Who am I and What am I Doing?: Epiphanies from an MSF Recruiting Event

MSF Vehicle in Bo, Sierra Leone
I rarely get this personal on my blog, mostly just because sharing my inner-most thoughts and feelings scares the crap out of me – but this will be one exception. I’m sharing just because I feel that if maybe I throw my thoughts to the wind, maybe I’ll be able to make sense of them, process them, and take a step out of my own head and look at them as an outsider. Bear with me here – or don’t, it’s up to you and I don’t mind either way. So here goes nothing…

I’m on spring break from school this week. This is really the first time in almost two years I’ve had a genuine break. Every other break -whether it be summer, spring or winter, I’ve either filled with service work, extra classes or whatnot – and this is the first break I’ve had nothing to really distract me (minus a few hanging independent research papers I have yet to write…oops). Inevitably, this has meant I’ve had to focus on myself for once – whoa! Surprisingly, I’m not used to that…nor do I like it. But this week has got me looking deep inside and has got me questioning…me. And to be honest, it’s a little really scary!

Last night I attended a MSF (Médecines Sans Frontières) info session here in Chicago. I’ve been interested in MSF for over four years (since before my first trip to Sierra Leone). Not too long ago I was on the long road to becoming a surgeon, until one day the commitment and the lifestyle I felt I’d have to live scared me into changing my major to international studies. Ever since starting college when people ask me: “What do you want to do once you graduate”, I would always respond with my usual well-polished answer that I had gotten so used to repeating. I had even come up with different versions for those with only basic knowledge of humanitarian aid work or with little knowledge of Africa. Recently, however, when asked that same question, I’ve been hesitating – at a loss for words.

It’s not that I’ve begun questioning whether I want to do aid work – I still want to – but it’s that I’ve become critical of the field, which personally I think is a really good thing. How else can NGO work improve if one is not critical of their own actions? My most recent trip to Sierra Leone really opened my eyes to the field I want to work in next year. I looked around at the small clinic I assisted learned in and saw that I wasn’t there to change their methods of doing things – I was there to learn. My first two trips I had the ‘white-savior’ complex, which now sickens me. I used to go to the clinic and think “Why is  ___ being done this way when clearly that is inefficient and ineffective” and my mind would look at ways to improve everything. At the time, I felt like I was going to change the world. Oh how wrong I was.

I love Chicago, but it's not where I'm meant to be
My last trip knocked me into my deserved place (thank goodness!). Being alone helped; I wasn’t with a group of other Americans who all had the same mindset. Instead it was just me and the clinic staff. I realized that the things I used to think needed fixing actually didn’t at all. My way isn’t always the best way. They weren’t doing things wrong, they were doing things differently, and in fact, their methods made far more sense for the environment they work in. I learned. I grew.

I came back to Chicago in January and started up my usual routine of school. I like routines, I like being able to know what I’m doing and what I will be doing next. But at the same time, routines feel suffocating. I now feel too comfortable in my role as a student. I’m not being thrown for the curve balls I did the quarters previously – and no matter what situation I’m in, I don’t like getting too comfortable. I like new challenges, new obstacles and change. But having this spring break free of all other commitments, I realized: I have one year left here – 4 quarters and then I’m released into the ‘real world’. After graduation, I face the unknown and for the first time in my life, I don’t know what I’m doing next. Holy crap.

The question “What do you want to do?” takes on a completely new meaning once that deadline starts to draw near. So that’s how I ended up at this MSF recruiting event.

Before the event, I changed my clothes about 15 different times because I felt like an imposter in everything I put on. Who am I to be going to this? I’m just a student and I really have no need to go to this. I’m not qualified yet, so why waste their time? ‘No’, I told myself, ‘you’re going’. I got on the train and headed to downtown Chicago. I walked until I found the building amidst all the other skyscrapers. When I walked in, security asked me where I was going. “To the MSF recruiting event” I said in a voice so confident I was unsure it was my own. The security guard took my ID and checked the roster and sent me through the scans to get up to the event. I wondered to myself ‘Is he wondering what a girl as young as me is doing here?’ I shook off the feeling and continued on my way.

I headed down the pristinely tiled hallway lined with giant windows until I got to the elevators. I waited until one came; feeling underdressed for the niceness of the building I was in. As I went up in the elevator, I had to laugh internally at the irony of the entire situation. Here I am in this ridiculously nice office building in the middle of downtown Chicago about to go to an event about going to the most disaster-ridden countries in the world. There really couldn’t be a starker contrast from the situation I was in to the one in which I wanted to be going. Having seen the ‘other side’ (Sierra Leone), I felt uncomfortable being in this building. I shook off the feeling and composed myself before walking out of the elevator.

