BY KATHERINE THEN | WRITER
“You should study nursing or medicine. You’ll get paid very well in the United States and it is a profession that will always be on demand.”
These were my mother’s recommendations when I was applying to college in New York City eight years ago. I understood where she was coming from; both of my parents had never been to college. So when they, like most parents who come from a working class, saw that their daughter had the opportunity to choose a career, their thoughtful advice was to seek security; economic security that is. Where I am from, a woman that prospers economically is a woman that is empowered.
Becoming a nurse or a doctor certainly crossed my mind. I admire all of the medical practitioners around the world caring for those in need. You care for us when we are the most vulnerable, and for that I thank you.
In 2013, I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Psychology and two years later with a Master’s in International Development. Although I follow my parent’s advice in almost everything I do, I wasn’t cutout to be a nurse or a medical doctor. Thankfully, I have wonderful parents that always supported my dreams and aspirations. So when I told my parents that I wanted to study psychology and that I would probably end up working in the NGO sector, they supported me 100%.
That being said, during my studies my mom (with three kids) was working as a phlebotomist earning $15 USD an hour and my father as a taxi driver in New York City. This meant that pressures of economic stability were always present. Both of my parents would always say (in Dominican Spanish), “… you need to take care of yourself, earn good money, and then you can help others on a larger scale …”. They had a valid point, but let’s be honest, with all of the student loans I had acquired coupled with my employment options, I was never going to earn vast amount of money and that was ok.
It is natural for those of us that come from a low-middle class income, to think we need to help ourselves before we can help others. Reality is that we are struggling too. Most of us can remember a time when mom was late on rent, our phone or electricity was cut off, leaving dad with only $20 to his name when he would give us money for snacks as a kid and all of that borrowed money to pay for our studies. So for us women working in the non-profit aid industry with life pressures, economic burdens, and guilty consciences’ for not choosing a career that would have economically benefited you and your family … we are in this together.
At age 22, with both of my really expensive degrees, I decided that I would support others with my hands, heart, and mind …. rather than with my pockets. As you are probably thinking, it would’ve been easier to earn a lot of money and make monthly donations to those wonderful organizations that are doing great work to assist vulnerable communities … and you’re right. I started working in the aid industry two years ago, and trust me when I say that textbooks prepare you theoretically, but when confronted with injustices, oppression, and hurting communities, you will often feel like you know less than what you thought.
HOWEVER! And hear me clearly, NEVER let anyone make you believe that you cannot support others and be an agent of change. You might not be as educated, experienced, or complex in thought, and this is not because you can’t be, but because you’re growing or have had limited opportunities to evolve and develop those important skills that you will need to have in this field. That comes with time, practice, and humility. Never think that your contributions are not valuable, because they are.
“My advice to young women like me that have just begun this journey, is to observe carefully, listen patiently, and live curiously.”
– Katherine Then
Personally: When you feel like giving up, observe all of those women around you from all socio-economic backgrounds and races that were told, “…you can’t go to school, you can’t help others, you can’t be a leader, you can’t fight for your (or others’) rights, and you can’t help your community…”, out there making it work, even though they were made to believe that they were incapable.
In the field: Be mindful. As individuals we share everyday experiences with others around us. Living in a shared world means that we have the responsibility to recognize that we affect each other. Thus, we must observe carefully how our actions make others feel. It is important that your behaviors do not hurt, disable, or disrespect those whom you work with, whether they are clients or team members.
Personally: My grandpa has always said, “you learn more when you listen”. It is very easy to think we have all the answers, but listening to others’ opinions, perspectives, and struggles provides us with a wealth of knowledge.
In the field: You can empower someone just by listening to them. Learn from the person you wish to serve.
Personally: I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the expression, “Curiosity killed the cat!”, but I think it also made him/her a legend. Till this day, we mention that damn cat. It’s because he/she was brave enough to go out there, take risks, learn, be curious, and not be blind to the world that surrounds him/her.
In the field: One of the greatest things about being a rookie on the ground is that you know very little, because field experience is essential in this type of work. This gives you the opportunity to be curious. Do not think that you need to know all of the answers, because you will not. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications, or advice from those that have been in the field longer than you. Being open to learning from others is the key. Remember this isn’t about you and it isn’t easy.
We can only be effective if we approach the work with a humble heart and ask for help when it is necessary.
We learn from each other.
“Observe carefully. Listen patiently. Live curiously.”