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International Public Service Fellows (left to right): Noel Foster, Fatima Hassan, Lucinda Lai and Josh Wong.

Stanford students, fresh off the Farm and going global

Finding young Stanford alumni working at a startup or consulting firm is hardly unexpected, but the Haas Center’s Post-Graduate Fellowship for International Public Service offers a very different kind of first job. From working toward democracy in Mauritania to fighting the spread of infectious diseases in Kenya, several new grads have had the experience of a lifetime. The Haas Center hopes to expand the program in upcoming years.

For many of our nation’s brightest university graduates, winning a Fulbright Fellowship to pursue research abroad would be a dream come true.

But for Lucinda Lai, the recipient of the 2011 grant from the Stanford International Public Service Fellowship, a chance to turn down her Fulbright award was even more gratifying.

“I knew right away that the Haas fellowship was better for my interests,” said Lai. For the next 12 months, Lai will be working on the Thai-Cambodian border with the nonprofit Burma Border Projects, doing hands-on service to improve refugee mental health.

The fellowship, a joint collaboration between the Haas Center for Public Service and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), has been offered to one or two graduating Stanford students every year since 2008. It provides a $35,000 stipend for travel, living, and health insurance to support a year of public service in a country of the recipient’s choice.

Demand for the fellowship is high, said Jon McConnell, the associate director for public service education. The program was founded in response to increased student interest in international service over the past decade, and was catalyzed by an initial opportunity presented by FSI's Larry Diamond.

An African adventure

One of the inaugural International Public Service fellows, Noel Foster graduated from Stanford in 2008 having majored in political science and sociology. His master’s thesis, about democratization in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, sparked his interest in working for an NGO in a developing state.

He ended up working for the Citizens’ Initiative for Change (ICC) in Mauritania, on the west coast of Africa, on projects ranging from organization to fundraising and assisting the creation of a local think tank.

“The most rewarding part of working in Mauritania was that there was no ordinary day at work,” Foster said. “Everything from the mundane daily power outages and water cuts to violent protests and a coup conspired to keep us struggling to stay ahead of our work.”

Foster was “almost adopted” by a local family, and had the opportunity to meet  numerous citizens and NGO leaders.

“My experience there also taught me how truly ignorant I was,” he said. “As a result, I rewrote my master’s thesis, which was subsequently published as a book.”

Since his fellowship, Foster obtained a second master’s degree at the College of Europe in Belgium, and is now serving as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

“In many aspects, my work [for the Air Force] bears an uncanny resemblance to a public service fellowship,” said Foster. “After my military service I intend to work with local civil society in West Africa, either full time or in a part-time capacity while pursuing a career in academe or policy-making.”

The epicenter of international policy

Fatima Hassan, who graduated in 2009 with a dual degree in human biology and African studies, will never forget the moment she found out she had been awarded the fellowship.

“I got the great news at the Denver airport on layover!” she said.

Inspired by her parents’ experiences escaping violence after a coup d'état in Somalia, as well as her academic and extracurricular background in reproductive health and global health, Hassan decided that she wanted to work on sexual and gender-based violence. She ended up completing her yearlong fellowship at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

“When I left, I didn’t know what I would be doing,” admitted Hassan. “My apprehension was that it would be a desk job.”

However, thanks to an amazing group of mentors at her office, Hassan was able to conduct research and prepare reports for use in policy discussions, as well as attend numerous high-level meetings where her work was cited.

“I saw how valuable good research is to policy innovation,” she said. “I am now very fluent in how the system works, and I have a better sense of policy creation.”

Although she had originally planned on attending medical school, Hassan has decided instead to pursue joint graduate degrees in law and public health, and is beginning her studies at Harvard University this fall.

“I have always been very passionate about changing the horrendous realities for vulnerable communities,” she said. “When I was in Geneva, I realized that these issues are part of greater issues. In order to change the realities, you have to tackle security issues, foreign relations, and war . . . I felt like I would be best positioned to do these things with a legal degree.”

Saving lives and spectacular safaris

After Hassan returned from Geneva, Josh Wong set off to Nairobi, Kenya.

“A lot of infectious diseases primarily affect people in the developing world,” said Wong, a human biology major. “My scientific background and volunteering at Pacific Free Clinic made me very passionate about underserved communities.”

For the past year, Wong has been working on projects ranging from investigating the infectiousness of diseases such as measles and tuberculosis in HIV-positive patients, to delivering influenza vaccines to children in refugee camps and starting HIV education programs for youth.

“I’ve had a very wide experience, seeing all the things that CDC [The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has to offer,” said Wong. “And the safaris have been amazing!”

In the fall, Wong will return to the United States and begin interviewing for medical school.

“Most people coming out of college have a very vague idea of what it looks like to have a career in global health,” said Wong. “Working for the CDC has clarified a lot what opportunities are available. I’m a much more confident traveler, and exponentially more excited about going to medical school now.”

Looking to the future

Lai, who heard about the fellowship through Wong, is also interested in pursuing a career in medicine. Her proposed project on refugee mental health is an extension of her honors thesis on cultural barriers to organ donation in Thailand.

She is also looking forward to returning to Thailand as a continuation of her parents' story – they were Cambodian refugees who escaped to Thailand in hopes of being relocated. Their experiences helped to shape Lai's interests in global health and refugee health from an early age.

"If they hadn't made that sacrifice and risk, I wouldn't have the life in America that I have now," said Lai. "I see myself doing global health work in some capacity, and now I can go and see what it's like to be a global health doctor – if I want that for my career, [even] if it's not as sexy or glamorous."

Once Lai heads off to Thailand, however, the future of the fellowship becomes less certain. Until now, it has been funded yearly by individual donors.

"Funding is not secured for the future," said McConnell. "And our ideal would be to have multiple fellowships. It is always a challenge – to turn away so many passionate and highly qualified students."

"This experience was a true changing point in my life," said Foster. "There is no question that were I to have the opportunity I would complete the same fellowship again, in the same country and with the same organization."

"This is an amazing, amazing opportunity," said Lai. "Whatever you can dream of, this will make it happen. You don't get that kind of freedom with any other program."

Stephanie Liou is an intern at the Stanford News Service.