Grad LIFE

blog navigation

blog posts

  • Where Are They Now?: Morgan (McClain-McKinney) Limo

    Where can a graduate degree from the University of Illinois take you? In this series, we catch up with one recent Graduate College alum and ask the question: “Where are they now?”.

    Morgan (McClain-McKinney) Limo graduated from the University of Illinois in 2011 with an M. A. in Political Science. Roughly a day after walking across the stage in her cap and gown, she was on a plane bound for Washington, DC to pursue her dream of a government position. Now, she works as a Foreign Service Officer at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and is based in Conakry, Guinea where she supports strategic planning, budget, and communications for a variety of sustainable development and post-Ebola recovery programs.

    While you were at Illinois, you dabbled in many different areas: Pre-Law, International Relations, French, Arabic, Chinese, and European Union Studies. Was there a particular moment or experience that led you to pursue a career in government?

    I dabbled in quite a few areas, but I do think that it helped me to define my career path. I grew interested in anthropology and international relations and really wanted to explore languages. I really became interested in West African affairs, where I could put my French skills to use. I didn’t know I’d be here full-time in 2018, but here I am, and it is great. There wasn’t a formal African Studies major at Illinois when I was there (I even remember African-American studies had only recently become a major), so I pursued European Union Studies while looking for opportunities to explore African affairs whenever possible. One research assignment I did looked specifically at France’s shift from Francs to Euros and the economic impact on African countries using CFA francs. The foundations that I built to grasp basic Arabic and Chinese have also helped me to learn other languages including Swahili.

    Since you graduated in 2011, you’ve worked in the Department of State, on Capitol Hill, and now with USAID. Can you talk a little bit about your career path and what led you to Washington, DC?

    When I say that I moved to DC as soon as possible after graduating, I’m not exaggerating. I recall being in cap, gown, and hood, and then within a matter of a day or two packing up and flying out. I was lucky that I had the opportunity to intern in DC through my graduate program and began working with USAID fresh out of grad school. I started out at the Department of State, where I got my feet wet in foreign policy, and it was truly a great experience supporting international organization affairs. I went on to gain valuable experience learning the inner workings of Capitol Hill from within the Senate. I gave more than my fair share of Capitol tours but was lucky to be in an office invested in foreign policy as a member was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I then moved on to USAID Legislative Affairs, which was a great combination of the experience from my previous roles. From there, I went on to the Bureau for Africa, where I worked for several years prior to joining the Foreign Service and being posted in Africa.

    What does a normal day or week look like for you? Travel is an important part of your job. Your work has taken you throughout Africa, including Ghana, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria, and you are currently in Guinea! How does travel factor into your schedule?

    Honestly, it really varies, from hosting external events with the government or private sector, organizing site visits up country to monitor projects, or furiously drafting talking points or speeches for a superior. I’m always looking at funding: how much, where it is going, and what is left to ensure we have sufficient resources to accomplish our development objectives. I definitely have traveled quite a bit for work and, interestingly enough, my travel bug started at Illinois. As part of our graduate program, we participated in an exchange trip to Turkey where we traveled to several cities and discussed everything from politics and accession to the European Union, to the history of the country, and even met with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara. Since joining USAID, I’ve traveled mostly around Africa, but less frequently in the sky these days as I’m now assigned to an overseas post where I’ll stay 2-4 years before moving on to the next country. I’m not sure where I’ll be next, but it could be anywhere in Latin America, Asia, Africa, or even Eastern Europe.

    What do you think are the most interesting, rewarding, and/or surprising aspects of your job?

    The most interesting thing for me is the passion of the people that I work with. Our staff are the most valuable resource we have to truly understand what the needs are of any country. The work is very rewarding, though challenging, and you don’t necessarily get to see everything through from start to finish. Development takes time, social and behavior changes, environmental changes, and long-term benefits of education and training or health interventions, all take time. Ultimately, sustainability is the goal, as we hope to see gains sustain well beyond our interventions. I’ve had the chance to meet some amazing people with amazing stories, and I’m always humbled to know that I may have made even the smallest contribution to improve someone’s quality of life. Something surprising to me is that there is still a great need for more diversity in the international development sector, as evidenced by movements like #aidtoo. Many barriers and challenges still exist in the field for women and people of color, and I’ve had the privilege of participating in programs that are committed to remedying that, such as the International Career Advancement Program (ICAP) which seeks to ensure greater diversity in the highest ranks of the foreign affairs field.

    Is there a particular course, professor, or experience at the University of Illinois that has impacted your way of thinking?

    I definitely was challenged to think outside of the box while at Illinois and had some excellent professors. I have regularly given credit to Professors William Bernhard, Robert Pahre, Merle Bowen, Brian Dill, Joseph Hinchcliffe, and Marie Theresa Henehan, for encouraging me to pursue my international affairs goals (even when it meant stepping briefly out of class to take yet another phone call from Washington about a job opportunity). There were numerous other support staff and administrators that were of great help. I really enjoyed doing research and writing, and explored everything from judicial structures and criminal activity across the EU, to civic engagement of minorities in the United States, to juvenile justice in Illinois. Being able to think through all sides of a given problem is critical for just about any field, including foreign affairs.