The infamous plumpy'nut
Another guard asked where I was headed and I responded in the same manner. He motioned me to sign-in and grab the handouts about MSF on the table. I glanced over the sign-in sheet and found my name which said “Karen Kilberg: non-medical-other” and I signed. As I glanced at the other three sheets I noticed that next to everyone else’s name it said “surgeon”, “general practitioner”, “nurse practitioner”…etc. ‘Oh crap’, I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?'

I walked into the room a bit early. Those that were there turned around and looked at me – and there was me, a 20-year-old student looking back at seasoned nurses and doctors. ‘I have to prove myself’, I thought. After grabbing coffee and taking a seat, I waited for the session to begin. The room was surrounded by windows overlooking the Chicago skyline, other office buildings, and the highway leading to the suburbs. I saw businessmen cleaning their offices before heading home in the neighboring buildings and I saw the line of cars stuck in rush-hour traffic to return to the Western suburbs. I can’t live like that, I realized. That seems like a far too suffocating lifestyle for me. It’s not me. I can’t do that. The mere thought of living like that leads me to panic.

The event started 15 minutes later than it was supposed to (I appreciate the fact they were on ‘African time’ - that's my style). They started by having people say what their background is. When the recruiter asked for surgeons –they raised their hands, followed by nurses, anesthesiologists, midwifes, lab techs, mechanics, finance/HR people…etc. “Did I leave anyone out?” The recruiter asked – I didn’t bother saying ‘undergraduate students!’ They went through the basic principles of MSF, then a surgeon went up and discussed what life is like "in the field", and then they walked through the application process. During the time when explaining what MSF does, the recruiter flipped through some pictures of projects. One showed a cholera treatment camp. When she asked what it was, I remained silent and so did the rest of the room.  I felt unqualified to answer so I feigned ignorance. The next picture was of a malnutrition clinic. The recruiter asked what the child was holding – I knew. I knew it well. I felt unqualified to answer yet again. After a half minute of the crowd’s silence, I raised my hand: “That’s plumpy’nut.” The recruiter smiled and said “wow, very good!” The two nurses in front of me (both returnees from various MSF missions) looked back at me and smiled, “Impressive!” one responded. The recruiter asked what plumpy’nut was, again I answered “It’s a high calorie, high protein peanut paste used to treat malnutrition” and my mind wandered to the kids in Sierra Leone who used to spread it sloppily across their hands and lick it off. All eyes were on me. ‘There, Karen, you proved yourself to this room full of 30 doctors’. I felt calm(er). At the end of the event the recruiter said “You all are already at step 3 of 9 of our employment process", my stomach jumped.
 I can't still smell plumpy'nut...

When all was said and done, I walked up to talk with the recruiter who works as a logistician for MSF – what I want to do. I explained how I am just an undergraduate student, but that I’ve wanted to work with MSF for a long time – how to do I make myself eligible? I explained that I’ve lived and worked in Sierra Leone, so adjusting to rough environments isn’t an issue, I have experience in health now, so what next? How do I get two years of experience? She explained that being a logistician is doing anything and everything – you can dig holes or you can fix a car, it depends on the day, she explained. 'That's what I need!', I thought. Talk about never getting too comfortable in a job, being throw unexpected situations, and always learning and growing! All in all, she advised joining the Peace Corps. Apparently it’s a good way to get the two years of necessary experience while getting either WATSAN knowledge or health knowledge. So there I have it.

I left feeling happy yet scared. I appreciated how MSF admitted there are faults to humanitarian aid work. Self-criticism is necessary, so I liked that they weren't too idealistic – they were my style. So my future: MSF via Peace Corps? Who knows. It’s looking like that is an option. I guess I’ll have a better idea after this summer when I get back from Sierra Leone again. Until then, I’m going to take life as it comes and learn as much about this field as I can, because one year from now I’ll have to make decisions that will affect the route of my life. It’s scary as hell, but at the same time thrilling. My dreams of today might really be my reality of tomorrow. The thought of that, well…it’s scary, but exhilarating. 

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous23.3.12

    I think you'd find this interesting: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/r9ts3/i_run_a_small_ngo_that_works_primarily_in_uganda/


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