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  • Interns at an International, Humanitarian Organization:Career Pathways and Meaning Making

This qualitative study examined the career shaping experiences and related meaning making processes of 12 interns at The Carter Center, an international, humanitarian organization. Experiences shaping participants' careers were grouped into the following themes—academics and intellectual curiosity; travel abroad; religion; relationships—family, friends, and mentors; and transformative life events. The following themes illustrated the meaning making processes of the participants: Diversity and privilege, interconnectedness, meaningful work, and sense of home. This study suggests that student affairs educators can play an important role in fostering the complex meaning making required of international, humanitarian work.

Public service has been integral to American higher education since its inception. In this, the early part of the 21st century, increased awareness of international interdependence and the worldwide prevalence of poverty, disease, and human rights abuses compel us to think of service beyond our nation's borders. With the emergence of globalization, universities in the United States have increasingly broadened their idea of service to include foreign countries (Davis & Mello, 2003; Plater, 2004).

Effectively addressing the problems of human rights, world hunger, terrorism, global health, and economic development is daunting. Indeed, many approaches to fostering international development have met with dubious results. For example, economic development approaches have sometimes resulted in a widening gap between rich and poor (Collins, 2007; Sachs, 2005; Stiglitz, 2006). In addition, recent approaches to democratizing the Middle East have resulted in increased conflict and undermined worldwide support for United States foreign policy (The Pew Research Center, 2004). These examples illustrate the challenges of development issues and demonstrate the importance of universities fostering the capacity for complexity among their graduates who will be charged with leading and supporting efforts to promote social justice around the globe.

Internationalism and Student Learning

In order to address the demands of internationalization, much attention has been given in recent years to identifying and fostering intercultural competencies among college graduates. King and Baxter Magolda (2005) called the necessity for international competence "urgent" (p. 571), and Brustein (2007) referred to it as "essential" (p. 582). King and Baxter Magolda urged educators to reframe attention from multiculturalism, which connotes attention solely to domestic diversity matters, to interculturalism, as "the prefix 'inter' encompasses both domestic and international contexts and implies cultures interacting" (p. 572).

Deardorff (2006) and Hunter, White, and Godbey (2006) undertook studies to identify [End Page 182] characteristics of globally competent persons. Using Delphi method approaches in each study, Deardorff 's and Hunter et al.'s findings proposed the importance of a diverse array of desired developmental outcomes that are contained within King and Baxter Magolda's (2005) intercultural maturity model, including cognitive (e.g., thought flexibility, openness to new ideas), interpersonal (e.g., recognition of and respect for interpersonal differences), and intrapersonal (e.g., cultural self-awareness) development as dimensions of intercultural competence.

As noted by King and Baxter Magolda (2005), who based their work on Kegan's (1982, 1994) constructivist–developmental model, the demands of interculturalism require not only a set of competencies, but also a complex structure of thought—a form of meaning making that can accommodate complex cross-cultural exchanges. Thus, King and Baxter Magolda referred to their model as a theory of intercultural maturity, rather than competency. They explained, "Our choice of the word 'maturity' in the name of this educational goal refers to the developmental capacity that undergirds the ways learners come to make meaning, that is, the way they approach, understand, and act on their concerns" (p. 574).

This study is concerned primarily with a particular dimension of international education: students preparing for international, humanitarian careers. Effective international interactions in many professional contexts require developmental maturity, from business to military, none more so, however, than in the field of human rights and humanitarian work. As illustrated in a substantial body of literature (Bergman, 2003; Kidder, 2004; Peace Corps, 2006; Zimmerman, 2006) service work deeply immerses the expatriate in challenging cross-cultural situations.

In his analysis of American teachers in the developing world throughout the 20th century, Zimmerman (2006) presented several challenges faced by individuals choosing to leave the United States to perform service abroad. For instance, when an American encounters issues of gender or ethnic discrimination in a village, what is the service worker's responsibility? Is the obligation to respect the practices of the local culture or is it to advocate for what the humanitarian worker, herself, understands as human rights? Is it presumptuous for the outsider to assume that his practices are superior to the local culture? According to Zimmerman, Americans working abroad have often been reticent to impose what they viewed as their own cultural mores, such as equal rights for women, on another culture. Zimmerman proposed, however, that the appearance of sensitivity to other societies' norms can be a form of veiled ethnocentrism. He explained:

Even as America developed into a global power, the emerging concept of culture made Americans wary of imposing their values and beliefs on the rest of the globe. . . . But [this concept of ] "culture" imposed distortions, too, especially the fallacious idea that members of a given culture were all similar to each other—and all different from us.

(pp. 18-19)

So, how does one balance respect for the practices of others, on the one hand, and for what one understands to be human rights, on the other? For Zimmerman (2006), an adequate resolution must acknowledge that no single society's values are completely bound up in human rights ideals, and, conversely, no culture is completely devoid of them. Indeed, the United States continues to struggle with issues of human rights (Forsythe, 2000), while powerful human rights movements such as liberation theology (Gutierrez, 1988/1971) and emancipating pedagogy (Freire, 1968/2000) are, in fact, products of the developing world, where accusations of human rights violations [End Page 183] abound. These illustrations suggest that an impulse for human rights is universal and is not the sole province of, nor is it perfected in, any single society.

