Staff Spotlight: Ellen Carney

Our Geneva Global team members have different backgrounds, life experiences, interests, and expertise – but we share a dedication to collaboration, innovation, equity, and integrity – all in the name of delivering excellent client service and furthering our goal to change the way we think about philanthropy. To top it off, our team is made up of genuinely nice humans who are a joy to work with – both in the office and over Zoom. We’re excited to share today’s staff spotlight feature: Ellen Carney, Senior Associate.

How did your career journey lead you to Geneva Global?

When I graduated from college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. I knew I had a passion for helping people, but I wasn’t sure yet how I would use my Strategic Communications degree in the professional world or whether I should opt to pursue a master’s degree. Rather than folding to societal pressures and making a commitment in the moment, I opted to take some time to reflect.

I had the privilege of traveling to Thailand to teach English for one year. This experience helped me to better understand the issue that had come to matter most to me – ensuring access to quality education. Following my contract in Thailand, I found myself volunteering at a community organization in Nepal in an area that had been impacted by the 2015 earthquake. At the time, I had only planned to stay for three months, but I quickly fell in love with the culture and community where I worked.

The community organization was struggling and needed support, so, almost by accident, I took over the organization’s management and collaborated with a team of local women to found what is now Happy Kids Center. The Center is a registered nonprofit with a mission to end the practices of child labor and child marriage through increasing access to education, nutrition, and income generating activities for the community. I spent three years living and working in Nepal, designing programs that would meet the unique needs of the Happy Kids Center community. The goal for me was always sustainability – I wanted the organization to be managed entirely by members of the community itself. Ultimately, in the summer of 2019, I felt confident that the local team of women was up to the task. While I continue to manage the backend of Happy Kids Center to this day, it was at that time that I began looking for employment opportunities back in the United States.

I learned about Geneva Global during my time at Happy Kids Center while seeking out grants focused on child marriage prevention. I recall noticing that the organization was based not far from my hometown, so when I made the decision that I was ready to move home, Geneva Global’s job listings were the first I checked. Serendipitously, the job for Associate Program Director on Geneva Global’s Education team had just been listed. I did some research and realized quickly how closely the Speed School program aligned with the programs I had designed in Nepal. I applied immediately and the rest, as they say, is history.

How has your role at Geneva Global evolved?

When I first joined the Education Team at Geneva Global, I was mostly dedicated to administrative and grants management work. This was an exceptional learning opportunity for me as I had spent the early years of my professional life on the opposite side of the granting process – asking for funding rather than managing it. It was a steep learning curve at first, but I was fortunate to have fantastic mentors who helped me along the way. In time, I was given more program management responsibility and I now oversee all Speed School Program activities in Uganda in collaboration with our in-country team.

What fulfills you most about your role?

This is a tricky question because I sincerely feel fulfilled by so many aspects of my role here at Geneva Global. Even in the more mundane moments like digging through Monitoring & Evaluation spreadsheets, I find myself taken aback by the sheer number of lives that the Speed School program impacts daily. When I step back and think about the data as real people and not just numbers, it is truly breathtaking. I try to remind myself to take those moments to reflect as often as possible. Additionally, during Zoom meetings with our teams in-country, I am constantly moved by the passion and dedication they bring to their work. And, of course, the opportunity to visit the program itself and see the vibrant smiles of the Speed School learners and facilitators (teachers) is incredible. I cannot express enough how grateful I feel to engage every day in work that changes lives.

How has the educational landscape changed over the last few years?

I joined the Geneva Global team at a very interesting moment for education globally and for the Speed School program. I had the opportunity to learn about Speed School and education systems in Ethiopia and Uganda while things were still running smoothly, which is something I feel very fortunate for. However, only six months into my time here, the COVID-19 pandemic and school lockdowns began.

