Photo from IIRR webinar, "An Expert Opinion: Rural Girls' Education During the Pandemic"
The following post was contributed by Kroc School Master's in Peace and Justice student Laurella Lutz.
I was halfway through my second to last semester at the Kroc School, and I still hadn’t secured an internship. I was starting to feel hopeless about securing one, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic raged on. But then it happened: I got an offer from the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction, or IIRR for short (pronounced double-I double-R). “Rural development” is obviously quite a broad mission, covering anything from reforestation and conservation, to girls’ education, to land tenure, and much more. I was particularly drawn to IIRR’s outspoken commitment to empowering rural people, as well as their values towards community-led and locally-developed solutions.
My favorite story about IIRR’s work comes from the Philippines, where local farmers and teachers had come up with the brilliant idea to create lesson plans about sustainable agriculture practices for rural students. This way, students would be able to learn practical skills related to nutrition, farming and the environment, as well as how to grow food for their class and their communities. It solved multiple needs that the population had through a comprehensive, community-generated plan, which has spread throughout school systems in the Philippines.
My internship with IIRR started, and right away one of the most exciting things about working for IIRR was getting to interact with people from all over the world on a daily basis. However, with a lot of my coworkers located in wildly different time zones, in places like Myanmar, Uganda, and the Philippines, it became very clear very quickly that learning how to communicate effectively and efficiently was going to have a steep learning curve. Not only did I have to adjust to the Zoom workspace of the pandemic with my U.S.-based coworkers, but I also had to learn when certain people in other countries would be awake, or even have access to an internet connection, to read my messages.
The countries where IIRR works.
This was crucial because IIRR, like many organizations in today’s world, was trying to invest time and work into a more robust schedule of online events. As an international organization focused on rural development, many of these events would be oriented towards increasing awareness of particular issues affecting rural communities. I had never really done true event planning before, but suddenly I found myself jumping in headfirst, creating a brand new webinar that would be the first in the series of online events hosted by IIRR. It was daunting, and would require lots of international coordination, and I had no idea where to start.
The two supports I found most valuable as I began this project were the other interns, and the president of IIRR. There was a good handful of interns at the organization, mostly based in New York or the United Kingdom. We were all quite fresh to the world of international development organizations, so we definitely survived by supporting each other a lot, both work-wise and emotionally.
The IIRR president, Peter Williams, is incredibly impressive on paper, to the point where I was intimidated to reach out to him. He had worked for the World Bank for a number of years, and also had a huge list of honors and awards to his name. At first I thought he would be way too busy to be accessible to any of the interns, even if he had been the one who interviewed me originally. However, he always made time to meet with me and the other interns if they needed it, including one memorable phone call I had with him while he was walking to the New York office in the rain. Even if we were just discussing which webinar platform to use for events, his willingess to make time for my questions meant a lot to me. Having someone we all looked up to so much be accessible to us, both for logistical needs as well as advice, is one of the greatest things I was able to get out of this internship. Whether it was suggestions on project planning tools to use for an IIRR event, or just general career advice for the future, many of my key takeaways from the experience were nuggets of wisdom gleaned from the president. Knowing that I can always reach out to any of the people I worked with at IIRR to draw upon their incredible experience and knowledge is invaluable.
Even with all of the boundaries and complications making meaningful connections difficult, like time zones, the pandemic, and our virtual workspace, I was able to learn and grow during my time at IIRR. It was certainly not easy, but great learning experiences never are.