Expatriates who, according to Zimmerman (2006), characteristically view culture as monolithic and impenetrable seem to be functioning in accordance with Kegan's (1994) modernist, or fourth order, of consciousness. In Kegan's (1994) fourth order there is a claim of "wholeness or distinctness" (p. 319) of the individual or culture. In contrast, people manifesting fifth order consciousness "suspect rather than honor their sense of their own and each other's wholeness and distinctness" (p. 311). Unfortunately, the fifth order of consciousness, or trans-system structure, is not within immediate reach of the thousands of young adults who seek to make a difference in the developing world. Indeed, most college students are in a process of transitioning to the preceding order of consciousness (Baxter Magolda, 2004), which represents the very "psychologically whole and distinct selves" (Kegan, 1994, p. 311) that are the target of Zimmerman's critique.

Although young adults may not be within immediate reach of trans-system consciousness, there is evidence that they can make a positive difference through international, humanitarian work. For instance, there are accounts of young Peace Corps volunteers fostering health improvements (Resendes, 2006), business development (Saltzman, 2006), women's empowerment (Davis-Collins, 2006), and other positive outcomes for high poverty communities. At the same time, there is evidence that the intercultural requirements involved in international service are often confounding for young adults (Strauss, 2008). With the apparent dissonance between the developmental requirements of this work and the normative developmental tasks of young adults in mind, this study seeks to understand the ways in which young people make meaning of their journey toward a career in this important field.

A second, and related, consideration in this study is how young people become interested in this work. Although some research has been conducted on students interested in international careers, in general (Cianni & Theranou, 2000; Theranou, 2003), there are no studies of the formative influences of students pursuing international, humanitarian work. Some insights, however, exist in anecdotal or biographic form (Bergman, 2003; Carter, 1996; Kidder, 2004) describing formative influences such as academic interests, religion, family examples, and exposure to poverty and conflict.

This study examines the career development experiences and meaning making of interns at an international nongovernmental organization: The Carter Center. These interns are university students (undergraduate and graduate) and recent graduates who represent a small but growing number of students preparing to work in international, humanitarian careers. By investigating the career development experiences of students seeking to make social contributions internationally, I hope to illuminate learning and development uniquely connected to this career path and to provide educators with an understanding of how they might foster the goals and commitments that can result in students performing service in this new global context, as well as to support the development of students' intercultural maturity.


This is a basic interpretive qualitative study, which Merriam (2002) described as "probably the most common form of qualitative research found in education" (p. 38). According to Merriam, this form of qualitative research [End Page 184] draws from symbolic interactionism and phenomenology and focuses on

  1. 1. how people interpret their experiences,

  2. 2. how they construct their worlds, and

  3. 3. what meanings they attribute to their experiences. The overall purpose is to understand how people make meaning of their lives and experiences. (p. 38)

Table 1

Interview Participants

Pseudonym Age Status University Carter Center Peace Program Race
Brad  25 Graduate Large Public China Elections White
Ketura  24 Recent Undergrad Small Private Conflict Resolution African
Kimberly  20 Undergraduate Private Ivy
Peace Programs
Janice  22 Recent Undergrad Large Private Democracy White
Steven  37 Recent Undergrad Large Public Education African
Sandra  23 Recent Undergrad Private Ivy
Democracy White
Stephanie  21 Undergraduate Small Private Democracy White
Patricia  22 Undergraduate Large Public Conflict Resolution White
Marcia  21 Undergraduate Small Private Conflict Resolution White
Harrison  23 Graduate Large Public Development White
Michael  24 Graduate Italian Private Human Rights White
Lilly  21 Undergraduate Small Private Democracy White


Data were collected from undergraduate and graduate students and recent graduates interning at The Carter Center in the 2006 summer session. The Carter Center is the post-presidential headquarters of President Jimmy Carter and engages in humanitarian work, primarily in the developing world. The Carter Center Internship Program was instituted shortly after the founding of The Center in October 1982. President Carter saw the internship program as both an opportunity to engage talented students in supporting the Center's humanitarian work and as an educational opportunity that would cultivate knowledge, skills, and interests supporting students' future international development work (personal communication, J. Carter, July 8, 2004).


In the summer of 2006, The Carter Center hosted a total of 40 interns. Of these, 25 were [End Page 185] from the United States, and others came from areas including the Middle East, East Asia, Latin America, African, and Western Europe (personal communication, L. Kent-Delany, July 9, 2006). The study was specifically designed to address the experience of students from the United States who demonstrated an interest in international, humanitarian work. With the assistance of The Carter Center Educational Programs director, I identified 10 students working in the Peace Programs area to interview. All students from the United States interning at The Carter Center in the 2006 summer session were White. During the 2007 Spring Session, I returned to The Carter Center and interviewed two additional interns, both African American; one was a woman interning with the Democracy Program, and the other was a man interning with Educational Programs. These selections were made in order to diversify the study.

