Global Poverty & Practice Alumni Share Lessons Learned

Career paths are both visible and hidden to UC Berkeley students, probably because college is both a time to prepare for the workplace and analyze its history. At the Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) Post-Practice Retreat on September 7 at Blum Hall, five GPP alumni shared their experiences navigating work and life after Berkeley. The retreat provides support for current GPP students as they consider their personal and professional  journeys at Berkeley and beyond.

Amber Gonzales-Vargas, now a senior program manager at the Latino Community Foundation, said she sought work with an organization whose values aligned with her own and that could allow her to create solutions to systemic problems present in the United States. She also wanted to work locally and serve Latinx communities. At the Latino Community Foundation, Gonzales-Vargas says she is inspired and challenged each day to push through barriers to enact greater change within Latinx communities. She also said she is constantly being challenged in how she approaches problems—learning from which she adopted from her GPP coursework and practice experience.

Similarly, Priya Natarajan says she considers her work with Teach for America a “long-term practice experience.” Since being placed to teach elementary special education at a Voices Charter School in the Bay Area, Natarajan says she has been reminded of the power and the value of community, a theme commonly discussed in GPP coursework. Teaching special education has also made her reflect on the GPP minor’s emphasis on structural and systemic failures and the power dynamics present within the workforce. 

Like Natarajan, panelists Jennifer Fei, Ryan Liu, and Alison Ryan spoke about their own journeys after graduating from UC Berkeley and echoed the sentiment that figuring out the best fit professionally requires experimentation and a lot of trial and error. 

Jennifer Fei, currently a program manager at the Immigration Policy Lab, shared her experiences working at  Berkeley Consulting and Goldman Sachs as well as her decision to get a master’s degree in international policy from Stanford University, which helped her land her current job managing the Lab’s refugee research portfolio. Fei’s advice to GPP students is to never underestimate the importance of putting your best foot forward in every project and professional relationship. Fei said people are willing to advocate for you when they remember your quality of work. Fei also advised GPP students to make space for themselves by attending to their mental well being. Gonzales-Vargas agreed that making space for herself allows her to better serve the communities she represents. She says self care “helps to build my resilience and in spaces where I may otherwise have thought there was no hope.”

Similar to Fei, Liu’s postgraduate experience was not linear. Liu graduated from Berkeley with a B.S. in mechanical engineering, but was interested in finding work outside of what he saw as the rigid structure of the field. As a result, he explored an array of industries—from working at an NGO in Nicaragua to taking on positions in corporations, startups, and national laboratories. He eventually completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Georgia Tech. Liu is now a product designer at Fenix International, an energy and financial inclusion company with offices in San Francisco, Kampala, and Lusaka. He says the completion of the GPP minor has allowed him to develop a more critical lens, one that encourages him to question power dynamics and to evaluate his own role within hierarchies.

Like Liu, Alison Ryan says GPP is ever-present in her work and shapes the way she thinks about and interacts with the world. She said that the GPP minor has heightened her awareness of problems with equity and how employers can contribute to making people feel valued. Ryan graduated from Berkeley with a degree in political science, and went on to receive her master of public health in epidemiology from UCLA. Ryan now works as a surveillance officer at the California Emerging Infections Program. Like fellow panelists, she said the trajectory of her career was much different than what she had anticipated during her undergraduate days at Berkeley. “You refine over time what you want and what you’re looking for and that changes as your career develops,” she said.

— Dalia Elkhalifa

Redefining Secondary School Education in Ghana

Growing up in Ghana in the 1990s and 2010s, Abraham Martey and Vicentia Gyau understood that the weak educational system in their country was a byproduct of structural failures that were hardest on the poor. At UC Berkeley, where the two Mastercard Foundation Scholars majored in Global Studies and minored in Global Poverty & Practice, they steeped themselves in learning about global powers, structural injustices, poverty alleviation, and humanitarian aid.

Abraham Martey and Vicentia Gyau present a poster of the ER4All model.

One fact the UC Berkeley students noted time and again was that for educational projects to have success, a synergy must exist between development organizations and the communities they seek to help. In May of 2016 while freshman at Berkeley, they set out to create such an organization—Education Redefined for All (ER4All)—as a way to help to improve public school education and give back to youth in Ghana. ER4All received its Certificate of Incorporation in Ghana in June of 2016, and its Certificate of Recognition as a Regional/District Non-Governmental Organization in Ghana November of 2017.

“The ultimate goal of ER4All,” says Gyau, “is to change the face of education in Ghana from a chew and pour system—one that focuses on how well students are able to memorize and regurgitate information—to a critical pedagogy where students are actively engaged in education and where education is made practical, easy, affordable, and accessible to everyone.” 

Martey and Gyau say that the Global Poverty & Practice program helped them to gain a critical lens through which to think about how to proactively approach solutions that center on people while acknowledging structural failures. For that reason, ER4ALL works to find effective solutions not just to educational access but to unemployment in Africa by addressing what Gyau refers to as “the root of the problem, not just the leaves.” 

ER4All provides its beneficiaries—financially disadvantaged students aged 6-19 and their parents—with school supplies, tutoring in entrepreneurship, leadership, and computer literacy, as well as career coaching to help high school dropouts (one of whom went on to become a Community Police Driver) learn a trade of their choice, such as sewing and driving. 

Because access to secondary school education in Ghana is very new—indeed tuition-free high school is only one year old—Martey and Gyau say most parents from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t have the experience necessary to guide their children through school or help plan for their livelihoods afterward. For that reason, ER4ALL has developed an Empowerment Fund that provides parents with capital to start or invest in existing businesses, offers lessons in entrepreneurship, and engages parents in discussions on how they can be actively engaged in the education of their children. The Empowerment Fund is meant to help parents both attain a higher level of financial security and participate in the education of their children.

Currently, ER4All serves 18 students, 18 parents, and two high school dropouts in Prampram and neighboring towns in Ghana. Martey and Gyau say that the Global Poverty & Practice minor introduced them to the idea that approaches to aid should be analyzed and reassessed to best suit beneficiaries’ needs. As such, they want to apply new methodologies in response to what does and doesn’t work. Says Martey:  “We make sure we have the best interest of our beneficiaries in mind, and not impose on them what we think will help—but doing what works best for them.” 

Since graduating from Berkeley, Gyau has been selected to be a Student Support Fellow at the African Leadership Academy, a South Africa-based organization whose mission is to develop a network of over 6,000 leaders to collectively address the continent’s greatest challenges. Meanwhile, Martey is enrolled in McGill University for a Master of Education and Society. He says, “At McGill, I am taking courses related to and or in curriculum development to help further develop the Leadership and Entrepreneurship Curriculum we are currently using.” His main focus is on first generation college students, learnings from which he plans to apply to ER4All.

While in Canada and South Africa, Martey and Gyau are maintaining their roles at ER4All and are in constant touch with the teachers and administrators on staff in Ghana. Martey is focused on funding opportunities, budgets, and the further development of the Leadership and Entrepreneurship syllabus. Gyau oversees the staff, helps recruit new students, and further develops guidance, counseling, and study skills to better serve ER4All’s beneficiaries.

Gyau says the long-term vision of ER4All is to catalyze a shift from standardized education in Africa to a focus on the economic and social well being of students and their communities. “Overall, the idea of ER4All is to create an ecosystem in which youth in Ghana are able to start their own trades, create jobs for themselves, and enter the workforce with applicable knowledge and skills,” says Martey.

—Dalia Elkhalifa

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