Summer Internship: The Culture, Travel and Fun Part.

In my last blog I wrote a lot about the work I was doing. So, this time I’ll start with some of the more fun stuff (okay, fun is relative here) that comes with the internship!

There are 19 USAID interns in Ethiopia this summer, which is, by far, the largest USAID internship program in Africa. Most other countries have 2, maybe 3 interns.

Ethiopia receives about $400 mil from the United States in foreign assistance every year. While this isn’t the largest sum in Africa (Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa all receive more money than Ethiopia), it funds a sizeable USAID portfolio, with lots of different projects happening across the country.

africa aid moneyAbout half of the interns work at the U.S. embassy, directly for USAID. The other half of us were placed with partners that implement different projects funded by USAID money. The projects take place all across the country and most of us have had a chance to travel to the field to see and contribute to the projects. The projects range from agriculture (like mine) to health and to education. Each intern and project focuses on a different niche.

Before I left, quite a few people asked “Why does the U.S. even give money to Ethiopia?” Some even suggested I should be in Washington working on the United States’ economic woes, not Ethiopia’s.

Well, there are quite a few good reasons the U.S. sends aid money abroad. First, and most importantly for me, it’s the right thing to do. My main mantra has always been “To whom much is given, much is expected,” and I believe that holds true for the U.S. American funds support Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan, which sets ambitious targets for growth in all sectors and allocates significant resources to promote development. With the help of money from the United States, Ethiopians are growing a sustainable food supply and gaining access to healthcare and education. Secondly, Ethiopia is a stable country in a region filled with growing instability (read Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, etc.) It is in the United States’ interest to help Ethiopia grow and prosper so they can act as a regional stabilizer. Friends are always good to have, right? Furthermore, unstable countries (ex. Mali ), become havens for terrorist organizations. Again, it’s in the United States’ interest to make sure countries around the world do not become vulnerable to terrorist advances.

pictures of AfricaI side-tracked; back to the fun stuff. Most of us interns live at a hotel in a nice part of Addis Ababa, called Bole. While the living situation can get a bit Real World-esque; the group frequently ventures to new restaurants, coffee shops, markets, etc. I even went to a World Cup qualifier game between Ethiopia and South Africa. We also have travelled outside of the city to Awash National Park and Menagesha National Forest, which is the oldest park in Africa. USAID provides every intern with lodging and a per diem and we have easy access to a shuttle. I feel incredibly lucky that USAID provides so many amenities.

As for my individual office, it’s amazing. Compared to most other USAID projects in Ethiopia, our office is relatively small. I have about 8 co-workers, who are fun, easy to talk to, and have really introduced me to Ethiopian culture and made sure I learn as much Amharic as possible! I’m lucky I’ve been able to go on two six-day trips with them because I’m able to constantly practice the language and ask many questions. Most recently, we travelled to Dire Dawa for a conference on “Agriculture Research for National Development in the Face of Climate Change and Food Security.” The best part of the trip: I fed wild hyenas in Harare, earning myself the name Kelly Dafar, or “Kelly the brave one,” from my colleagues. The second best part of the trip was meeting Dr. Gambisa Ejeta, World Food prize Laureate.

pictures of Africa In my last few weeks here, I plan to finish as much as possible for the climate change curriculum development at Dire Dawa University, assist Haramaya University with the development of climate change training materials and finish the Climate Change and Agriculture Best Practices document from the trip I wrote about in my last blog. I’m also going to Bahir Dar and Lalibela this weekend with 5 other interns. I am definitely not ready to go home and am already considering applying for a Fulbright in Ethiopia so I can come back ASAP.

STEM-ing the Summer Learning Loss

So far this summer I have been constantly surprised how excited kids are getting about health, fitness, engineering, computer programming, and even math of all subjects. Over the past two weeks it’s been pretty exciting at the foundation. There’s two parts of my internship I wanted to share.

