By Robert Gradoville, KF16, Peru

The door to my Kiva office in Cusco, Peru

Should I become a Kiva Fellow? I imagine a lot of the Stories From The Field blog followers have considered applying to the Fellowship, or have wondered what the comparison is between the Kiva Fellows Program to similar volunteer or development programs abroad. This may include the Peace Corps, overseas research grants, overseas workshops on topics in development, Fulbright Fellowships, Rotary Scholarships, and possibly service-learning trips if you are currently students.  The list goes on and on.  And it can seem like a big and slightly mystifying list for anyone who just wants to make a decision and DO SOMETHING!

There are a lot of similar experiences out there, and it can be tough narrowing down the right choice for you.  Here is my perspective as a Kiva Fellow in Peru who is extremely grateful to be currently doing or have done those projects listed above. This post will compare and contrast “what it’s like” to be a Kiva Fellow to the myriad other programs out there.  If you are thinking about “doing something different,” “getting out of a work rut,” or “finally being one of those people who GOES and DOES something,” I hope this post helps you make a decision about what exactly to do.

To that end I will categorize each of the above experience based on five criterion.

  1.  What it’s Like and What it was Like for Me
  2. Level of Freedom or Structure
  3. Was I Useful? Did I make a ‘Difference’?
  4. Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all
  5. Was it Worth it?

‘Nuff talk.  Enjoy!  If you have specific questions after reading, shoot me a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I get done with my next local kid pic.

Kiva Fellows are a pretty sharp crowd.  We write all kinds of interesting blog posts about poverty, financial services, and development theories. We quote authors like Yunus, Sachs, and Easterly so you know we are open to everyone’s ideas.  We insert pictures of ourselves in all kinds of crazy situations like riding camels, standing in front of slums, and hugging local children.  Man, do we love hugging local children.

A lot of us are hoping this fellowship will be a foot in the door to a career in international finance, international development, or, let’s be honest, maybe the thing that gets us a graduate scholarship.  We are all great people.  I know that first hand from getting to know all of my current fellows during our training at Kiva Headquarters, and through the months of emails in the field since then.  We all want to use our lifetimes to help.  BUT, we probably all have personal reasons for doing this too.  And there is nothing wrong with that! Just like Kiva, us Fellows are trying hard to balance helping others and helping ourselves; which is much harder than just doing one or the other.  This post is about those personal reasons, a.k.a. the incentives for us helping.

OVERSEAS SERVICE-LEARNING

College students working on clean water project in Ecuador, '11.

1) What it’s Like and What It was Like for Me

I designed community water projects in Nicaragua as a student and have directed service learning projects for students to do the same in the Dominican Republic and Ecuador(and will do the same in Peru this coming spring).

Service-learning is really close to my heart because it is how I got pulled out of the sometimes dry world of engineering and into the colorful, inspired, much more complicated world of international development..  As a fourth-year undergraduate engineering student I designed a water pumping and delivery system for a village in Nicaragua. In order to implement this project, I applied for and my proposal was granted $10,000 bucks from the Davis “Projects for Peace” Foundation.  This service learning experience showed me for the first time how useful my skills could be in the world.  I have never been as challenged on a daily basis as I was during that project, nor have I have I been as ecstatic to get up every day and work.  My work included engineering design, studying Nicaraguan history and politics, trying to communicate with NGOs overseas and in the states, and learning as much Spanish as possible.  Occasionally I would talk with people in the village itself through skype, and my heartbeat literally doubled from excitement.  That personal connection was something extremely knew and exciting.

Service learning may exist at your university, and may not.  If it does, be proactive and get involved, then make it your own.  If it doesn’t exist, make it happen!  I found like-minded students and professors, and was allowed to work on the first service-learning engineering project at my university.  My last year at college I learned more than I did in the previous three, thanks to this service-learning project.

2) Level of Freedom or Structure

Usually these are fairly structured, for good reason.  It is part of a class and you have to finish SOMETHING.  Small, bite-sized projects are typical for service-learning experiences.  So, don’t get involved in this if you want to have the freedom to do exactly what you want or possibly scrap your original idea half-way through.  That said, these projects typically are more open to creativity than standard theoretical projects and/or reports.

3) Was I Useful? Did I make a ‘Difference’?

