Where and what is your current position?
I'm an independent consultant working on education programming in developing countries, especially in conflict zones. I design, plan, manage, and sometimes evaluate education programming in teacher education, literacy education, learning and teaching materials, and technology for education. Lately, I do work on open educational resources (OER) and on digital literacy and critical thinking. Much of my work is in Afghanistan, where I have been back and forth since 2003, but I have done assignments throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. I have also worked on the promotion and implementation of gender equity, gender mainstreaming, and human rights. I also teach a graduate course once a year on development and human security at the School of Humanitarian Studies at Royal Roads University, and I supervise two or three graduate students' research each year.
Is your current career path as you originally intended?
I started off working in the human rights and women's rights sector. I realized I had to go back further, to the root of the problem: a denial of access to education and illiteracy. So I didn't foresee where I'd land, but I'm happy with the patch of grass I found.
How does this job relate to your graduate degree?
A course I took with Dr. John Willinski on open access to knowledge was especially influential for me, and I still draw on research I was exposed to in that course for the work I do now on developing platforms for local language OER. In April 2016, a colleague and I presented a paper on our work in developing an OER tool for Afghanistan at the Global Open Education conference in Krakow, Poland, and in writing that paper, I went back to research I did for that course back in 2009.
Doing a graduate degree at UBC gave me the academic research skills that I draw on all the time when planning out methodologies for collecting and analyzing data used in assessing or planning for education initiatives in the developing world. For example, in one project I was part of a team assessing textbook production and development in a conflict affected country, and in designing the research instruments we used, we used the same principles and skills one uses carrying out one's thesis research!
What motivated you to pursue graduate work at UBC?
I needed an education about education. UBC had a program on language and literacy education that was a good match for me, and a research program in East Africa. I did my thesis research in northern Uganda.
What did you enjoy the most about your time as a graduate student at UBC?
The luxury of taking time to think and question... and read a lot!
What are key things you did that contributed to your success?
The single most important ingredient is passion. If you are not driven to tackle what you work on every day, you risk being miserable. If you believe what you work on is important, you'll be happy most of your waking moments. Work won't feel like work. The hours will fly by, and you'll yearn for longer days!
What is your best piece of advice for current graduate students preparing for their future careers?
Be curious about everything, but find a niche where there is a gap in knowledge and develop very focused expertise in that gap. Know a little about everything but a lot about one thing.
Did you have any breaks in your education?
I completed my PhD in five years. I was working (as a freelance consultant) throughout that time, and while it was a busy period, it was manageable.
How did you find out about/obtain your current position?
I got interested in Afghanistan, in particular the situation facing women and girls there, when I was a teenager, during the time the Taliban were ruling the country. I started off by volunteering with human rights and women's rights organizations active in addressing what was happening in Afghanistan. By the time I finished high school, I knew I wanted to work in the field, so I studied international development. After spending time in Afghanistan and other conflict countries, I became convinced that the shortest path to ending conflicts is through quality education, which is what brought me to the doors of the Faculty of Education at UBC.
What challenges did you face in your graduate degree, or in launching your career?
I think it's important to find your optimal conditions for getting what the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called "flow," and then create those conditions. Doing good research and writing demands good stretches of flow. To finish my dissertation, I rented a cottage on a remote island and hunkered down for a dozen hours a day until I got it down. In our wired world, it's hard to disconnect and get your head firmly in your research questions, so you have to be deliberate about creating the conditions to finish up and get out there in the field to put it in practice.
How are jobs normally posted and filled in your organization or industry?
All of my consulting work currently is through referral and repeat clients. However, contract work and employment in international development is advertised on services like DevNetJobs, and there is interesting work in the field of communications for development (which includes media, education, edutainment, behaviour change and related sub-sectors) at The Communications Initiative (http://www.comminit.com/). Consultants sometimes bid on contracts. In Afghanistan, requests for proposals and opportunities to bid can be found at www.acbar.org and jobs.af.
What do you like and what do you find challenging about your current position?
My work is often challenging, but it is never ever boring, and I'm always grateful for that. Every day is different, and I am constantly learning. I love being a practitioner who keeps one foot in scholarship, so I am always working with theory and consulting new evidence, and trying to integrate it into the way I work in the field. Working in war zones gives you a sense of urgency and imperative to ensuring your work has impact, and I thrive off of this pressure to perform. I find my work incredibly fulfilling, and I cannot imagine doing anything else.