STEM Fun: Part One

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference here in Austin. The conference focused on how to create a highly skilled and robust workforce for the variety of STEM careers. Attendees were from all different backgrounds from teachers to technology corporations to non-profits to school district administrators. I learned so much from the panel discussions at the conference. Here are several highlights (among many) I learned from the conference:

  • STEM jobs are projected to grow 17% by 2018 and 71% of new STEM jobs will be in computing.
  • The MIND Research Institute teaches kids math solely through games without using any words making math accessible to all students, even ones with learning disabilities. Students’ test scores have significantly increased for thousands of students through this program.
  • There is a movement to completely stop lecturing to children and “flip the classroom”. A “Flipped Classroom” emphasizes project-based learning for kids.
  • UTeach, the STEM teacher training program within UT Austin is a nationally recognized program that has become a model for other schools across the nation. UTeach has trained thousands of STEM subject teachers.

You can learn more about the conference here:

Also, here’s an interesting article about the pathway to training in STEM careers

Side note: If you look to the left of the robot in the main picture above the article you’ll see me! I am the girl in the black cardigan and dark hair staring at the robot. That robot was really cool because that model is used in Afghanistan to defuse bombs, so soldiers don’t have to risk their lives to do so.

STEM Fun: Part Two

The second fun part of my internship is getting to visit all the summer camps the foundation’s grantees provide. The programs have some really great curricula planned like designing and programming video games, programming and building robots, and designing a city from top to bottom. Kids are actually designing cities where they include the proper zoning for their city, infrastructure, taxes, creating revenue streams, and designing power plants. East Austin College Prep Academy Summer STEM Institute had Astronaut Jose Hernandez come speak to the class. Hernandez’s experiences really resonated with this population of kids because he grew up as a farmer, frequently moving from town to town with his family. He applied to be an astronaut for NASA 12 times before he was finally accepted. The kids were really inspired by his perseverance and learned about the great success that comes with hard work. During another week at the same camp a reptile farm was brought in and the kids got to hold all different types of snakes and lizards. Changing Expectations took their campers to the Google Austin Campus and Applied Materials.

As we visit the different programs the foundation’s grantees provide for kids we’ve observed some common themes. One of the recurring challenges for these STEM summer camp programs is getting kids to come to camp in the first place. Getting kids to the camps is difficult for a variety of reasons.

1)      The summer time is a time where many families are busy moving to another apartment complex or house.

2)      Many kids are going to Mexico to visit their families for the summer.

3)      Transportation is difficult for parents when they are working multiple jobs or do not own their own car.

4)      Parents do not value summer learning. They do not think it’s important for their children to go to these camps.

5)      Kids have to go to summer school instead in order for them to go on to the next grade.

…and the list goes on from there. So you can see that for a variety of reasons many that are out of the control of the grantees getting kids to camp is hard. It’s not impossible though. Foundation Communities builds affordable housing apartment complexes and then attaches children’s’ learning centers to them. The learning centers are open and brimming with afterschool and summer programming for kids of all ages. Attendance is not a problem and the parents value their kids being at the camps. In fact, testing scores have gone up for kids in the learning centers because of the  academically rigorous programs that the kids have access to.

A positive theme that is pervasive in all camps is the stories the teachers and parents tell of their kids coming home and telling anyone and everyone about everything they learned in camp. Despite the variety of activities in the camps, every camp sees this happening. The kids go home and teach their parents what they learned all evening long, and then they wake up early, excited to go back to camp. Spanish-speaking kids go home and tell their parents about building bridges or computer programming all in fluent English. Parents are calling the school to ask if they can come on the field trips or just come and sit in class. Parents tell of their kids wanting to be astronauts, lawyers, and engineers because of the experiences in camp this summer.

The teachers tell us about all of the “firsts” the kids are experiencing this summer. Most of the students have never designed a bridge, built a robot, been exposed to computer programming, or seen a real fossil. By the end of one of the camps students had designed multiple video games and could tell me, in great detail, all about how the solar power plant of their city operated.

So the overall takeaway for me over the last two weeks is that we need more people working in STEM fields, and contrary to traditional thinking the disciplines such as math, civil engineering, robotics, and ecology can be designed to be really interesting and really fun. A lot of kids living in areas of high rates of poverty can love these topics and be good at them if they are given the opportunity to experience it.