My experience was great, and I think I did help.  My service-learning team (engineers and environmental science students) was lucky enough to successfully pair up with NGOs that had follow-through capabilities.  This was very important, as we were new to the work.  Looking back, we were a group of young students trying to change the lives of 350 Nicaraguans.  That is powerful stuff, and if we were alone on the project, I think we would have had little impact or worse, would have set them back.  Make sure you have a good mentor capable of picking up the pieces if you decide to start up a new service-learning project.

4) Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

This stuff usually costs some dough.  I would expect it to be around $1000-$3000 extra to do one of these for a semester rather than typical coursework. It is possibly included in your course fees or can tack on an additional couple grand.  Every experience is different.  BUT the good news is that you can dip in the educational funds money-bucket.  Educational grant funds are huuuuuge.  You can probably apply for scholarships, grants, etc. and get away doing this kind of thing almost for free.  If your “project” costs money to implement, that’s another thing.  It will probably be much harder to find funds within your university to go and implement, but look!  Mission programs, international study offices, and outside foundations like the one mentioned above are a good start.

5) Was it Worth it?

As a foot in the door, DEFINITELY.

That said, service-learning is a mixed bag, because it is usually attached to an educational institution (universities) where there is a focus on the educational component for students.  That is great, but sometimes leaves the person/group you were serving a little disappointed.  As service-learning is a partnership between a student-group and clients (overseas or not), there is much time and effort invested on both sides.  The student group will be expected to do more than simply write a final report, in many cases.  Be wary of the impact you are having on the project beneficiaries, and make sure that when you leave they also think it was worth it.  But at the end of the day, if I had not done this I would probably be a much wealthier but much more depressed engineer, sitting in a cubicle somewhere, making calculations.  Therefore I am a huge fan of service learning as a tool to show young people how to engage their community and world, and try to help.  To read an article I published on service-learning click here.

OVERSEAS WORKSHOPS

The author soldering together individual solar cells in Nicaragua, '07.

1) What it’s Like and What it was Like for Me

I participated in a workshop on Appropriate Technologies in Nicaragua with the National Engineering University of Managua, which entailed some basic classes on the physics behind appropriate technologies like solar panels, solar water pumps, biodigestors, solar ovens, rope pumps, composting latrines etc.  We also built our own solar panels, solar cookers, helped construct an adobe building, and practiced our intercultural skills with a “homestay” with a humble Nicaraguan family. I have also participated in a  course on Globalization, Leadership, and Technology that culminated in an overseas conference in Vietnam and Taiwan.  The conference encompassed some very high level, involved visits with CEOs of large corporations and, in my opinion, was very much an outsiders view of a local culture.  The former was a bottom-up approach.

These experiences are similar to service-learning projects being that you are really only expected to learn.  They are also a great foot in the door or a refresher course on field work in a specific part of the world.

2) Level of Freedom or Structure

These are very structured. There will probably be a schedule for everything you do, from the time you land on the runway to the time you are swooped back up. They are usually pretty jam-packed and don’t leave much freedom to “do what you want” if it isn’t the specific goal of the workshop.

3) Was I Useful? Did I make a ‘Difference’?

The goal of these courses isn’t to ‘make a difference’ at all, or at least directly.  You pay to participate in these courses, and some of those funds may go towards the efforts of an NGO or social movement, but don’t expect to directly have a huge impact on anyone.  I didn’t leave Nicaragua thinking I had helped much, but I was more equipped to do so in the future.  I knew leaving Asia that I hadn’t done anything, but the experience might contribute to my future path in life.

4) Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

Pricey.  I have seen these offered anywhere from $500-$1500 for a week!  That adds up.  Outside funding is probably harder because of what I said in #3. These courses are similar in price to overseas vacation tours.  The only difference is that on vacation tours you typically sit on a beach, get a tan, and enjoy relaxing.  For those short on time, this is probably a good option.

5) Was it Worth it?

In terms of professional development, for sure.  It is a very unique experience and might inspire you to do more, learn more, etc.  These are typically more serious about transferring knowledge to you than service-learning trips, so in terms of personal bang for your buck they might about the same, even though service learning experiences might be much longer.  Nevertheless, the personal connection to the experience developed over a longer period of time like a service-learning project is unlikely in these shorter trips. 

