By Katie Yeagley
When people imagine professionals working abroad in international development, they often picture graduates of International Relations or Peace and Conflict Studies programs. In fact, I used to picture the same thing. But thanks to a Princeton in Africa Fellowship, I was able to turn my English degree into a fulfilling career in international non-profit communications, where I use my writing skills each day to raise funds for and awareness of important initiatives being led by local change-makers in East Africa.
From Corporate Communications to Meaningful Work Abroad Through Princeton in Africa
After graduating with an English degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017, I was very interested in working in international development, but I didn’t know where to start. I desperately wanted to use my writing and communications skills to contribute to mission-driven work, but I found that the jobs I was interested in were looking for applicants with far more international experience than I had. I had spent four months studying abroad in South Africa, but that was my only experience living and learning in a different country. Unsure of how to leverage this knowledge and unaware of the fellowship opportunities available to help me gain this on-the-ground experience, I ended up taking a job at a large Public Relations firm in corporate communications. While I wasn’t always passionate about what I was writing, I was able to work on adapting my written and oral presentation skills to work with a variety of clients. I honed my skills in content creation, media strategy, messaging, and client relations — skills that would actually make me a competitive fellowship candidate.
After about two years at the Public Relations firm, eager for an opportunity that would allow me to use my communications skills for a greater goal, I started my search for international development work anew. I realized that most of the jobs I was interested in were looking for candidates with more field experience. I soon realized that Fellowships could be a great way for a young professional like me to gain experience on the African continent. After a long application process of articulating how my communications skills could make me an invaluable asset to a non-profit team, I was selected to become a Princeton in Africa Fellow in the 2019 – 2020 cohort.
Princeton in Africa places impressive young graduates in professional roles at NGOs across the African continent (There are also Princeton in Latin America and Princeton in Asia options). This fellowship seeks candidates to fill a variety of roles in a number of different sectors (health, education, etc.). For my Fellowship, I was placed in a Communications role at a non-profit that provides education and comprehensive care for vulnerable children. I soon moved to rural Uganda to begin the work, and this transformative experience completely changed my career path.
My Communications Work in Rural Uganda with Princeton in Africa
As a Communications and Marketing Fellow with Nyaka Global, most of my time was spent collecting stories from mothers, children, students, nurses, and others who were impacted by Nyaka’s community work. I was encouraged by my manager to shadow community leaders and staff members to learn more about their jobs. It was an incredible experience getting to learn so much from so many talented and inspirational individuals. One day I would be photographing a dedicated teacher from one of Nyaka’s schools, and the next I could be interviewing a mother whose life was positively impacted by Nayaka’s health and nutrition program.
Having a background in English and Communications helped me responsibly explore and communicate some of the difficult, sensitive topics I encountered with nuance and respect. Working as a Communications Fellow, I sometimes interviewed and wrote about individuals or groups who had suffered tremendous, sometimes unimaginable hardships. From sexual assault survivors to individuals who had lost their children or parents to AIDS, these stories were sometimes difficult for our program participants to share, and required exceptional care. I knew from my past communications work that in these conversations, it was essential that I listen more than speak; and of course, I always assured the interviewees — either directly or via a translator — that I would never use their information without their permission and review.
How I Utilized My English Degree in My Princeton in Africa Fellowship
While I couldn’t relate my personal lived experience with some of the stories I heard, I could approach these conversations with patience, curiosity, and empathy, all skills that I believe I honed in my University English courses. Reading a variety of different voices from marginalized and underrepresented groups helped me facilitate these conversations in my work. My writing coursework helped me develop the analytical thinking and writing skills necessary to do this work in an ethical and authentic way. While living and working in Uganda, I was always cognizant of how I could craft a responsible story while considering my intended audience and the purpose of each piece. Collecting stories required a lot of thought before and after the interview to ensure the message would resonate with the intended audience while still preserving the individual’s voice, integrity, and agency.
How My Princeton in Africa Communications Fellowship Gave Me the Skills for a Career Pivot
During my Princeton in Africa Fellowship, my knowledge and ability to navigate the ever-changing media landscape were crucial, as my organization didn’t have the budget to hire a large Public Relations or Advertising firm. While working in Uganda, I wanted to highlight the incredible work our organization was doing, but I knew that paid media opportunities were out of the question. I used my past media experience to develop a media list of reporters writing about relevant topics or East African nonprofits more generally. I developed a pitch I could share with reporters and started to go after media outlets in earnest looking for writers who might consider featuring us. Most of my emails went ignored, but a few people did respond, and from there, relationships were developed. Through this outreach, I was able to get one of our organization’s leaders featured in a NowThis interview, which was incredible publicity for us. This experience helped me to build on my existing communications skills with tangible results, which eventually helped me to land my current job.
After completing my Princeton in Africa Fellowship, I made the pivot to working full-time in global non-profit communications. I now work as a communications professional for Village Health Works, a non-profit that improves access to healthcare in rural Burundi. While I don’t live in Burundi, I’ve spent significant time there, and I’ve found that all the skills I gained as a Fellow serve me extremely well in this role. My fellowship helped me become a better interviewer, writer, and overall communicator snd advocate for the work that our team is doing on the ground. I love being able to work with colleagues across the world; our difference in language, culture, and experience make our collaborations so much stronger.
Regardless of how the world continues to change, we will always need good writers and communicators. If you’re interested in using your education to support incredible global work, but didn’t pursue one of the more typical degrees like International Relations, let my story be an example for you. My degree in English and communications work helped me earn a Princeton in Africa Fellowship, and subsequently pursue a meaningful career in communications within the world of international nonprofits. I now see my English degree as an incredible asset. Combined with my opportunities abroad and past work experience in marketing, I’m able to serve as a vital part of a small but nimble communications team that works to share the global impact my organization makes.
Katie Yeagley currently works as the development and communication coordinator at Village Health Works, a healthcare nonprofit based in Burundi. She lives in Brooklyn, New York but travels frequently to the field. Katie previously lived in Uganda as a 2019-2020 Princeton in Africa Communications Fellow for Nyaka Global. She is a 2017 graduate of the University of Pennsylvania where she studied English.
Inspired by Katie’s story? Check out our list of 11 Fellowships in Africa for U.S. Citizens to explore more fellowship options on the contient.
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