Participant profiles are presented in Table 1. Participating interns came from various backgrounds, ages, and institution types. The participants of this study are not deemed to be a cross-section of college students; nor are they purported to be a cross-section of young people interested in careers in international affairs. The Carter Center internship program is highly selective, with only approximately 10 percent of applicants offered internships. Thus, these are young people who tend to be high achievers, rich in academic talent and in experience. Still, the educational program at The Carter Center does seek interns with diverse backgrounds and experiences. For instance, although the internship programs are advertised as being unpaid, financial aid is available to persons who could not otherwise participate in the program without such support (personal communication, L. Kent-Delany, July 22, 2007).

Data Collection

All prospective participants agreed to participate in the research. Eight of the participants had two or more face-to-face individual interviews, and four of the participants had one face-to-face interview. Initial interviews were semi-structured, and the interview guide was developed based on an earlier study (Mather, 1996) that identified experiences leading to the development of life purpose. It was modified based on reviews of published biographies of persons engaged in international, humanitarian careers (Bergman, 2003; Carter, 1996; Kidder, 2004). The semi-structured interview approach provides sufficient structure to ensure that important topics are covered and flexibility to allow for probing for a deeper understanding of phenomena being studied (Patton, 2001).

Data Analysis

Data were analyzed by using procedures described by Richards (2005). Interviews were transcribed, verbatim. Atlas-ti qualitative research software was used to store and manage the data. I read through each of the transcripts several times, familiarizing myself with the transcripts and assigning topic codes. Topic codes are descriptive, involving assigning general category labels to text. I then organized the text by topics and focused on analytical coding. Analytical coding was conducted by examining patterns within and across topical categories.

In order to ensure credibility and trustworthiness of the analysis, I performed member checking interviews with 9 of 12 participants. Merriam (2002) noted that it is important to perform member checks with "some study participants" (p. 26). These member checks occurred at two points on the analysis: (a) after I had developed preliminary [End Page 186] themes, soon after the initial interviews; and (b) after completing a draft of the findings.


The Carter Center interns came to their decisions to pursue international humanitarian work through a combination of academic, international, and personal experiences. The findings highlight some of the diverse experiences that shaped participants' career interests. After describing the major influences, I describe some of the ways in which the participants make meaning of their career development process and experiences.

Career Development Experiences

A variety of experiences shaped participants' career interests. Themes derived from the interviews include: academics and intellectual curiosity; travel abroad; religion; relationships—family, friends, and mentors; and transformative life events.

Academics and Curiosity

For many of the interns, academic coursework and intellectual pursuits were important to the development of their career interests. Most participants mentioned coursework, and particularly language and culture courses, as important catalysts for their eventual career interests. In addition to academic experiences fostering the participants' general career interests, it is also notable that their academic experiences nurtured particular interests within the field of international affairs.

Lilly initially became interested in international affairs while in high school. She described language courses as the impetus. "I was constantly learning about French and Spanish cultures in my language classes, because there was also the cultural aspect to the course." Interest in studying foreign culture led Lilly to major in international studies, where she was drawn to the intellectual challenge of African politics. She differentiated African politics from other political science areas she had studied. "African government and politics were so much more interesting because there are little stories all over the place about corruption, about election fraud, and they're just very fascinating to read about." Similarly, Marcia described her interest in international affairs and the vexing problems the discipline presents. "I definitely like the challenge of it all and just seeing that there's not just one final answer to everything."

Most interns described general academic experiences such as coursework in language or political science that shaped their interests in international humanitarian work. Stephanie, however, pointed to a specific classroom moment that was pivotal in her future pursuits. She explained:

I remember in high school biology class, my teacher mentioning there is enough food in the world to feed everybody, but there are still people who starve. And I just remember that settling in and thinking about that and how little that made sense, and wanting to know why. I guess everyone has little moments that kind of shape who they are, and maybe that's one of them for me.

Ketura, who attended a predominately White, selective, private university in the Northeast, found her interests nurtured through a major in Africana studies. In many ways, she did not feel a sense of belonging at her university until she discovered an academic program that allowed her to focus on issues and concerns associated with Africa. As an African American woman, she found a personal connection through her studies: "I started learning about Africa and the Diaspora and the linkages between economics and development and conflict. I realized that's where I wanted to be. It troubles me there's so much conflict and strife on the continent." [End Page 187]

As the participants spoke about the centrality of academic experiences in forming their career interests, two primary themes emerged. First was the intellectual interest in the complex practical problems and theories, illustrated prominently in Lilly's narrative. The second theme was the deep, personal impact that their studies in the developing world made. This theme was illustrated in the narratives of Stephanie and Ketura. Both of these themes were also voiced in the second major category of experiences: travel abroad.

Travel Abroad

Students experienced international travel through their university's study abroad programs, internships, and, sometimes, through personal or family travel. Although study abroad programs are academic programs and could clearly fit into the previous category, the experiences abroad are so distinctive in interns' experiences that a separate category is warranted.