PEACE CORPS

The author's village in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic.

1) What it’s Like and What it was Like for Me

I served as a “Healthy Environments” volunteer in theDominican Republic from 2007 to 2009. Peace Corps is something I can’t stop thinking about.  It is a mix of training, really independent work, and unique field research.  I lived in the mountains with 200 villagers, without ready access to clean water, adequate sanitation, electricity, you name it.  I bathed in the river every day, collected drinking water from a spring with the locals, and really SLOOOOOOOWED DOWN for a bit.

I was sent there to help my village gain access to clean, piped water.  I ended up doing that, learning a lot about what it means to be poor and not receive any attention, and working on a bunch of other projects.  The first 3-5 months I was pretty uncomfortable, lonely, even scared at times.  But in the next year and a half I built closer relationships than many of mine in the states and felt much more comfortable, happy, and alive than I have ever felt in the USA.  My time was filled with sun, pipes, wrenches, concrete, donkeys, mud, plantains, mangoes, rice, beans, grants, paperwork, and more community meetings that I can count.

Peace Corps is really an in-depth, immersive service-learning experience.  Nothing is sugar-coated for you, and that might scare you at first.  But as an insider view of a different culture and a different way of life, there is absolutely nothing like it.

2) Level of Freedom or Structure

First three months are language, culture, and technical training.  After that Peace Corps staff tell you to call X number 24-hours a day for health problems, Y number 24-hours a day for other problems, drop you off in a village where you probably only speak a little bit of the local language, and say GOOD LUCK!  They tell you that you will be receiving around $300/month with which you are supposed to live, work, pay rent, buy food, all that.

In short, the Peace Corps provides the most basic structure for survival but beyond that you are on your own.  They also try to pair you up with a community that has need for your specific skill-set.  For me it worked out great.  For others, it was a mess and they had to “make it work” on their own, demonstrating their value and getting involved where they felt they could help.  Peace Corps REQUIRES you to be extremely independent, proactive, and outgoing.

3) Was I Useful? Did I make a ‘Difference’?

Yes and yes – I brought engineering skills to a village that needed them.  I also am kinda stubborn, which helped with motivation in an area that was used to being pobre, having nada, and expecting nada.  Sometimes the match of your skills meshes perfectly with the needs of the community.  If it doesn’t, you better suck it up, find where you are needed, and make it happen.  Peace Corps is an opportunity to guide the development of a poorer area, from the inside out, and will test you in every way.

4) Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

Peace Corps doesn’t cost you one cent.  They will fly you from you house to the host country, teach you some language skills, some technical skills, and plant you in a community with a family that will take care of you for two years. When it’s all over, they will fly you back home and give you around $6,000 to “re-adjust” to the United States. It is an amazing deal, and I really hope to do it again some day.  On the other hand there is some significant investment of time (2 years of service and three months of per-service training).  On the whole, when I was at home two years later with $6,000 in my pocket, I was financially about the same place as many of my friends who had taken more traditional paths.

5) Was it Worth it?

Yes.  I am a huge fan.  The application and interview process is very rigorous and trying, and the average time between applying and being given an overseas position is usually 6-9 months, but it is well worth it.  Even if you leave your country of service without thinking you “helped” as much as you should have (this is almost universal, by the way), you leave with a very personal relationship with your host-family and community.  That relationship will affect the way you live your life, the perspectives you can understand, and overall, your level of solidarity with people who drew the short straw in life, for whatever reason.  It is not easy or straightforward, but as is a common phrase among RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers), that this is “the toughest job you will every love”. 

FULBRIGHT GRANT

1) What it’s Like and What it was Like for Me

I am currently a Fulbright Scholar here in Peru, working with PACC-Peru on water resources issues associated with climate change in the Andes Mountains. My opinion of Fulbright is very good, though it seems to be relatively front-loaded.  The application process is very rigorous, and at the end of the day requires two very polished essays- one about who you are, and one about what you want to do as a Fulbrighter- and collaboration with a host-institution overseas, which eventually needs to write a letter of support for your work. Once in-country you are given a short (in my case, one-day) orientation by the local Fulbright staff, then are sent off to your location of study.  (Every country is different, and many include a 3-day orientation in Washington DC before departure from the United States, but mine country was not included in this event.)  Upon arrival you discuss that finely tuned research proposal with your host-institution, making modifications that range from slight variations to complete redirection, and you go on your way, exploring whatever you set out to explore.  You are not babysat, you are encouraged to get to know the country, and you are reminded that the research is only part of your experience.  Most Fulbrighters need to be reminded to chill out, not the other way around.

