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When Hurricane Mitch struck Central America...

By Sharon Murray 1999-01 AAAS Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Bureau of Global Programs

When Hurricane Mitch struck Central America last year, I was finishing my dissertation. Suddenly, the tapping of my keyboard was accompanied by stark images of human suffering and natural devastation on the television screen. As the crisis unfolded before me, it fired my urgency to leave the halls of academia and put myself into the active practice of public service.  

Not too long afterward, I heard about the AAAS fellowship programs from a Diplomacy Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, DC. I knew that this would be a great next step for me. The fellowship would be a perfect opportunity to take the skills and insights I had gained from my Ph.D. program in Wildlife Resource Science at the University of California – Berkeley, and apply them to real-world development.  

After applying and being interviewed in Washington, I was awarded a Diplomacy Fellowship for 1999–2000. I started the year with an already-strong commitment to the field of environment and development practice. In that sense I felt that my work at USAID would be consistent with my skills and interests to date. At the same time, I did not expect to be doing exactly what I had focused on in the past. In fact, the fellowship assignment was not in my field of specialization, but it provided me with challenges and learning opportunities, and allowed me to broaden my skills. At the same time, I didn’t feel as though my lack of experience in this area hurt my ability to be a valuable member of the USAID team.

During my first year as a Fellow, I was fortunate to encounter a tremendous variety of tasks and responsibilities. I was exposed to environment and development work on several scales and throughout many regions of the world. My work included consulting with local Mexican non-governmental organizations to organize a planning workshop for a new bi-national Mexico-Belize coalition for management of shared coastal resources. For several months, I also collaborated with the USAID Mission in India to strategically plan for a new program initiative related to water and energy management in that country. Finally, within the domain of international policy, I was involved in numerous multi-donor and interagency activities surrounding water issues, including participation in the official U.S. delegation to the Second World Water Forum and Ministerial Conference in The Hague.  

A USAID Diplomacy Fellowship isn’t like an academic post-doctoral position, or a research assignment, or even a ‘regular’ government job. At its best, it represents an opportunity to mix a deep scientific interest with the demands of public policy and government practice. The AAAS fellowship may also represent a departure from previous work experience. For me, it was a homecoming and the culmination of the professional and academic path I had followed for many years. Whether it serves to open new doors and provide profound changes in life direction, or is the avenue to deepen an existing path, the Diplomacy Fellowship can be an important catalyst for the expansion of professional capabilities, skills and knowledge, as well as overall personal growth. It is, finally, an opportunity to serve society in the United States and abroad. For anyone who believes that these pursuits are worthwhile, applying for a Diplomacy Fellowship is a great way to go.

The author has extended her 1999–2000 Diplomacy Fellowship at the U.S. Agency for International Development for another year. Her fellowship will end in September 2001.

The AAAS Diplomacy Fellowship Program, one of nine AAAS science and technology policy fellowship programs, emphasizes the role of science in foreign affairs and international development. Significant travel is unique to this fellowship program. The hands-on learning about policy for Diplomacy Fellows takes place in the four Washington agencies that participate in the program, as well as abroad. This year Diplomacy Fellows have traveled to countries such as Peru, Morocco, Thailand, the Philippines, Romania, Hungary, Uganda, Eritrea, Chile, Haiti, Kenya and Namibia. This issue of Fellowship Focus spotlights one Fellow’s experience in this program. If international adventures aren’t for you, please pass on this newsletter to a colleague who might be interested.

Claudia J. Sturges - Director, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship Program

Disclaimer: The perspectives and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of AAAS, the Science & Technology Policy Fellowships, the U.S. Government, or the federal agencies/offices mentioned.