International travel was a part of Brad's life before he entered college. In fact, his family had spent time living outside the United States, in England. He suggested that his experience living in England and traveling around Europe were not as significant as his family's first trip to China, a country which had a culture that provided an extra element of unfamiliarity: "I had no idea places like this existed." Brad not only noted the difference in his experience between the developing and developed world cultures, but also pointed to his interest in the challenges of learning about places that are unfamiliar and, thus, challenging to understand. This theme is consistent with that of the intriguing problems that engage students in the academic domain.

Brad did not commit to working in international affairs until his father passed away while working in China, years after his initial visit to China. At the time, Brad was working in his home state for a communications company—a job that was not holding his interest. He explained the significance of his trip to China to handle details associated with his father's death. Once there, he was surprised to see the reaction of many Chinese people whose lives were touched by his father's work: "It was really quite moving. It made me feel like, 'Wow,' they obviously felt they had a connection to my dad." Upon returning to the United States, Brad enrolled in a graduate program in Asian Studies, with an emphasis in Chinese democratization. The sense of significance that he attributed to his father's work was attractive to Brad in his own life's work.

Like Brad, Kimberly also spent significant time abroad as a child, moving from the United States to Paris with her family when she was in junior high school. Although she had spent considerable time in Paris, it was a family trip to India that transformed her and played a role in her interest in international, humanitarian work, and particularly in education. She described the trip as "an eye opening experience . . . unlike anything I had ever seen before." Kimberly's encounter with poverty in India played a significant role in propelling her career interests, mediated through an awareness of inequities between those who possess educational, economic, and social opportunities and those who do not.

Subsequent experiences abroad helped to further shape Kimberly's future plans. She described how a teaching experience in Costa Rica the summer after her freshman year in college led her to new career considerations.

When I went home with my students, I couldn't imagine that they could take home the two pages of homework that I had given for the night and find a place to focus on it, because they went home to these houses where there was either no electricity or maybe one small light bulb lighting up a very dark room with no windows—dirt floor, you know, 12 other [End Page 188] kids running around, making noise. And things like sanitation issues and health care became really important to me, because the doctor would visit the village, I think it was once a month. He would come for 2 days and no one would be at school because they all had these ailments that they'd developed over the past month.

Based on this experience, Kimberly began to contemplate the possibility of pursuing medical school rather than a career in education as she had earlier considered.

Three participants specifically mentioned the support their universities provided to students interested in international travel. Marcia discussed the emphasis her college placed on international travel and service-learning. She participated in a service-learning program in Mozambique, where she developed an interest in international affairs. Upon returning to her college, she started organizing groups interested in discussing the Gulf War as well as fund raisers for African relief. Sandra pointed out that her university had significant financial support for students wanting to travel and study abroad. She was able to take advantage of the funds to study in Ecuador. She also had received university funding to engage in a fair-trade project in Mexico for 12 months, following her Carter Center internship. Lilly discussed the importance of the commitment to international education at her college, which included recruiting international students and supporting study abroad. Lilly was able to take advantage of her university's study abroad program on democracy in Cameroon.


When asked what led participants to pursue service-oriented careers, the interns often struggled to pinpoint the reasons. However, several of the participants referenced the centrality of religious influences in shaping their interest in service. These influences were complex, from continuing involvement in formal religious practice to early childhood religious beliefs that had been later rejected. Participants' religious beliefs varied: Some considered themselves religiously liberal or progressive; others considered themselves atheistic or agnostic; one participant, Patricia, indicated that she held conservative (Christian) religious beliefs.

Stephanie grew up in the church, participating in church mission trips. She indicated that her interest in service work was shaped by her early experience with Christianity. She explained her interest in service:

Originally it had to do with religion—Christian beliefs. As I matured, it became less about religion, not necessarily less about belief, but more about how to do it. And it seems like the "how to" works better without the religion part.

She indicated that, although religion was important in fostering her early interest, she questioned many aspects of her received faith. Yet, her interest in service continued. She explained further:

Right now, I would say I'm agnostic, possibly Christian. I think if you're going to have a role model, looking at the way people believe that Jesus Christ lived his life is an extremely good role model. Whether it was real or not, I have no idea. . . . It definitely has shaped who I am and it still shapes my belief in how a person could possibly live their life to the fullest.

Similarly, a few other participants were raised in religious homes and grew away from their received faith. Yet, at the same time, they pointed to religious training as influencing their interest in humanitarian work.

Patricia, soon to graduate from a large, public university in the Southeast, said that she did not grow up in a religious home, but she "got saved" when she was in 11th grade. [End Page 189] She indicated that her religion has led her to care about people who are economically disadvantaged.

I'm a Christian, and just that caring to help people if you can, you know. There's a verse that says, "To whom much is given, much is expected." And, you know, I've been given a lot, and I kind of want to use my resources to help others.