2) Level of Freedom or Structure

Once in country, the Fulbright experience is very open.  You receive a monthly living stipend to cover all of your expenses, and are asked to “check in” once a month just to let the Fulbright Commission know how everything is going.  In this way you really can do anything you want, as long as it is communicated with your host-institution.  I think this would be a daunting challenge if I hadn’t had significant overseas experience previously.  From another perspective, it is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do and study whatever gets you going!  You are in the driver’s seat.

3) Was I Useful? Did I make a ‘Difference’?

Fulbrighters are listened to.  It is regarded as a very prestigious grant in both the United States and overseas (though I imagine this can depend on the host country).  Though  I am only a couple months into my grant, I am aware that my results will not simply be filed away.  They will be read and analyzed.  The potential for helping is very real.

4) Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

Fulbright is a grant.  All expenses are paid for (after you are awarded the grant).  So, it is a great option if you have a good idea, connections overseas, and the time and patience necessary to get through the application process and overseas experience (about 2.5 years from the start of the application to the end of the grant period).  The application should be started probably 3-6 months before the submission date, which is typically about a year before the date of departure for Fulbrighters.  And, like all competitive things, there is much luck involved.  I would consider Peace Corps a “weed-in” program, where most applicants who sincerely want to help can make their way in.  Fulbright is a fine toothed comb, and even very brilliant people are not accepted for one reason or another.

5) Was it Worth it?

So far, so good.  I can’t help but compare this experience to that which I had in the Peace Corps.  As a Peace Corps Volunteer I was not respected very much by local government, and generally treated as another “missionary” of sorts.  I understood what poverty was, but felt incapable of fixing lots of the problems I saw.  As a Fulbrighter I know that I have access to much more influential people, and I will be listened to.  It seems to me that it is definitely worth it.  As a side note, had I not experienced the Peace Corps, I might have seen the Fulbright experience as semi “normal”.  I live in an apartment, pay bills, and work on my research.  In that way a Fulbright Grant is less of a life-changing experience for me than living in a mountain village; it is complete freedom to explore issues that are important to me, given the support and resources to do so.

ROTARY SCHOLARSHIP

The author concentrating wayyy too hard to try to take a steady photo, looking down on Cusco, Peru.

1) What it’s Like and What it was Like for Me

I am currently a Rotary Cultural Scholar inPeru. Becoming a Rotary Scholar involves an application similar to Fulbright but, in my opinion, it does not have to be nearly as polished of an idea as the Fulbright application process requires.  I am studying Quechua and water resources management with my Rotary funds.  This Rotary Scholarship provides support monetarily.  There is no orientation, no help with overseas planning, and no in-country contact for my work.  I am on my own.

2) Level of Freedom or Structure

Extremely free.  I have not communicated directly with my grantor more than once in the past two and a half months.  As a Rotary Scholar you define your own structure in the application, and you are expected to follow that plan.  But again, there is no babysitting.  Your experience is what you make of it.

3) Was I Useful? Did I make a ‘Difference’?

I am studying here, so I don’t see a direct impact to what I am doing.  Still, I know that Quechua skills will pay dividends in my Fulbright and Kiva work and will be an invaluable skill in the future.  Whereas Peace Corps was immediate gratification (seeing water come out of a pipe), Rotary is about building capacity, namely in people who they think will be able to help further down the line.  It is similar to Fulbright in this way.

4) Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

Rotary Grants vary in the amount they provide, but they generally are very flexible as to what they can cover.  Flights, insurance, food, lodging, costs of courses and/or tutors, and cultural trips are all fair game.  The grants vary greatly in their duration, but one year seems to be common.  In my case, the funds were dispersed up-front and I am required to provide documentation of all expenses.  Whatever isn’t spent, I will have to give back.

5) Was it Worth it?