Uganda faced the longest education closure in the world. Schools in Uganda just re-opened for the first-time last month, nearly two years after they closed in March 2020. In the communities where Speed School operates in Ethiopia and Uganda, access to technology is limited. Because of this, we could not employ online or even radio-based learning strategies that were used across much of the developed work. We were forced to think out of the box, realigning the Speed School curriculum and activity-based pedagogy to meet the unique circumstances and needs of each community. Most notably, we employed home learning and small group strategies and utilized SMS technology to maintain constant communication with parents and build the capacity of Speed School facilitators. Despite the circumstances, the program yielded impressive results.

As schools reopened in Uganda in February 2022, it became evident that we had a new challenge on our hands. Prior to the pandemic, the Speed School program targeted children ages nine to fourteen years old who had been out of school for at least two years. In 2022, essentially all children within those ages would qualify for the program due to the record-breaking school closures. Fortunately, primary school enrollment has been at an all time high in Northern Uganda as children and parents recognized the need for education after the two-year hiatus. However, it begs the question, are traditional government schools equipped to support these students after two years of lost learning?

Our team at Geneva Global Uganda is working closely with the Ministry of Education and District Education Offices to find solutions. Already, the National Curriculum Development Center in Kampala is adopting much of the Speed School pedagogy and learning strategies in its Accelerated Education Program and Curriculum Plan, which is being implemented nationally. This is just another step toward greater government adoption of the Speed School program in Uganda and we look forward to bringing new innovations to the education sector in the months and years to come.

What are you most excited about for the future of education and Speed School?

Fostering long term sustainability for the Speed School program is our Education Team’s top priority. In Uganda, we are working closely with education officials from the local and national government to ensure every child has access to a second chance at education through government adoption of the Speed School program. Over the next year, we look forward to continuing to establish long term commitments on a local and national scale toward making full government adoption of the Speed School program a reality.

In the meantime, we are also rapidly expanding to new districts and regions of Uganda. In 2019, our work was focused on just three districts of Northern Uganda. In 2020 we expanded to seven new districts where Speed Schools are being implemented by the District Education Offices and their partners at the Primary Teachers Colleges with technical support from Geneva Global Uganda and our collaborating partners. This year, we have also expanded to a new district in Northern Uganda and have begun piloting the Speed School program in Kampala. We are excited for the opportunity expand our reach to new regions of the country in the coming years.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in the international education space?

The best advice I can give is to get out there and experience the world. I believe the greatest asset I have brought to my role at Geneva Global is my ability to communicate interculturally and think critically. I may not understand all there is to know about the political and social context of East Africa, but my experiences moving through the world and meeting people from all walks of life has been key in preparing me for this role. I believe a desire for continuous learning in your personal life will make you a much stronger leader and team member in your professional life.

What are you reading these days?

I recently finished A Woman is No Man, by Etaf Rum. It is a novel about child marriage and education written from the perspective of three Palestinian women—a grandmother, mother, and child. It showcases their experience moving through the world as women in a unique and powerful way and serves as a reminder of the cyclical patterns of intergenerational trauma and the role education plays in breaking that cycle. It is a powerful read that I would recommend to all.

Where do you get your news?

I am a creature of habit. Everyday I start my morning with the New York Times Daily Newsletter (and word games of course). Then, every afternoon I go for a walk and listen to The New York Times’ The Daily and Vox’s Today Explained. The Associated Press app is my favorite for breaking news on the go and to catch up on current events. All of that said, with the world being what it is, some days I also force myself to step away, silence the notifications, and focus on what is important to me in my life. I think balance is key.

How has your work-from-home journey been? Any tips or tricks?

I’ve gone through ups and downs on my work from home journey, but I think I’ve found my solution: walks. So many walks. I live in a city and my apartment doesn’t offer a whole lot of space, so I often find that by 5:00 PM I have hardly left my office – which doubles as my bedroom. I have been forcing myself to get out and walk during lunch breaks and after work just to get some fresh air and of course, “get my steps in!”

For more information about Ellen and to meet the rest of our team, please click here.