The same quote from Matthew 25 was used by two other participants: Janice and Marcia. Janice did not grow up in a religious family, but her mother taught her the principle "from those to whom much is given, much is expected." She had no idea that this aphorism came from the Bible until I pointed it out to her. In contrast, Marcia was keenly interested in religion, with religious studies as one of her majors in college. She, like Janice and Patricia, embraced the message of the passage from Christian literature that asserts that responsibilities come with privilege.

It is evident from the students' narratives that religion played a role in fostering many of their interests in service-related vocations. Among those who were raised in religious homes, all had reworked their "received" faith beliefs. However, they maintained the aspect their religious upbringing that emphasized a sense of the importance of caring for others.

Relationships—Families, Friends and Mentors

Family relationships were often important to participants' evolving commitment to international humanitarian work.

Steven was older than other participants at 37 years old at the time of the interview, having attended college after military service. Unlike most other participants, Steven grew up in a lower income home. Thus, he did not consider the option of going to college until after his military career. Steven explained that he was raised primarily by females. When men were around the house, he recalled that they were frequently inebriated and abusive of the women. His experiences with caring women and abusive or absent fathers resulted in a keen interest in educating men about violence against women. In the military, he traveled to parts of the world where injustices against women were pervasive, which further fostered his interest in championing women's issues internationally.

Harrison, likewise, was strongly influenced to pursue service-related work by his mother—a single mother who was disabled due to a spinal disease.

She completely denied herself for us, for me and my two siblings. I really got the values of selflessness from her. Through those lens, I started to think about and analyze the way that people interact, the way that society is structured, and the way that people like my mom are left behind.

Indeed, parents and immediate family were among the most important influences in shaping participants' desires for service careers. Several participants discussed their parents' encouragement to care for those who were less privileged than they were. Some described their parents' encouragement to pursue their dreams.

Ketura pointed to the death of her mother as a significant turning point in her life. While her mother was ill, Ketura had applied to a boarding school that offered an Advanced Placement class in American history—a course of study that held great appeal to her. During the time she was considering attending the school, Ketura had been struggling with the decision to leave her mother during her illness. Then, her mother passed away, changing her circumstances. She explained:

The day after she died, I got my acceptance letter. . . . Before she died she said, "If you really believe in something with all your heart and all of your soul, you should pursue it." Her death was difficult, but more than that I felt confidence in the [End Page 190] sense that I could really pursue what it was that I wanted to pursue.

Parents were not always supportive of their children pursuing careers that might take them away from home, especially in places that might involve high personal risks. Ketura's grandmother raised both safety issues and the importance of attending to race issues in the United States as reasons to focus her service at home rather than abroad. Kimberly discussed her mother's insistence that there were significant concerns to be tended to at home in the United States. These concerns and admonishments were overshadowed, however, by the empowering messages that these students heard from their families and mentors that their lives were, indeed, their own.

In addition to influences from family members, students' interests in international affairs were, likewise, influenced by peers. For instance, a girl from Uruguay joined Patricia's third grade class, which catalyzed her interest in Latin America. Marcia met an Argentinean student through youth tennis, which prompted her to stretch her understanding of world events.

Transformative Life Events

Participants sometimes tied their career journey to life events, which seemed, on the surface, to have little to do with a career in international affairs. Ketura pointed to her mother's admonition just before her death as an important influence in her desire to pursue a career interest that was not supported by others. Janice discussed the importance of a collapsed lung that she suffered her junior year in high school as a life-changing experience that awakened her a new way of seeing the world. She explained:

I was out of school for a month, and I was really sick. It was really awful at the time. It was literally like I was fine and then, "boom." It was spontaneous. So, I was searching for meaning. It changed me. I developed empathy for the other person.

Janice explained that upon returning to school after her illness, she saw a film on global overpopulation. In the context of her illness and ensuing search for meaning, the film made an impact and shaped her desire to do something for others and encouraged her interest in internationalism.

Ketura also recalled a film as a pivotal event in her own life. She watched the television miniseries, Roots, when she was 7 years old. She explained:

The scene where Cecilie Tyson is on the way to church, and the horse or ox carrying this big bale of hay dies. The slave master makes Cecilie Tyson pull the carriage. . . . And in my young mind at the time, I noticed there was something very, very wrong with that. I made the connection between her having to act like and have the strength of this animal to do what somebody else was telling her to do. That image has stayed in my mind for so long and informed my need to address whatever it is that created that situation.

Ketura went on to explain that this experience, combined with other significant experiences in her life (her mother's admonition and death and her experience in Rwanda) have fed her interest in Africa and her commitment to serve her community.