I thought I would end with one last story that, to me, embodies just how much students are expanding beyond their everyday world. One girl that I met told me about her experiences seeing all of the snakes brought in with the reptile farm. I asked her what she thought was the coolest part of the reptile farm. She told me, “I thought there was only one type of snake. I didn’t know there were so many different kinds of snakes out there.”

Office Culture and Cube Life


USDA Intern Welcome  Panel featuring LBJ School alum, Johnie Jones

USDA Intern Welcome
Panel featuring LBJ School Alum Johnie Jones

 For this entry, I originally planned to write a riveting post about the SNAP-Ed interim rule comment analysis that I’m working on, but decided to shift gears and share a bit about the day-to-day culture here at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) office.  Over the last few days, I have been reflecting on the impressive level of professionalism and congeniality that exists in the particular FNS branch in which I’m working.   I’ve also been struck by the number of culture building activities and events hosted by FNS aimed to increase awareness, respect, and quality of life among employees.

Let me start specifically with my branch, the SNAP State Administration Branch, which is currently made up of 6 employees, led by one Branch Chief.  This team has truly welcomed me with open arms and made an extra effort to include me in as many staff meetings, events, and outings as possible.  They happily answered the litany of questions that I had in the first weeks of my internship and continue to support me in understanding the various projects that we’re working on this summer.  It’s not always easy being the new person, especially the new intern, but this group has really gone out of their way to make me feel like part of the team.  After just a month, I am really feeling at home in my little cubicle.

There is a feeling of urgency that pervades our branch, but stress levels don’t (regularly) appear too high. I attribute this to the flexibility of work hours and location enjoyed by staff. Many of my coworkers are able to “telework” one day per week, meaning they work from home with their office laptop and phone connected.  Also, staff are required to work forty hours per week, but don’t have to work the regular 8am to 5pm hours.  For example, one colleague is in the office daily from 6:30am to 3:30pm, teleworks on Tuesday, and has every other Friday off. 

Employee quality of life at FNS also seems to be improved by the significant amount of culture building that occurs on formal and informal levels.  In my first month on the job, I have attended or been invited to attend formal sessions on stress management, LBGT awareness, civil rights issues, and setting health and fitness goals.  The sessions I’ve been present at have been well attended and staff seemed genuinely engaged in the issues being discussed.

Staff have also organized informal gatherings outside of work including attending a Nationals game, a weekend BBQ, and various happy hours.  Many coworkers take time in the beginning or end of the day to catch up with each other on what’s happening in each others’ lives. Most seem to authentically enjoy their work and colleagues and I know that from prior experiences (and from chatting with friends in other internships), that this is not the case in all offices. That being said, I feel truly fortunate to have landed in this particular cubicle, in this particular office, even if just for a summer.

Summer Learning to the Power of STEM

This summer I am interning at KDK-Harman Foundation, a private family foundation that aims to fund out-of-school-time (OST) science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs for at-risk kids in grades K-12. As the summer intern I have been responsible for creating evaluation metrics to measure the effectiveness of each summer STEM program. This is not an easy thing to do because a) OST STEM programs are a relatively new thing to provide for students and b) there are not clear evaluation metrics established for out-of-school programs much less STEM programs throughout the entire nation.

So to step back a bit, why does this matter in the first place? Why STEM OST programs?

STEM OST programs increase the interest in STEM topics, increase the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school AND go on to college, and increase the likelihood that students will move on to a STEM career.

According to a recent study highlighted in the Austin American Statesman (you can go to the article here: last month the STEM industries and companies in Central Texas will only be able to fill about 25% of the available STEM jobs. There are huge numbers of STEM jobs going unfilled even today. Only about 75% of all Texas high school graduates showed college readiness in math in 2012. This percentage is lower for economically disadvantaged students (63% showed college readiness).  STEM careers are one of the fastest growing areas of employment across the United States and by preparing young people now we can ensure a strong economy in the future.

Thus far I have visited 4 different STEM programs around the city of Austin and kids are doing everything from designing video games to building bridges to designing airplane wings to programming and building robots.  The programs work hard to provide a free summer camp that includes buses to transport the kids, engaging the parents and letting them know why this is important for their children, and provide free lunch and breakfast every day of the camp for every student.

