New Steps in New Cities

view of New York from Human Rights Watch office

My last blog post was about my hopes to gain field experience in future professional positions. I had imagined taking a few months’ break from work to continue applying to short-term field positions, and being rejected from all of them because I still only have one year of non-internship work experience. I imagined taking some kind of administrative position for the next year, one that didn’t give me as much programmatic responsibility as Human Rights Watch did but which might expose me to an interesting organization, until I built up a longer resume more in line with the listed requirements on those field experience positions. I probably still wouldn’t be hired because most of them ask for a master’s degree as well as two or more years of experience, so I might seek a master’s degree in international affairs or public administration before actually ending up in the field. I estimated that the whole process would take me some two to four years, at least, starting from the end of my fellowship. 

Instead, I was accepted last minute as a Fellow in the University of Chicago’s International Innovation Corps. I had submitted the application some six months ago and long given up on hearing back. Now I have just a few days to finish packing up my life to head to Chicago for a month of training, then Delhi for a year, maybe two, of development work in women’s empowerment with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). Training starts exactly when my fellowship ends; I have the weekend in between to fly, unpack and refocus. Two to four years turned out to be just two days.

Past Gardner Fellows have told me before about how completing a Gardner Fellowship opens doors. I didn’t quite believe it until it happened for me. I am wildly, can’t-sleep excited; wildly, can’t-sleep anxious; and fending off the occasional bout of imposter syndrome. I still can’t quite wrap my head around the idea that I’m about to start an adventure on the other side of the world.

To ease my self-doubt, I’ve been rereading the presentation I wrote for the Gardner end-of-year meeting. Somehow it never felt like I was accomplishing much during my fellowship. I was always focused on how much I had to learn to catch up to my colleagues’ greater experience, all the parts of my work I didn’t understand, and all the mistakes I made that had to be corrected later by my supervisor and colleagues. I didn’t sit down and really review my year’s work until the meeting required me to, and I am surprised every time I read the list. It turns out that my struggles were really just the result of learning so fast and growing so quickly and constantly that I never had a moment to feel comfortable.

I wouldn’t have said so six months ago, but now I think I had the perfect fellowship experience. The Gardner Fellowship is not supposed to make you feel comfortable: it is supposed to push your limits, to teach you to swim in new waters, to show you that you are more capable than you think you are. You are supposed to feel less qualified than everyone around you, and you are supposed to put in extra work to keep up. You are supposed to end up proving to yourself, consciously or not, that you deserve the position and responsibilities you’ve been given.

I am a much better writer and researcher now. I can produce useful material faster, and predict and prepare for the problems I will face when trying to answer a research question. I am more willing to take risks and try innovative approaches because I am more familiar with standard strategies, and I better understand what they are and aren’t good for. I know how to present myself at high-level events, I can follow a budget meeting, and I understand the language of the human rights field. I can navigate across divisions and departments in a large international organization in order to get things done. I know better what I still don’t know, and I know how to learn it if I need to. I have only just now begun to feel comfortable with my work at Human Rights Watch, and so it seems fitting that my fellowship is ending. I am off to a brand new challenge.

I struggled with imposter syndrome throughout my time in school. My good grades, my acceptance into Berkeley, my awards and internships and opportunities all felt like some kind of fluke. I never felt like I was good enough at what I was doing, and assumed this meant I didn’t deserve to do it. It’s only now that I am beginning to understand that not feeling good enough at what I’m doing is really a sign that I’m in the right place to learn and grow. I know that if I am willing to put in the time and effort to turn out a product that is on time and up to par, even if it takes me more hours than it takes other people, then I deserve to do the work just as much as anyone else.

I’ve been warned by International Innovation Corps program alums that the culture shock and the learning curve will probably be intense. The crash-course business classes in my three-week training at UChicago will probably take up all of my time and focus, since they were originally designed to cover eight weeks. I’ll have a lot of responsibility, maybe more than I’ve ever had in a job. Delhi will be loud and intimidating. Working in India as a woman and a foreigner will come with its own challenges. I’ll be literally a world away from my closest friends and strongest support network, without any prior experience in development to fall back on.

I think I’m ready. I think the Gardner Fellowship made me ready. I am less scared of challenge, and more able to overcome it, than I’ve ever been.