Personal Development and Meaning Making

The various events that promoted students' interests in international affairs often shaped more than just their career decisions; they also altered the ways in which they viewed the world. There seemed to be a close and symbiotic relationship between the development of career interests and their personal growth and development. The themes emerging from these interviews were: diversity and privilege, interconnectedness, meaningful work, and sense of home. [End Page 191]

Diversity and Privilege

One rich area of discovery for students was in the area of diversity and, particularly, the awareness of privilege. All of these students, irrespective of race, gender, or religion, had notable experiences that brought their privilege into greater awareness. Particularly those who had traveled to the developing world were struck by the great disparity between those they saw and served in other parts of the world and their position as university students and citizens of the United States. Lilly described the poverty she encountered in Congo:

There's no one else there to help them. In the United States, there's obviously a lot of poverty . . . , but not quite on this scale. There are a lot of people in the U.S. who make it their jobs to [help]. So, there are people in the Congo, for example, who don't really have anybody at all to worry about them.

Participants used terms like "left behind" and "invisible" to refer to the citizens of certain developing countries.

Differences in cultural practices sometimes presented challenges for participants. For example, Janice found herself in a very challenging situation related to classroom discipline in Ecuador. She explained:

The way they disciplined students is to hit with a stick and they kick them. Teachers came to me after kids were acting up and said, "You've got to hit the kids." So, I think my mouth just dropped. They said, "It's really hard here, so you have to hit them." I was like, "Okay." But, I wasn't going to do that. Discipline is a problem and I tried to keep them from acting up.

Managing differences in ideology and practice were often tremendous challenges for participants who traveled to other cultures. Some participants discussed how these experiences with diversity abroad shaped the ways in which they saw and dealt with diversity in the United States. Sandra pointed out that people were less likely to sidestep sensitive issues in the small communities where she spent time in Latin America than they were in the United States, and Stephanie opined that her exposure to so much diversity helped her to engage in respectfully discussing political differences with her family.

Through international experiences, students met others who awakened them to aspects of their worlds and of themselves that fostered their curiosity and their interest in learning more about themselves and others. This exposure to diversity provided one of the most pervasive and poignant contexts for student learning.


Although participants often described dramatic differences between their home communities and the countries they visited and studied, they also found similarities that helped to connect them with people living in places that initially seemed to be vastly different. Stephanie explained her profound sense of connection to the people she served in Ecuador.

There are cultural differences, but when it comes down to it it's so similar. The relationships I had with people, the friendships I made, the trust I put in people or that people put in me. Families, the way people react to each other, what people feel, all of those things are very much the same whether you're in Ecuador or in the United States or in Germany. And I think that's what has impacted me the most is the similarities. That's not to discount the differences because there are many.

Interdependencies and connections among people were commonly mentioned by participants. Harrison indicated that his studies of geography, combined with his mother's disability, shaped his understanding of these connections. [End Page 192]

I came to an understanding of the way that people are connected and, you know, the way that our actions affect others even when they're not intended to, including just self-serving [behaviors]—you know, driving a car that uses too much gasoline and how that affects people and one might think that it was just a luxury, nobody else is hurt or obviously thinks about it.

Stephanie pointed out that she had not been aware of poverty in her small, Midwestern community before she traveled. However, her view changed when she returned from Ecuador:

I don't think it even occurred to me, really, that poverty was that something that was going on so close to me. And so when I thought of poverty, I thought of starving people in another country, and I could distance it from myself very easily. And then when I went to Ecuador and I lived with people who I thought of as being in poverty . . . , I started looking at my own country and seeing the very many ways in which poverty here is buried under these layers of comfort of proximity. . . . I was so distanced from it mentally and so protected from it that it was not a part of my life. And now when I go home it definitely is part of my life.

Recognition of interdependencies was profound. Participants recognized that the implications of their lifestyles and work crossed geographic, temporal, and economic boundaries. This recognition affected their behavior as consumers and as students. It was this sense of interdependence that drew people to educate their peers in the United States. This was evident in Marcia's development of a forum on her campus to discuss the gathering momentum to go to war in Iraq and the creation of another organization that dealt with the intersection between poverty and conflict. Sandra's creation of a database to make information on travel and funding resources more accessible to her peers also reflected her understanding of the importance of educating her peers about the challenging conditions faced by many people in the developing world.

Meaningful Work

Participants sensed a personal connection or calling to their chosen work in international development. Harrison shared that he wanted his work to be more than a self-serving career:

I want to feel like I'm somehow contributing to something that I don't feel like I'm the only person profiting from. I think there's a lot of happiness in feeling like you've done something or that you're in some way playing a part of somebody else's life.

In addition to finding meaning in doing good for those who are disadvantaged, participants also understood other ways in which a career in international affairs enriched their lives. Brad pointed out that he found meaning in having a connection to the community of scholars interested in the democratization of China.

Stephanie saw the field as a context for continued learning. She deliberately chose the term "work" instead of "career" seemingly to remind herself that her journey in this field was not merely a climb toward salary or status.

All of the interns described the importance of being of service through their work. However, some also explained that they had realized that affecting meaningful change through their work was not as easy as first imagined. Sandra indicated that recognizing the limitations of her ability to affect change was one of the most important outcomes of her experience in Ecuador. She explained, "Ecuador was interesting because one thing I very quickly realized was that I did not have the capacity to help them the way I had hoped." Janice took a similar understanding and carried it further, explaining that it presents some tension in the formation of her careers goals. [End Page 193]

We come in with the assumption that we come from, I don't want to say superior, but a better functioning, society. So, "I can help you." But . . . if you look historically at the great efforts to help [societies] develop, they haven't worked out that well. So, what are you supposed to do? The big thing is that you need grassroots development. Well okay that's great, but then should I just go become a corporate lawyer somewhere in my country and let them do grassroots development themselves, or what should I do?