The kids love what they’re doing and there are endless stories of the kids going home and teaching their parents something new about robots or bridges or aerospace engineering or medicine and the list goes on and on. The parents have even gotten excited to the point that they asked the camps if they can also come on the field trips. And these field trips are really cool. This summer kids get to visit the Google Austin campus, an airplane hangar, Tech Shop, and Applied Materials among many other destinations. One program has the kids touring around to look at all the different types of bridges around town so they can come back to school and design their own bridge.

The next step for me is to compile our evaluations of these programs and give the programs some feedback on how they did: what they could do better and what they did really well based on our indicators. We also want to use this data to learn how we would like to shape our summer STEM program incubator/accelerator.

The summer looks exciting: fifteen more site visits are on the calendar and the U.S. News and World Report STEM Solutions Conference is held in Austin this summer.  More on these events in the next post.

Texas Appleseed Intern and Movie-Maker Extraordinaire

Dallas County Truancy Court Update: Since my previous blog entry wherein I discussed the media coverage of Texas Appleseed’s complaint to the Department of Justice regarding the truancy courts in Dallas County, there has some feedback from the school districts:

“Dallas County constables this summer will stop making truancy-related arrests of students at school while officials develop proposed changes to a court system targeted in a complaint to the U.S. Justice Department.”

You can read more about the response from Dallas County and Judge Clay Jenkins who oversees the truancy court here:

Youth Rights Video Project: Since then, I’ve been hard at work on my summer-long project. Another intern and I have been working on creating a video project! It’s not something that I thought I would be working on this summer, but I’m happy that I am involved in something that lets me be creative and do something different. So, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) has various guidebooks that are designed for students that have been ticketed at school with the goal of informing kids about the rights that are available to them and how to proceed once ticketed. The guidebooks are very informative and the English and Spanish versions can be found here:

Texas Appleseed plans to work alongside TRLA and other organizations to create short videos that convey the information in these guidebooks. The videos are going to focus on the following offenses: Failure to Attend School (FTAS), Disorderly Conduct, and Assault because they seem to be the most common misdemeanors.  My job over the past week has been to implement the recent changes made during the legislative session into these booklets to incorporate minor differences in the new laws. In addition, we have been brainstorming creative ideas for the videos in hopes of making them appealing to teens (harder said than done :)) but I think we have some good ideas that will hopefully develop into a successful video! For the rest of the summer, I will be working on developing a script, finding actors, coming up with ideas, and maybe, if there is time, we will eventually begin work on these videos. It’s a pretty cool project and I’m very excited to be a part of it.

Happy Hour: A few weeks ago, all the Texas Appleseed interns cut loose and went to the 2013 Annual Public Interest Happy Hour. There were a bunch of other organizations’ interns in attendance, including: Texas RioGrand Legal Aid, ACLU, Disability Rights, American Gateways, Worker’s Defense Project, and many more.  It was a lot of fun and it was cool to meet other interns from a variety of organizations and talk about our common interests. Here’s a pic of me and some of the girls that I am working with this summer at the Happy Hour:



Texas Appleseed Interns

Settling in at USDA

Hi all! I’m officially two weeks into my internship at the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).  My office is located just outside of D.C. in Alexandria, VA, and I’ve finally started to figure out my way around town and the massive building that I work in. So what exactly will I be doing at USDA this summer? My work at FNS will be primarily focused on the federal nutrition education program called SNAP-Education (SNAP-Ed).

Did you catch all of those acronyms?  I’ll try to not to bore you with too much bureaucratic lingo, but I want to give you a sense of exactly what I’ll be focused on this summer.  SNAP (formerly known as the food stamp program) serves over 47 million low-income Americans in the form of electronic benefits that can be redeemed for food at most grocery outlets. While there are few restrictions on the types of food items that can be purchased with SNAP benefits, the federal government is focused on improving the nutrition of SNAP recipients.  To do so, Congress appropriates funds ($285 million in FY 2013) to SNAP-Ed, which USDA distributes to states according to the funding allocation prescribed by statute. Each state, in turn, implements its own unique version of the SNAP-Ed program.

