How did your career journey lead you to Geneva Global?
In some ways, I had a meet cute with international development. I was from a small town and didn’t have any exposure to international travel. When I was a sophomore in high school, I had a unique opportunity to go to South Africa as a student ambassador. Going to South Africa in the immediate post-apartheid era was revelatory for a sixteen-year-old and in many ways, I never looked back. I pursued a bachelor’s in International Relations focusing on sub-Saharan Africa, and started my career working for major international development NGOs in Washington, D.C. After about five years, I knew I wanted to specialize in education, so I went to graduate school for a Masters in International Educational Development. I worked overseas for a few years then came back and was working on an education project that had a corporate social responsibility component. When I started looking for a new professional home, Geneva Global’s focus on performance philanthropy really spoke to me. After interviewing and learning more about Speed School and the various clients GG works with, I knew it would be a good fit for me.
How has your role at Geneva Global evolved?
Since I started in 2016, my portfolio and responsibilities have shifted as I have become more familiar with the Speed School model and grown into my role. Initially, I was working on two smaller programs for a particular client, but as those phased out, I assumed responsibility for working with the Ethiopia team and then the Uganda team. I’ve also moved from Director of Programs to Senior Director. It’s been exciting to be a part of the growing portfolio in Ethiopia as we’ve added new clients and new projects over the last few years and really made progress in our effort to support systems strengthening in the education sector in both countries. I’ve also really enjoyed having a much larger role in working directly with some of our clients.
What fulfills you most about your role?
The first is being able to see the impact we have on students’ lives. Pre-COVID, the most rejuvenating, inspiring, and rewarding part of my job was being in our classrooms and seeing the changes in the students. Over the course of the school year, the students tend to evolve from timid learners to gregarious, active learners. It’s an incredible journey to witness and support. Simultaneously, I get to watch the facilitators (classroom teachers) learn and grow just as much as their students. I’m constantly impressed by their creativity and energy even amidst difficult constraints.
The second is our client trips. Being able to share our work with the people who support the programs is in some ways equally rewarding. As a development professional, I’m constantly around people who are working on education, who know the lingo and acronyms we use, and who have become a little bit inured to all the magic of it. For the client trips, we get to introduce a whole new group of people to our work who aren’t experts and don’t know our jargon. One thing I’m particularly proud of in my work at GG is developing new ways for clients to engage during these site visits. I’ve asked participants to act as students and guest lecturers in remote, rural schools in the countries where we work, and they’ve been so open to the experience. It’s fun for me to design those trips and then be able to share the program with people for whom it’s all new. Seeing the program with fresh eyes reminds me what can be so great about our work.
How has the international education landscape changed over the last few years?
The biggest pivot over the last year has obviously been a shift in priorities as a reaction to the global COVID pandemic. Like the U.S., many countries took a very cautious approach and closed their schools. This is true in the two contexts where Geneva Global has country offices – Ethiopia and Uganda. We saw a lot of donors and organizations shifting into emergency response mode, with a heavy focus on health and related issues like food security. In the education sector there’s been so much uncertainty since there hasn’t been a firm timeline for returning to school. But we’ve seen a lot of innovation over the last year: transitioning to outdoor micro-classes; focusing on at-home learning; and utilizing text/SMS messaging to stay engaged with students, families, and teachers. In Geneva Global’s case, it’s also meant that we’ve seen an even more intense focus on government collaboration and systems change. We have the advantage of already being close partners with local and regional governments in Ethiopia and Uganda. During the school closures, we’ve continued to collaborate with both at the local and national levels to help officials conceptualize a return to school and address the needs of out-of-school children. I think we’ll be seeing the ramifications of the school closures and economic consequences of the pandemic for the near future, so we’re committed to continuing our work with marginalized populations to help them maintain access to education.
What are you most excited about for the future of international development and education?
The evolution of international education development is fascinating to me. A number of years ago, the sector was really focused on enrollment and getting kids into school. As enrollment rates started improving, we realized we needed to also focus on the quality of education. Were students actually learning when they got into the classroom? Did parents see a return on the sacrifices and investment of resources it took to send their children to school? Going forward, it will be interesting to see how we build on the gains being made in quality and how that impacts a new generation of teachers. A lot of today’s teachers were raised on “chalk-and-talk,” a very rote style of teaching. What happens when most teachers themselves were exposed to more engaging teaching and learning styles? What innovations will they bring to the classroom? Each generation of teachers brings a new level of knowledge from their own experiences as the world evolves, like with technology and social media, which means the classroom is always changing right along with it.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to work in international development?
Listen! Find whatever ways you can to listen to the people around you and put yourself in different environments to do that. As a student, I was able to study abroad and then early in my career I worked for organizations that had broad, global portfolios. I learned so much from people that had had different experiences from my own. As my career progressed and I was the one on the ground designing programs in other countries, the most valuable input was always from the people on the ground, in the communities, getting their hands dirty. We might not all be able to get our hands dirty, but I think we can find ways to listen. Then when you’ve listened a lot, ask questions and listen some more! Doing all this listening has sharpened my observations and allowed me to work cross culturally in a thoughtful, effective way.
What are you reading right now?
My work is filled with a lot of intense and real-world issues, so I gravitate towards fiction in my free time. I love female authors. Recently, I read Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, a book of short stories by Nicole Krauss, one of my favorite authors, and indulged in some Jane Austen worship with The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow. My bookmark is in Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby right now. After a friend sent me an amazing pandemic care package full of books that included Irby’s book, Meaty, I fell in love with her wit, charm, and 90s-nerd-girl observations and ran out to get her other two essay collections.
Where do you get your news?
For daily news, The New York Times; for more in-depth pieces I love The Atlantic; and for my pop culture fix, Vulture in New York Magazine.
How has your work-from-home journey been? Any tips or tricks?
I definitely miss the human interaction of the office and not being able to travel has been really hard. One upside is that it has been really easy to accommodate calls with East Africa, which is eight hours ahead of us – the commute from my bedroom to my work desk is much shorter than that SEPTA ride from Fishtown to Paoli so I can start my workday earlier!
For more information about Jessica and to meet the rest of our team, please click here.