Nearly all of the participants demonstrated that they had become increasingly thoughtful and wise about the limits of their ability to affect large-scale change in developing societies. A challenge, as illustrated by Janice's comment above, is in avoiding cynicism and continuing the work of discerning their roles in affecting change.

Sense of Home

The participants of this study were captivated by the lure of venturing. They had had powerful experiences in leaving home and seeing other parts of the world. These explorations had captured their interests and imaginations. Still, participants also valued comfort and stability. In some cases, they foresaw complications in balancing their desire for family and stability and the demands of international humanitarian work. These concerns were voiced most poignantly by Sandra, who had spent more of her college career abroad than any of the other participants. She described the "wondering spirit of exploration" that had taken her throughout the Americas as a college student. However, she was beginning to sense "intimidation and sadness" about the prospects of continuing to travel.

Stephanie echoed this sense of the importance of home and explained the significance of having a stable and comfortable place in a life that can be so fluid:

I think it would be impossible to do this kind of work without some type of home feeling, wherever that would be, but having a base where you know you're tied to in some way . . . a comfort zone.

Some participants described experiencing a growing comfort zone. For instance, in discussing the impact of her experiences with international friends in college and with international travel, Marcia described an expanding understanding of what constitutes home:

I have a broader interpretation of what home is. I would say when I feel at home is where I feel in a place that I feel loved and appreciated. And that home is a lot of places. It's not just at my regular home in Mississippi. When I travel and with my friends, no matter where we are I really feel comfortable. So I think home is just the place where I feel appreciated and loved.


The purpose of this study was to understand the experiences influencing students to pursue international humanitarian work and to understand the ways in which students make meaning of their career journeys. This study suggests that the participants experience their work and studies as a context for transformative learning and meaning making in which they exercise deeply imbedded impulses to be of service. These findings are discussed in the context of prior research on student learning and development.

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) has noted the value of deeply engaging activities for developing a meaningful and satisfying life. Similarly, Astin (1997) and Kuh (2003) have provided significant support to the notion that students develop and learn through engagement [End Page 194] in curricular and co-curricular activities during college. The students in the study have demonstrated substantial engagement in their college careers, including traditional academic programs, service learning, and study abroad. Several of the participants discussed involvement in co-curricular activities related to their career aspirations, including their university's clubs and organizations, volunteer service activities, and cultural activities. Their curiosity and learning were fostered through a wide range of activities and involvement. This study has sought to examine how the unique features of this field of study have engaged students in exploration of themselves and their worlds.

Students are engaged in this work because it provides a context for studying complex and engaging problems. As noted by King and Kitchener (1992), vexing problems provide the raw material for the development of cognitive skills necessary to meet the demands of today's complex world. The problems of international development and human rights have proven to be not only challenging and vexing, but also compelling. These young people's curiosity was peaked through studying and experiencing other cultures and by examining the complex problems of international development that require the integration of diverse disciplines and experiences, students become aware that their academic pursuits are not isolated from each other, nor from the realities of life. Daloz, Keen, Keen, and Parks (1996) stated:

Critical, systemic thought becomes most positive in the formation of commitment when the "text," the content of study, gives explicit attention to contemporary and complex challenges and retains a human face. Good literature, drama, films, and direct engagement with critical social and intellectual challenges can add a crucial affective element to the educational mix.

(p. 224)

The participants' narratives illustrate a confluence of complexity, humanity, and direct engagement that together shape their interests in international, humanitarian work. Academic studies and international experiences provided a seamless and integrated educational experience. Students' classroom and out-of-classroom educational experiences had rich connections.

Participants described how their journeys have been rich in the experience of encountering otherness. Exposure to people who are different from oneself has been lauded as a key catalyst for development (Chickering & Reisser, 1993; Daloz et al., 1996). In fact, in their study of people who lead lives of commitment, Daloz et al. stated:

As we live and work in an increasingly diverse world, it is significant that we found constructive engagements with otherness to be the single most critical element undergirding commitment to the common good in the lives of those we studied. . . . Encounters which evoke empathic recognition of a shared humanity and will-to-life foster a generous commitment, not simply to me and mine but to the common good upon which all depend.

(p. 215)

Through books and lectures, the participants studied the lives that embodied differences from themselves and then, through travel abroad, had direct contact with those whom they had studied. Stories of conflict, poverty, and disease were given names, faces, and personal stories that engaged the wonder and compassion of the students when they went into the field. These experiences captured students' interests and provided them with a poignant understanding of aspects of their humanity that are shared, but also those that differ.