While states do have flexibility in how they run their program, as with any federal grant program, there are many guidelines, regulations, and reporting requirements that state agencies must adhere to.  In fact, many of the rules and regulations were recently altered significantly by federal legislation, meaning that there is a lot of education that must occur between the national office, regional offices, and state agencies. That’s where my work comes in this summer!

To start, I will be combing through the annual SNAP-Ed plans and reports submitted by each state to better understand what is happening on the ground across the country.  Each state agency contracts with a number of sub-grantees, creating a network of organizations that implement the SNAP-Ed program in slightly different ways. For example, most of the federal money that Texas receives goes to regional food banks and Texas AgriLife Extension sites, which provide nutrition education classes to low-income individuals in their communities. In California, on the other hand, the majority of the funds are spent by the state Department of Public Health and local public health departments with a focus on nutrition-related social media campaigns as well as nutrition education classes.

However a state chooses to deliver the SNAP-Ed program, they have to submit an annual plan. All of those plans must be collected, approved, and archived by the federal office.  They currently exist as a pile of CDs on my desk, and call me a wonk, but I am thoroughly excited to explore them!



After about two weeks in Ethiopia, my life has finally calmed down enough to write. I’ll start from the beginning….

“Congratulations! You have been selected as an intern for USAID Ethiopia’s Economic Growth Team for Summer 2013. You would be assigned to work with our Contractor on the Capacity to Improve Agriculture and Food Security Project.”

Back in March, I accepted an internship with USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) in Ethiopia. My initial letter offered very little insight into what I would actually be doing (I mean, Economic Growth in Ethiopia could mean anything?) but I have wanted to go to Africa and work in international development since high school, so I definitely was not going to pass up this opportunity.

After accepting the offer, I really had to dig for what I really knew about Ethiopia. My first thought, and the first remark by many when I told them I was going to Ethiopia, was this:

Ethiopian mother and child


The country experienced devastating famines in the 1980s and 1990s, and pictures of starving children are permanently engraved in the minds of many of us. However, after writing a research paper on economic growth and human development in Ethiopia (I choose Ethiopia after finding out I was coming here), I was surprised to quickly learn that Ethiopia has a booming economy today and has made impressive improvements in primary education, and child and adult health.

With more prodding, I received more exacts about what I would be spending my summer doing, besides drinking lots of bunna (coffee), and exploring the konjo (beautiful) country. I discovered I would not be working directly with USAID, but instead with Fintrac, a USAID contractor on a project called USAID-CIAFS. CIAFS implements a broad range of capacity building activities to address human and institutional impediments to agricultural change and improved food security. More specifically, they provide leadership development and training for many federal and regional government agricultural workers, they assist in the development of University curriculum, and write best practice documents to inform agricultural technical experts and policy-change markers. While the country is not nearly as vulnerable to famine as it once was, the population is growing and it is critical to ensure that there is enough food to feed everyone. Agriculture also employs 85% of the labor force and makes up 40% of the country’s GDP and 83% of exports. Agriculture exports are expected to fuel the country’s economic growth to meet its 2025 goal to be a middle income country.  Increasing agriculture capacity, and ensuring an adequate food supply is essential to Ethiopia’s future.

Unfortunately, climate change threatens the sustainability and productivity of the country’s agriculture sector. So, this is where I come in! The Ethiopian government wrote an excellent plan recognizing the impact climate change will have to their economy if appropriate adaptation strategies are not put in place. One of my intended end products for this internship is to document already existing best local climate change adaptation techniques and strategies, develop strategies to scale-up these best practices, and assist in the creation of global climate change curriculum at universities across the country… in two months. Ambitious, I know.

My first week here, I spent two days at the Embassy for an orientation, one day in my office and then left with 3 co-workers and about 50 Ethiopians from the Ministry of Agriculture to visit 12 best-practices sites in six days, in six different “cities” in the Southern region. You can see my pictures below:

Kelly Steffen and workers in agriculture fields

The trip was incredibly eye-opening and will inform my work as I move forward. The site visits were conducted in Amharic so I was basically pushed off the deep end when it comes to language immersion. I look forward to writing more about my work, travels and the fun touring I do in Addis Ababa with the 18 other USAID interns here!

One last thing, hook ‘em!

Ethiopian children