Saturday, February 20, 2010

International Development

My major in school is International Studies. Typically, it's a liberal arts major that introduces you to the various institutions and workings of the international scene. Each student is required to take basic courses in politics, government, economics, Western and non-Western cultural traditions and various fields within International Relations. Within the major, students (at my university at least) also typically choose an area of the world to focus on and a field to specialize in. My areas (obviously) are Latin America and Africa and my field is International Development.

OK, Katie, you may ask. What is International Development?

It's a hard field to define in one post, but here's my definition. International Development is the field that studies progress and prosperity within nations and helps them to achieve both qualities. It is a multifaceted field that focuses not only on economics and poverty eradication, but on issues of governance, human rights, inequality and environmental sustainability. Finally, development must encompass the choice of the people it affects.

Why all these other issues? Throughout my research and study, I have come to find that issues of poverty are tied into poor governance and inequality. When nations are unable to access capital and trade markets, due to their lack of status, that limits their chances of prosperity. When government leaders extort their people through bribes and abuse foreign aid dollars, it limits a people's ability to choose their destiny. When rule of law is weak and problems such as slavery and theft are common, it further limits a people's chances to produce and provide for future generations. When lack of resources forces a people to destroy their forests and soil, it prevents a people from leaving something for future generations. And, when corporations and other entities pollute local water supplies and neglect the health of their laborers and communities, it further weakens a people's ability to choose their own methods of progress.

How do these relate to Kenya? Kenya, while it enjoys a reputation for growing prosperity, also faces issues such as extreme poverty. Corruption is rampant within their government, as seen in recent scandals involving U.S. foreign assistance dollars. While Kenya has a growing conservation movement (Green Belt Movement and other organizations) and houses the UN Environmental Program, it still faces issues such as desertification and deforestation. Political tensions are high, due to the 2007 election crisis (with both opponents struggling, even in the midst of a coalition government). The country of Kenya, while growing in remarkable ways, still faces many of these setbacks on its path to development.

At least, that's what I've been reading. This is what I've found in the news, from the State Department, and in various reports from organizations such as UNEP, Kenya's Ministry for the Environment, and in various texts I read for at least two of my courses.

I want to go and see if this is true. I want to see how my definition of development changes. I hope and pray I can make this happen.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Kenya's flag and me filling out forms:)

Yes, I have something on my forehead. Happy Ash Wednesday!

Forms, forms, and more forms

Applying to study abroad is like applying to college again, in some respects. You are, in essence, applying to study at another university, even if it's only for a semester. You need recommendations from your professors, clearance from your academic adviser, transcripts, resumes, and of course, an essay. Although applying to study abroad is usually a formality (as in, they'll take as many as apply in most programs), some applications are more extensive than others. This includes my application to study in Nairobi.

First, there are the forms. There's the application for the U.S. International University (the institution I will be attending), the application for a Pupil's Pass (document you need for a student visa), and an Academic Letter of Recommendation form. They want to make sure that you are not only qualified to complete this program, but that you will not deprive a citizen of Kenya from studying at this institution and that you have a valid reason to remain in the country of Kenya for over 90 days. I did not have to do as much for my Mexico application, simply because A) summer programs aren't as competitive and B) I'll only be there for six weeks so I do not need a visa or any permission other than my passport for that duration of time. Even though I've already completed the application process for one country, it just goes to show that things are different, regardless of whether or not you're new to the process.

Second, there are the essays. For my Mexico program this summer, I only had to write one essay, the generic "Why do you want to study abroad?" essay that's required of every program at my university. For Kenya, however, I have to complete that one as well as three others. The other questions are, "What is your definition of development?", "What do you believe a foreign person's role is on a development project?" and "What is your definition of a leader and how have you acted as one?" The essays are the most difficult, simply because they require deep thought and minimal word count. However, this is the part of the process that I love, because this is the field I am going into and it's helping me discover what I think about it. I also would love to see how my viewpoints change as I undergo this experience. I intend to save copies, so that I can read them over when I return.

Then, finally, there are the little details. There's an application fee (as with everything else), adviser clearance, disciplinary review (to make sure they don't send delinquents), a copy of your passport detail page, and a million and one passport photos. Once it's all in, it takes two weeks.

Wish me luck!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Facts about Kenya

When I was a little kid, I remember asking teachers if I could use the bathroom. Their response was, "I don't know, can ya?" My dad told me to reply with, "Kenya is a country in Africa, next to Tanzania. So, can I go to the bathroom now or what?" Sounds like a kid story, but from then on, I always knew where Kenya was. Unfortunately, aside from my own fascination and reading, I never really learned much about Africa in school. To compound on that, so many people I've known have thought of Africa as simply a land mass full of lions, giraffes, elephants, and poverty where everyone looks the same, speaks the same language, and shares the same culture. This could not be further from the truth.

I could go on and on, but a few facts:

1. While it is true that over 50% of Kenya's population lives in poverty, Kenya also enjoys a reputation as the economic hub of East Africa. Countries such as China have invested in various projects in Kenya and companies such as Citibank have offices there.

2. Kenya's official languages are English (a vestige of British colonialism) and Kiswahili, a language derived from Arabic (the Arabs colonized Kenya around 18 centuries before the British Empire did). In addition, at least forty different local languages are spoken throughout the country.

