Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Now I have the tools to find the answers

Today we turn the podium over the Edna Kallon. Edna, from Sierra Leone, was at SAIS Bologna in 2010-11 and graduated in Washington last May. Prior to starting her SAIS experience she worked for three years in a best-practices research firm in the United States, at Save the Children Sweden-Denmark in Bangladesh and at the United Nations for Iraq. 

We asked Edna to tell us about her SAIS experience, the challenges and what’s waiting for her now that she’s completed her degree. 

I vividly remember arriving at the door of SAIS Bologna two years ago.

Edna at Commencement in Bologna
My decision to go back to school was a result of sitting in several meetings thinking to myself: “I need to get further education because I don’t understand what’s being talked about, the terms being used and some things definitely do not sound right or applicable when looking at a country like Iraq!”

It was a moment of sobering self-awareness; the moment when I realized I was not as knowledgeable as I thought I was. To be honest, in the meetings with all those people, I felt “dumb.” Luckily for me, I strongly believe in change and that I can learn and apply my way to a needed change.

When I started at SAIS I was challenged to my core academically and psychologically. I had to get the hang of how the concept of supply and demand can be applied to almost anything. In addition, I was trying to get comfortable with economists’ tendency of simplifying everything.

My academic background is psychology and art history and my job with the UN was more practical than conceptual. Hence, I accepted and was very comfortable with complexity.

At SAIS, I learned to take a complex issue, simplify it to its bare bones and then start adding in the complexity again. It’s quite a fascinating way of understanding why things work the way they do and the various factors that come into play. I call the two years at SAIS “understanding systems”, be it political, economics, business or social. I really liked the “no-nonsense” teachers taught me.

My micro and macro-economics teacher, prof. Akin, told me one day that if I need to sit in the library for hours reviewing a concept until I got it right, to do so. My development cooperation teacher, prof. Hartmann, looked me right in the eyes and told me that I was having some trouble with some economic concepts after reading a paper I wrote for the class. My war and conflict resolution in Africa teacher, prof. K├╝hne, following a bad presentation, warned the class that the following presentations had to be significantly better.

I single out these three teachers because they believed and told me that learning is a personal experience that I had to embrace with full commitment, that good constructive criticism is necessary to improve and that presentations have to be worth the time of people listening to them. These are lessons I carry with me in a lot that I will be doing in life.

I entered into SAIS starting with Bologna and came out with what I wanted and a whole lot more. That state of wanting to know did not disappear but now I have the tools to find the answers.

I realized that I love to know whether what people and organizations are saying and doing are relevant or make sense.

With this realization in mind, I started working with the Independent Evaluation Group of the World Bank Group following graduation.

SAIS did not change me but made me more convinced and aware of my desire to know whether what's being said and done matter and makes sense. I strive to be really good at what I do and hold organizations accountable: SAIS has definitely contributed!


Amina Abdiuahab

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