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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Springboard into a Career: Experiences Establishing Practical Work Opportunities for EiE

Mary Mendenhall and Mary Tangelder, IRC-University of Nairobi Education in Emergencies Project

The Education in Emergencies (EiE) graduate program offered by the University of Nairobi (UoN) since 2009, in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), aims to develop a regional hub of education practitioners who are equipped with the knowledge, skills, leadership and passion to respond to the needs of children and youth affected by conflict and crisis in Kenya and the greater East African region. The specialized courses have been designed to help students examine issues central to EiE, such as child protection, quality and inclusive education, disaster risk reduction, project planning, policy and advocacy. The courses also strive to bridge theory and practice through experiential learning approaches that include activities such as case studies, simulations, field trips and culminating Master’s projects that require original research.

Despite these efforts to strike a theory-practice balance, there is no substitute for working directly with an organization and gaining hands-on experience with the day-to-day activities required to support or implement emergency education interventions. To address this issue, the UoN and the IRC sought to develop partnerships with international humanitarian organizations, the Ministry of Education and other potential partners to create practical training opportunities in the form of internships. Historically, internships have served as a springboard into a career by providing students with practical training, mentoring and networking opportunities. Although the UoN students who have been able to secure internships report that they have gained valuable experience through these arrangements, some challenges have emerged.

First, there is a serious disconnect between the needs of the student interns and the needs of the humanitarian agencies. Students currently in the graduate program at the UoN need fertile training ground that will allow them to gain exposure to the multidimensional field of education in emergencies and simultaneously benefit from an enriching mentorship with a seasoned education practitioner. In contrast, overstretched humanitarian staff typically do not have time to adequately support and mentor students and require interns who can act as pseudo-consultants ready to hit the ground running with a particular skill set that allows them to work autonomously and fill gaps that may exist within the organization’s education team.

Second, because the majority of EiE students are experienced, trained teachers and school administrators, their former working environments are significantly different from the working environments of international humanitarian and development organizations. Students interning for NGOs, the UN or other agencies require strong technical as well as technological skills, including report writing, typing and basic computer operations (e.g. word processing, spreadsheets, Internet) that former teachers or school administrators may not have had the opportunity to acquire yet. The working environments within international organizations are inclined to be more collaborative and less hierarchical, which may also require an adjustment by students as they navigate power dynamics, decision-making processes, and communication styles with organizational staff from different countries and age groups.

Third, compensation or lack thereof for student interns creates obstacles and inequities in gaining practical training opportunities. Unpaid internships will most likely preclude those graduate students who, despite their desire to gain practical experience, must consider the implications on their livelihoods and those of their families. The practice of unpaid or low paid internships exacerbates inequities, as only students with the resources to forego any financial compensation are able to seriously consider unpaid internships. This problem is not unique to Kenya.

Fourth, there is a lack of consensus about academia’s role in helping students apply their academic training to work place opportunities. Certainly there are models from law, medicine, or teachers’ colleges, to name a few, that have developed student placement or internship programs. However, as EiE is a new field and this is the first graduate program of its kind, further discussion is required to determine the extent to which the UoN can and should support the development of internship and work placement opportunities.

Given the tension between what students need and what organizations can practically offer, is the conventional internship model the best approach? While a handful of international organizations in Nairobi and elsewhere may be able to offer meaningful and compensated student internship opportunities, it is clear that alternative practical training opportunities need to be identified. What alternative models for practical training should be explored and adapted to the UoN EiE Program? What are effective strategies for students to meaningfully contribute to the EiE work being carried out by local, national and international organizations?

The UoN graduate program offers an opportunity to rethink the conventional internship model and develop innovative strategies that will help graduates apply their knowledge, talents, and passion to the rapidly growing EiE field. As we begin to explore sustainable alternatives that are mutually beneficial for students and humanitarian agencies alike, we warmly welcome INEE members’ input and ideas!


Mary Mendenhall, outgoing Project Director, IRC-University of Nairobi Education in Emergencies Partnership

Mary Mendenhall worked with the International Rescue Committee from 2009-2013 as the Project Director for the IRC-University of Nairobi Education in Emergencies Partnership. Mary has now joined the faculty at Teachers College, Columbia University as a full-time lecturer, teaching Education in Emergencies and other courses in the Comparative and International Education Programs.

Previously, Mary served as the Network Coordinator for the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) from 2005-2007. Mary completed her Doctor of Education in International Educational Development, with a specialization in International Humanitarian Issues, in May 2008 from Teachers College, Columbia University

Mary Tangelder, incoming Project Director and former Visiting Practitioner, IRC-University of Nairobi Education in Emergencies Project

Prior to her tenure with the IRC, Mary Tangelder worked as Director of SpireWorks consulting firm, based at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto, Canada. Mary’s main areas of work included researching, designing, and evaluating formal and non-formal education initiatives for international NGOs, government agencies, and UN agencies. She received her M.A. from OISE/University of Toronto in Comparative, International, and Development Education, and completed her thesis on constructions of national citizenship in post-conflict states as mediated through national history curricula.


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