3.There are at least seven major ethnic groups in Kenya, each with their own history and cultural traditions. This is common in quite a few nations. Within each nation, you continue to find multiple cultural groups, with their own language and traditions. So, when you think African, know that it applies to a wealth of diversity.

4. Most people in Kenya are Christian. About 45% of the population is Protestant and 33% are Catholic (more than the U.S. population, which is 24% Catholic). Other than that, about 10% are Muslim and 10% adhere to traditional belief systems, yet, according to CIA World Factbook, these numbers are disputed. Usually, when depicted in the media, people in Africa are thought to adhere to traditional belief systems. However, this is not always the case. I'll admit, as a Catholic, I was surprised to find out that Kenya had a higher percentage of Catholics than my own country.

5. Kenya is huge on the environmental scene as well. They have a government appointed Minister of the Environment and the UN Environmental Program is based in Nairobi. There are various organizations throughout the country, such as the Green Belt Movement, to help combat issues of deforestation, desertification and climate change. Even the Vatican has been stepping in on this. According to recent news, Vatican officials within the country have been making statements on the need to protect the environment.

OK, enough talking. Here's a map:)


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why Kenya?

Many who know me are not surprised by my decision. At the same time, there are a small amount of people who are absolutely shocked. You see, my academic plan did not include Kenya. My area of focus is Latin America and I had taken other classes about the Middle East and Europe. While I do intend to spend this coming summer in Mexico, most of my friends thought I'd spend a semester in Italy or Chile or something like that. To most people, Africa was not even on my radar. Or was it?

In truth, I've had a long fascination with Africa and, in particular, the country of Kenya. When I was in kindergarten, my teacher taught us a few words in Spanish, Swahili, and Japanese and told us a bit about the corresponding countries. I remember telling my mother that, when I grew up, I'd move to Kenya and Mexico because, "It was hot there!" Later on, in my middle and high school social studies classes, I'd always flip to the chapters on Africa, where I learned that many countries were originally European colonies (Kenya was originally British). I also read a few fiction books about teenagers in Africa (such as "A Girl Named Disaster") and watched movies like Hotel Rwanda. When it came time for me to go to college, I wanted to become a doctor and I had plans to work all over the world, including Africa.

I came to my particular college as a slightly naive, hopeful, innocent teenager who wanted more than anything to escape her small town. During my first week there, I met a multitude of people who would change my life forever. Two of them in particular deserve a ton of gratitude. These two, to be known as M and A on this blog, are people I'm honored to know as dear friends. I met them both at a campus function at the beginning of school. They were both seniors, having returned from their own study abroad trips. M had just returned from Kenya, A from Italy. As soon as I found this out, I blurted, "I want to do that!" "You can do that, too!" A had reassured me. Her words have never left me.

A year went by. I switched my major from Spanish with a minor in biochemistry to International Studies with a minor in Economics. I decided to focus on Latin America (due to years of Spanish and my own fascination) and International Development (since I am primarily interested in poverty reduction). I decided to study for a summer in Mexico. My original plan was to try to graduate early and then travel. Yet a nagging feeling made me rethink this.

Last year, one night in early summer, I remembered what I announced when I was five years old. I wanted to go to Kenya and Mexico. I was planning on a trip to Mexico already. Why wasn't I planning on Kenya? I started researching the program and realized that I could make it a possibility, especially because it fit more with my major than I previously thought. I ended up chatting with a friend of my parents and she said to me, "Katie, don't say no just yet. Work towards it like it's going to happen." I saved her words, but I didn't start working towards it. It was a lot of money and I just wanted to be done with school.

That all changed two weeks ago.

I'm currently taking a class on environmental politics (a class I need for my major). One of our assignments is a group project, where we have to do a case study on environmental politics in a particular country. We had our choice of China, India, Brazil, Estonia, Sweden, and Kenya. Something told me to pick Kenya. As we started compiling research, I realized how much passion I had, for both Kenya and the environment. I mentioned my own desire to go there. One of my classmates said to me, "I'm applying this fall! Come with me!" That was the confirmation I needed.

I talked with two advisers, my academic adviser and the adviser for the program. They both cleared me to apply. I also talked with my parents, who both encouraged me to go after it. So, to make a long story short, I am filling out a ton of forms, writing essays about development and leadership, and looking at ways to cut down costs (as I do want to make this my own, not make my family feel they have to feed my expensive travel addiction). My adviser told me this is a shoe in, everyone who applies gets in. So it's just one more baby step.


I have made a decision......

God willing this experiment works, I will be spending four months of 2010 in Nairobi, Kenya, a city full of both wonder and tragedy (or, so I'm told). I will be studying at the U.S. International University in Nairobi, where I will be taking classes in Kenyan culture, Kiswahili (the national language, English is the official),and international development (my field of focus within my program, international studies). I will also have the opportunity to complete an internship at a local development agency. I don't exactly know what kind of work I'll be doing, but I am hoping to do something with women/maternal health.

There are a few obstacles within my way, however. One of these obstacles happens to be the Almighty Dollar. Yet I've always been told to follow my heart, that if it's right and I am persistent, things will open up. I am going to see if this is what my heart truly wants.

Operation Katie Goes to Kenya is officially underway :)