Very much so.  More than the funding, Rotary is a global network.  I hope that this experience will help me connect with like-minded people in the future as I may try to continue to “help” those in the world that need it.  As an experience by itself, I think Rotary is amazingly un-regulated.  As a first long-term overseas experience, I would not recommend it.  The structure provided by Peace Corps, Fulbright, and Kiva(discussed below)  are necessary to guide your overseas experience.  That said, if you are an experienced traveler and are looking for some funding to do something creative and open-ended, a Rotary Scholarship might be just what you are looking for.  

KIVA FELLOWSHIP

A group of Kiva borrowers just outside the city of Cusco.

1) What it’s Like and What it was Like for Me

I am currently a Kiva Fellow with Asociación  Arariwa in Cusco, Peru. If you are reading the Stories From The Field blog you probably have a good idea of what we do.  But if you don’t, I am proud to say that Kiva is one of the most organized experiences of this sort that I have participated in.  I was trained for a week in San Francisco(LONG 11-hour-days, where you learn a LOT!), paired with a microfinance organization somewhere in the world, given a desk, given specific tasks (but still the freedom to innovate and take on news tasks as they may appear), and given a lot of support from Kiva Fellows Program staff.  If I need to talk to someone in San Francisco, I can do it probably tomorrow.  If not, I can just keep showing up to my office and working with my in-country partners.

2) Level of Freedom or Structure

As I mentioned above, I was given a work-plan that I am expected to accomplish for Kiva.  They maintain long relationships with their in-country microfinance partners and can look strategically at what most needs improvement at a specific point in time.  Kiva Fellows are eyes, ears, and boots-on-the-ground implementers for all it is that Kiva does.  There is no long period of ‘figuring out what to do’ because you arrive with a very good idea of what needs to be done.  But Kiva is a very innovative startup, with an environment that breads creativity.  I have never felt stifled by any Kiva staff, and that has allowed me to enjoy each day of this Fellowship.

3) Was I Useful? Did I make a ‘Difference’?

Kiva Fellows do important work, work that keeps Kiva not only up and running, but allows them to explore new avenues of growth and innovation.  It is exciting seeing directly the improvements you make with Kiva and your partner microfinance institution.  It is also exciting to be given the chance to go meet Kiva borrowers, meet the loan officers that facilitate those loans, and hear, feel, see how these small loans are such a source of hope and improvement for people all over the world.  I studied engineering, and have not had a problem keeping up with the financial work involved with the position.  I would say if you are comfortable with mathematics and basic accounting you can expect to be utilized very well by a Kiva Fellowship.

4) Dolla Dolla Bills Y’all

The one major downfall of a Kiva Fellowship is that there is no financial support beyond basic health insurance coverage.  Fellows fundraise or directly pay for their time overseas, including the flight to San Franciscofor training, the flight overseas, rent, food, etc.  This can be a substantial burden, but I think that the experience is worth the expense.  It is an investment in your personal growth, and allows you to help in a significant capacity with a major player in the world of global investment/philanthropy.

5) Was it Worth it?

Yes.  It is not as easy to say yes because, let’s be honest, a number of other programs don’t require a financial investment up front.  But the Kiva Fellows Program gives you a look into what I consider to be one of the most promising approaches to creatively finance progress and development overseas.  Like most things, and exactly like Kiva borrowers all over the world, you have to invest something financially to reap the benefits later on.

It is a bottom-up approach, and relies on the sensibilities of millions of entrepreneurs.  Kiva provides a loan.  Borrowers decide how to use it to improve their own lives.  In this way, you can be sure that the funds are used for something truly productive.  It is a simple concept, but to keep that bridge open Kiva needs your help.  Kiva NEEDS Kiva Fellows.  Entrepreneurs NEED Kiva Fellows.  And that is why the experience is so worth it.  You can be that person, fill that need, and learn a ton in the process.

There you have it.  Those are my impressions.  I hope this was helpful but now it is up to you to decide.  To each his own!

Robert Gradoville is a Kiva Fellow (Class of KF16) working with Asociacion Arariwa in Cusco.  If you would like to learn more about Asociacion Arariwa, please visit their partner page.  You can also support them by joining the lending team for Asociacion ArariwaTo hear more about Rob’s Peace Corps experience, take a look at his blog from that time.


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