I was recently approached by the Kansas State University Academic and Career Information Center and asked if I would be interviewed as part of their “Voices from the Field” alumni profile webpage. According to the Center: “These career biographies are the real stories of K-State graduates who have used their education and experiences to obtain jobs in the real world.” I was honored by the request and I was grateful for the opportunity. As a busy young professional, I don’t often sit down and reflect on who I am, where I am, and how I got here. But the interview allowed me to do just that: to contemplate my academic studies and my career in international development—my journey—over the past 15 years.
I graduated from Kansas State University in 2005 with bachelor’s degrees in sociology, Spanish, and women’s studies. Despite obtaining three degrees, I remember a few family members expressing their concern about just how I would make a living in the world. Some encouraged me to go straight for a master’s. But I was young, idealistic, and restless—I wanted to get out in the world and make a difference. I had studied subjects that moved me and I knew what I was passionate about: social justice in international trade. I applied for just one job and got it—in customer service with the oldest and largest U.S. fair trade coffee company, Equal Exchange. I was challenged and learned a lot from this first full-time job, trying to make ends meet in a city (Boston) where I was far from home and my friends and family. I began questioning my belief that this job was the be-all and end-all, asking myself: “Can I really change the world by selling fair trade coffee?”
Following my time at Equal Exchange, my big dreams (and traveler’s soul) led me to work for a women’s university in Bangladesh in 2009. I truly believed that this university and the young women learning there would change the world. Certainly, the experience changed (and continues to change) lives, shaping worldviews and giving young women an educational and professional opportunity not readily available in many parts of the world. However, the rocky experience at a start-up university in a challenging location taught me that there are a lot of factors at play in making change. And what one person considers to be “good” change may be problematic for another. Yet again, I asked myself: “Can I really change the world by coordinating logistics at a women’s university in Bangladesh?”
So in 2011, I went on to study a master’s at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia in international studies: peace and conflict resolution, thanks to a generous Rotary Peace Fellowship. The transition back to university was challenging, having not been immersed in an academic environment in more than five years. I poured myself into my classes on peacekeeping, economics, and international development, staying up all hours to complete my readings and essays. I could see how complex and important all this information was in understanding the global situation. But a little voice at the back of my head kept nagging at me, wondering: “Can I really change the world by writing an essay about neoliberalism?”
After finishing my master’s, I moved to Oaxaca, Mexico in 2013 to work for Coffee Kids, a US-based nonprofit dedicated to improving livelihoods for coffee farming families through partnerships with grassroots organizations in Latin America. Coffee Kids provided funding, resources, and support to community-based partners to implement projects in food security, microcredit and economic diversification, education, health, and capacity building. I was excited to be working in a job with a cause, pairing my passion for coffee with my knowledge and skills in international development. And I loved working one-on-one with partners in various countries, witnessing their challenges, their growth, and their unending faith in a better world for coffee producers and their families. However, with shifts in organizational structure and funding in 2014, I decided to leave Coffee Kids at the end of the year. (The original organization closed in March 2015 after 26 years of operation). And yet again, I asked myself: “Did I really change the world by helping a small grassroots organization implement and measure the impact of a family gardens project in a coffee farming community?”
Well, the answer to all of these questions is…. NO. No, I didn’t change the world. I didn’t save the butterflies and the polar bears. I didn’t cure cancer and end polio. I didn’t solve all the global problems and bring about lasting world peace. In that sense, I could say my work has been in vain.
As I reflect on my journey, however, I come to the conclusion that I may not have changed the world on a grand scale—but I did try to make changes within my area of influence in the world. And this means that all the struggles to make ends meet, the late nights spent writing, and the efforts to make an impact—they meant something. They hopefully accomplished just a little bit of good. They hopefully changed something and inspired somebody. And they were worth it.
If I were to offer any advice to someone looking to pursue a degree in women’s studies or astronomy, to work with a nonprofit organization, or to set off on their own adventure, I say: figure out what your passion is and where you want to make change, and go for it. As the Dalai Lama says: “The planet does not need more ‘successful people’. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds. It needs people to live well in their places. It needs people with moral courage willing to join the struggle to make the world habitable and humane and these qualities have little to do with success as our culture is the set.”
I believe that I can do my little bit to help create positive change in the world through my current work as an independent consultant with True Roots, a consulting firm specializing in the planning, assessment, and impact measurement of social responsibility initiatives. I’ve taken stock of the academic, professional, and practical knowledge, experience, and skills that I have gathered over my lifetime. Every step in my journey has led me to this point, and I look forward to helping cultivate the power of individuals, businesses, and organizations in making positive change in the world.
By Summer Lewis
Click here to read the full interview