This career field awakened individuals to foundational values from their past. Mahan (2002) discussed "epiphanies of recruitment" [End Page 195] as those moments in our lives when we connect aspects of our deep selves with the world's needs; that is, they are calls to service. Mahan explained that these epiphanies are sometimes obfuscated by society's images of success that too often pull us away from the truths discovered in our epiphanies of recruitment. It is notable that in this study participants articulated connections between these epiphanies and their career field. From a third grade encounter with a girl from overseas to faith stories and mission trips, the interns described ways that international humanitarian work echoed the most compelling moral lessons of their childhood and adolescence. This, then, seems to be one of the precious gifts of the participants' experiences—connecting with foundational experiences and core values.

At the same time participants were connecting with these core values, they were also in the process of challenging and questioning other realities that had laid claim on their early lives. This was most evident in respect to reevaluation of religious beliefs. Although participants were drawn to values such as tolerance and love, many of them experienced tension in the received faith, thus engaged in a process of personal revision. Gardner, Csikszentmihalyi, and Damon (2001) suggested that meaningful professions were ones that would satisfy two important potentials: differentiation and integration. They wrote:

A differentiated person is competent, has character, and has achieved a fully autonomous individuality. . . . An integrated person is someone whose goals, values, thoughts, and actions are in harmony; someone who belongs to a network of relationships; someone who accepts a place within a system of mutual responsibilities held to be the highest goals of human development.

(p. 243)

Participants' reevaluation of their beliefs and values reflects the process of differentiation. This is a key component of the development of self-authorship (Baxter Magolda, 2004), a requirement for efficacy in the modern world and, thus, an important goal for higher education. While evaluating their received beliefs and values, they are examining themselves and their relationships as integrated systems. Their narratives illustrate this process as a juncture of intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive development. They are examining themselves in the context of relationships with family, friends, and with people who, on the surface, seem to have little connection to their lives. Upon deeper investigation, the ostensible differences give way to significant connections.

As illustrated in the stories of participants in this study, although there are imminently important experiences, individuals, and social structures that shape peoples' lives, the web of experiences and personal characteristics that shape themselves into a service mentality is not easily reduced to a simple formula. For instance, how is it that a woman, Stephanie, growing up in an isolated, small, conservative, Midwestern town became not only interested in international events, but eventually acknowledged that her ideas are different from nearly everyone around her? She sat in a classroom in which her teacher discussed the problem of world hunger, and she participated in mission trips with her church youth group. Still, there were others in her small community who enjoyed those same experiences. So, after considering the results of this study, the question remains, why did Stephanie choose a different path from the majority of her peers?


The realities of globalization require that people understand different cultures and their interdependencies. Our obligation to learn [End Page 196] about the world, and particularly the developing world, is driven by moral issues such as the suffering of the poor, and by strategic interests, including concerns about threats to security. These reasons alone are compelling enough to support international studies. This study, however, provides support for an additional reason for studying in the field of human rights and development: that is, engagement in this academic path produces vital learning opportunities for persons to ably function in today's complex society. Thus, it is incumbent upon educators to cultivate international experiences and understanding among their students and within themselves. Clearly, international humanitarian careers are not suitable for every student. However, this area of study provides a rich and rewarding context for learning.

As demonstrated by the concerns expressed by some of the participants, there can be social and psychological barriers to pursuing a career that engages one's interests and values—in particular women and people of color. Likewise, whether with majority students or students of color, women or men, families may be sources of encouragement or roadblocks to students' pursuit of international development careers. Career advisors and mentors should be sensitive to these issues with individuals who appear to be attracted to this field.

This study points to valuable learning outcomes associated with the pursuit of international, humanitarian careers. However, there is much to be learned through further study of students pursuing this path. The participants of this study represent a select group of high achieving students. More systematic research on a broad range of students interested in international service careers, not to mention other service careers, will be important in increasing our understanding of the education and other formative influences that foster students' interests in "doing good," when many are torn between being of service and "doing well" by society's standards (Levine & Cureton, 1998).

As noted earlier, the developmental requirements of intercultural work are substantial, and this is borne out in this study. Students working in international, humanitarian work are likely to find themselves to be "in over their heads" (Kegan, 1994, cover) given the field's complex demands. Yet, although the participants sometimes faced overwhelming personal challenges, their career path led them to deep and important explorations of themselves and their world.

Love and Estanek (2004) have noted that the student affairs field has paid little attention to international education. As professionals centered on holistic learning and social justice, student affairs educators have an important role to play in the education of young people preparing for careers in international, humanitarian affairs. As students are tested by the daunting realities of interculturalism, educators must confirm the ways in which students make meaning of their experience, while challenging them not to rely on simple answers to these complex problems (Kegan, 1994). Rilke's (1934/2004) advice to the young poet is valuable counsel for students on this path, and for the educators who wish to support their learning:

Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then . . . , without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

(p. 27) [End Page 197]
Peter C. Mather

Peter C. Mather is Assistant Professor in Counseling and Higher Education at Ohio University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Peter C. Mather, 321C McCracken Hall, Athens, OH 45701;


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