a once in a lifetime opportunity, no matter how much traveling or living abroad you may do in the future. So whenever you are unsure of whether to go on that hike, get up at 4am to go fishing, or get on the bus to who knows where, think of Kate and remember what she would say: “go for it.”
9. Take care of your body and mind. Always take time to do things that relax you and that you enjoy. I recommend getting a kindle if you can, so you can read a lot and continue learning every day. Always respond to any medical issue with attention, as you never know how serious it could be. Living in foreign places also means interacting with bacteria that your body is not accustomed to fighting, and it means confronting diseases that you have never seen before and may not really understand. Thus, you should not rely on self-medicating, and should always seek out the best available medical advice and care. I can attest that what may seem like a small mosquito bite could actually kill you.
10. Details matter. Much of the value of the Minerva Fellowship lies in its focus on scaling down to the micro level, so concentrate on the details. A misconception in development work is that big problems require sweeping solutions, and that these solutions can be implemented and scaled up all at the same time. You should not feel that only ideas with the possibility of having a widespread impact are worth pursuing; affecting one life in a positive way is a huge success. In my case, in order to stay grounded and committed, when I hear or read statistics about global poverty, I think of the mothers that hosted me, the guys I played soccer with, and the students I worked with in Estero. For me, it’s all about people, not statistics. And in order to change those statistics, we will first need to understand people, just as the fellowship allows you to do. As Dean Karlan writes in More Than Good Intentions, “[Development] needs to be on the ground. If we want to solve poverty, we need to know what it is in real—not abstract—terms. We need to know how it smells, tastes, and feels to the touch.”