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Students Find Fellowship With the World

By Kim Pozniak

When a devastating monsoon hit the northeastern state of Bihar in India last year, many communities found themselves unprepared. Days later, a major breach of a nearby dam, caused by the heavy rains, brought on an unprecedented humanitarian emergency in this state that is home to millions of the poorest people on earth. More than half Bihar's children are malnourished.

India flood

Flooding in Bihar, India, affected some of the poorest people on earth. More than half of Bihar's children are malnourished. Photo by Francois Poidatz/CRS

Rising monsoon floodwaters forced people to move in mass exodus far from their homes and left many places accessible only by boat.

In the days following, Catholic Relief Services staff mobilized a large emergency response to help those most severely affected by the floods. Among them was Michael Hatch, who had just joined the CRS India program on a fellowship. Michael was assigned to the flood response and set about developing an initial monitoring system.

"I still remember the time when two colleagues and I took a two-hour boat trip to assess the damage the flood had caused in a nearby village," he recalls. "Taking a boat to a community that was unreachable by land due to a natural disaster was something completely new for me."

A native of Columbus, Ohio, and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public and International Affairs, Michael went to India on a CRS fellowship to explore the hands-on part of his degree in international development. But he spent only a short time on the flood response before he had to return home to welcome a new baby. His wife and newborn son later joined him in India for the rest of his assignment.

Michael Hatch

Michael Hatch worked for CRS as an international development fellow in India before being hired full-time to CRS' Sri Lanka program. Photo by CRS staff

Working Abroad

Michael is one of more than 400 young men and women who have worked as international development fellows for CRS since the agency's fellowship program began in 1984. The program gives graduate students interested in a career in international relief and development an opportunity to increase their overseas experience and gain broad exposure to CRS' programs. Each year, CRS selects approximately 20 students from a pool of more than 500 applicants to complete a one-year assignment in one of the countries where we work.

The goal is to place graduates in positions where they can draw on their previous education and work experience while broadening their skills. Specific job responsibilities vary greatly from one country to another—depending on the country program's focus—but usually include work in the areas of agriculture, health, peacebuilding, education or microfinance.

"Our purpose is not only to provide the fellows a well-rounded experience and exposure to CRS programming, but also to transition them to full-time employees who will eventually become future leaders of our organization," says Glenn Ausmus, CRS recruitment manager.

Michael, who completed his assignment and now has a full-time job with CRS in Sri Lanka, says he applied to the program because of CRS' principles and the organization's reputation of being a family-friendly place to work:

"CRS is dedicated to providing people with the tools to improve their lives and communities through their own initiative. This not only gives beneficiaries a sense of ownership, but also gives them the confidence to continue on the same path after CRS has disengaged from the project," he explains. "Plus, CRS puts an emphasis on family and as I have a new family, this was very important to me."

Hands-On Experience

Another CRS fellow, Yikee Chu, was assigned to work in the CRS office in Cotonou, capital of Benin in West Africa. Throughout her assignment, Yikee had the chance to broaden her experience by working on several projects related to health, education, microfinance and peacebuilding. But she also wanted to learn about management and the operational side of running a CRS country program, and was amazed by all the different responsibilities. In addition to seeking new funding, writing project proposals and working in the field, for example, she also got to learn the nitty-gritty details of fleet inventory and managing the offices' vehicles.

Yikee Chu

Yikee Chu recently moved to Sudan to work for CRS after completing her fellowship in Benin. Photo by CRS staff

"The learning curve was steep and a lot was expected of me," she says. "But after a period of time, and with help from some wonderful colleagues, I learned the ropes and everything was much easier to handle."

"And I loved getting thrown into everything," she continues. "Because I didn't have a structured set of tasks, I was there to respond to whatever emergency or new priority the office had. That way, I got to work in almost every department and on almost everything from financial management to logistics, you name it."

Adapting to Different Cultures

One of the most important qualities CRS fellows must have is a desire to help others in need. More often than not, that means living and working in remote places without the amenities considered standard in developed countries.

CRS provides participants of the program with a stipend, housing, and a number of benefits like health insurance and vacation. An extensive orientation prior to the start of their assignments eases the entry into the different cultures and surroundings.

"It's a very humbling experience and causes me to reflect a lot on the typical American lifestyle, preoccupied with consumerism," says Yikee. "I am inspired by the project participants that I got the chance to work with. Their endurance and ability to be joyful even when poverty is all around never ceases to surprise me."

Kim Pozniak is a communications officer for CRS based in Baltimore, MD.

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