This story is part of our MSFS Legacy for the Future series profiling members of the MSFS community who have made, or are poised to make, important contributions to international affairs. Through our Legacy for the Future campaign, you can support MSFS scholarships for talented students like Silvia and ensure that the leaders and innovators of the future are given the skills and opportunities they need to meet the global challenges of tomorrow, today. Make your contribution to MSFS Legacy for the Future now.
When Silvia Rodriguez (MSFS ’20) was in her final year of high school, she volunteered at a mentoring program for young girls who had been the victims of domestic and sexual abuse. She supported participants to work through the steps of the healing process and regain a sense of normalcy in their lives. The experience was “difficult and often heartbreaking,” she says. Yet, it was uplifting too. “When one of the children finally opened up to me or even smiled it was the best feeling in the world,” Silvia explains. “Because of that experience, I learned that I wanted a career focused on serving others. In fact, it was then that I decided that, for me, the true measure of a successful career would be how many people I would help.”
Silvia grew up in Bogotá, Colombia where she was reminded daily of the decades-long conflict gripping the country: “I remember riding the bus to school as a little girl, seeing the victims of displacement everywhere, and thinking ‘that could be me.’” The experience made her determined to work toward building a more prosperous, peaceful, and stable Colombia. “What I experienced growing up in Colombia seems like nothing compared to what my parents’ and grandparents’ generations had to endure,’” she says. “But, I can say that when you live in a country that lacks stability, you want nothing more than to live in a country that has it. In Colombia, people without resources don’t live just in poverty—they live in misery. It’s tempting to assume that people don’t want to work hard. But that’s a mistake. Most people just don’t have opportunities. I was one of the fortunate few who did and now I feel responsible to those who didn’t.”
A desire for peace
Given the importance of international actors in the Colombian conflict, studying international relations seemed a good place for her to start. It was as an undergraduate at Universidad del Rosario that Silvia first became interested in exploring economic conditions as both causes of and resolutions to conflict. “It was then that I started to reflect on what I thought were the root causes of poverty and inequality,” she says. “I felt that if my country had a stronger and more inclusive economic system, with better employment opportunities and financial security, then the effects would spread positively to all aspects of Colombian life.”
“Think of it like this,” she goes on. “If a person doesn’t have money, a job, or any other means of providing for his or her family, then they are more likely to turn to drastic means of survival. A person like this is frustrated. Unfortunately, Colombia has historically had its fair share of frustrated people who turned to narcotrafficking, or joined the FARC or the paramilitarios.”
Silvia graduated with her B.A. in 2014 when peace talks between the government and the FARC were at a delicate stage. Post-graduation, she wanted a job that would enable her to contribute to peace efforts. “I witnessed firsthand how difficult life can be in a country afflicted by civil unrest and economic hardships,” she says. “So my personal and professional ambition was to have a career in which I could help to alleviate the effects of poverty for others.”
Building peace through trade relations
She began working for UK Colombia Trade, an organization promoting bilateral business between Colombia and the United Kingdom, an initiative that had emerged from the peace process. She joined as an intern, authoring development proposals, supporting administrative and logistical processes, and managing data for the organization. Within three years, she was working as a Trade Development Officer, setting up trade connections between the British and Colombian automotive sectors and carrying out market research for companies looking to work in Colombia. “I really saw myself as an advocate for Colombia’s promising future,” she remembers. “Thanks to the peace agreement between the FARC and the government, we were able to encourage foreign investment in Colombian industry.”
Working in the bilateral context of UK Colombia Trade only deepened Silvia’s desire to forge a career in international development. She began to apply for graduate programs that offered degrees in international affairs with a development focus and interned at the Organization of American States, where she focused on external and institutional relations.
When looking at graduate schools, the MSFS program in particular seemed like a good fit. Not only was MSFS among the top-ranked international affairs graduate programs in the world, its cross-cutting curriculum would allow her to do coursework in development while also studying other thematic areas of interest. This was crucial to Silvia’s career plans, as she hopes to one day work at the intersection of multiple issues within international affairs. “After I graduate, I’d either like to work on projects directly aiding the most vulnerable populations or focus on big-picture policy issues that will have an immediate effect on the impoverished, such as climate change, gender equality, and financial inclusion,” she says. “I am particularly interested in seeing how technology for development will evolve in the coming years. Sometimes I think that there is just so much that I’d like to do!”
Now a second-year student in the program, Silvia has already benefited from the skills, training, and opportunities offered at MSFS. “MSFS has taught me how to think like a development professional and trained me in the practical skills that are necessary for planning and implementing solutions to problems,” she explains. “The courses not only taught me the theories underlying development work, but also how they are applied practically in real-world examples. The best part of MSFS is that it forces each of us to grow as a person. For me, that meant becoming more confident with public speaking thanks to all of the in-class debates and presentations.”
Gaining experience in international development
She has also taken full advantage of leadership opportunities at MSFS. She serves on the committee of the Georgetown Anti-Poverty Society, a student group that hosts events to expose graduate students within the School of Foreign Service to issues and career opportunities in international development. In the fall 2019 semester alone, Silvia has helped to organize events with Xian Zhu, Chief Operations Officer and Vice President of the New Development Bank, and Sam Tumiwa, the former Country Director for Afghanistan at the Asian Development Bank. Last year, the group hosted former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
As an MSFS student, Silvia is required to complete at least one one-semester long internship during her time at the program. This summer, she interned as a Food Security and Resilience Intern at Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organization that supports communities to recover from crises. She explored how emergency food distribution programs implemented by Mercy Corps and other organizations transition to more sustainable initiatives after the initial effects of crises have abated.
Looking to the future
Based on what she has learned at her internship and in coursework, Silvia predicts that protecting programs from shocks such as recessions, natural disasters, and pandemics will be an increasingly important component of development trends in the next few decades. “It is not enough to offer aid and expect a fragile, newly-formed economic or social system to be able to endure a future crisis,” she says. “That is why there is a shift to implementing plans that anticipate shocks and provide alternative procedures. I am particularly interested in seeing how this will take shape with respect to the issues of food security, climate change, and gender equality.”
Earlier this year, FARC paramilitaries announced that they would resume their armed fight against the Colombian government. Across the globe, violent protest, environmental disasters, and the prospect of recession all pose threats to sustainable development aims. However, Silvia is confident that MSFS has prepared her and her classmates to meet these challenges head-on and build the future they want to see in the world:
“Everyone who comes to this program is committed to creating a better world. But MSFS encourages students to get out of the passenger’s seat and to get behind the wheel. Over the course of my first year in the program, I saw just how much our analysis of current topics became more creative and sophisticated. MSFS shapes future leaders who aren’t afraid of thinking creatively and applying what they have learned in new ways.”
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