    What is one piece of advice you would give to graduate students at Illinois who are interested in pursuing careers in international relations or government?

    The one piece of advice is that it's never too early to build your network and find mentors that can guide you on the right path. Get out to events on campus—Cline Center, Institute for Government and Public Affairs, Illini Union talks with visiting speakers—go to them, learn, get connected. I remember meeting with the Diplomat in Residence at Illinois prior to deciding to apply at the State Department, and his advice was critical to my success. We in the international development field need passionate young people who are willing to be flexible and adaptable to new environments and willing to take on complex challenges. It's not easy work, but it's very rewarding and its worth pursuing. 

    Delete

    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    This interview was conducted by Emily Wuchner who is the Thesis Coordinator at the Graduate College. She holds a PhD in musicology from the University of Illinois, and her work focuses on music and social welfare in eighteenth-century Austria. In her free time, she enjoys playing the bassoon, watching sports, and hanging out with her calico cat, Gracie Sue.

  • Meet Our Fellows: Matt Haugen, Fulbright Fellow studying Chinese Sport Industry

    Last April, after nearly a yearlong process and an arduous wait, Matthew Haugen, PhD candidate in Kinesiology, was notified that he had been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, which would allow him the opportunity to complete his dissertation research project studying sport education in China. His fellowship experience ultimately encouraged him to pivot his dissertation research project to better represent and inform the future he sees for himself as a scholar. In the following post, he describes his path to the Fulbright and how his fellowship year has impacted his research. 

    The Beginning

    My first time in China was in 2008, on the precipice of the Beijing Olympic games, and the country was in a sports frenzy. That year, in addition to taking in the games, I also helped my friend set up a tennis academy in Zhongshan, Guangdong Province. Many of the players that came to us had been cut from the government’s provincial teams for a lack of satisfactory results such that at an age of 17/18 years old these talented individuals found themselves without a team or place to practice.  Since most aspiring athletes in China enter government sponsored training programs that deemphasize traditional education; there is little opportunity for many athletes to reenter the work force or enroll in local universities (with the exception of sport-related jobs and sport universities).  This was when I realized a stark difference between the American and Chinese sport system. There are no student-athletes in Chinese society. The question as to why there is a division between sport and education in China has followed me ever since; into my master’s program, my time spent coaching China’s Hebei Provincial tennis team from 2011-13, and now into my doctoral program at Illinois.        

    The Dissertation Topic

    Delete

    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    For the past seven months I have been back in China working on my dissertation project studying how market reforms are generating new initiatives in both sports and education. I am examining the causes and consequences of these developments, focusing specifically on the emerging notion of the student-athlete and whether sports and traditional education can co-exist in Chinese society.  In order to complete this research, I am conducting in depth interviews with key stakeholders in the Chinese sport industry, including government sport officials, coaches, parents, and retired and current athletes.  The purpose of my research is to ask them about their experiences with sport and traditional forms of education in order to gauge how prepared athletes are to enter the workforce once their athletic careers are over; and what programs, initiatives, or reforms are being developed to aide athletes in this process.  Based upon their responses and my fieldwork; I hope to generate cross-cultural exchange between the US and China of best practices in the academic schooling of athletes, and to identify practices that can assist Chinese athletes to study academic, technical, or professional subjects at the same time as they are engaged sports training.

    A Strict Language Pledge

    When I arrived this September it had been four years since I had last been in China, and while the country is a place of perpetual change, this time it felt strangely normal to be back.  Familiar foods, smells, friends, and colleagues were there to make my transition feel seamless.  I was lucky to receive an additional grant to study Chinese for the fall semester at Harbin Institute of Technology, home of the famous Ice Festival. During that time I had a chance to study advanced vocabulary, and policy documents that would allow me to conduct the interviews that are vital to my research. In Harbin we were paired with Chinese students to be our roommates and held to a strict language pledge where we would only speak Chinese during the semester-long study. Through it was difficult for myself and other Fulbright Fellows to maintain Chinese 100% of the time, it allowed us to form relationships with our roommates and build confidence in a second language.

    A Research Pivot

    Once the semester and the language program was finished, I moved from Harbin to the Nanjing Sport Institute, where I am currently based. The Nanjing Sport Institute is the training base for the Jiangsu Province athletes, who are working toward becoming future Olympians in a variety of sports, from ping pong to cycling, basketball, tennis, fencing and more. In addition to hosting the provincial programs, the institute also acts as a Sport University, where students study different body/movement studies similar to what you would find in a Kinesiology department.  What makes the Nanjing Sport Institute unique is they also have an independent tennis academy that runs outside of government auspices and is instead directed by commercial and market influences. This environment allows me to be at the epicenter of the sport industry, and allows me to examine the many processes and the complexities that surround sport in China. 

    Because of my background as a coach, the Jiangsu province team has also asked me to work with some of their professional players. While the question of sport and education has captured and captivated my attentions since 2008, my work is China has caused me to pivot my thinking on my dissertation research.  Rather than a traditional one-subject dissertation, I plan to use a three article format to explore the idiosyncrasies within the Chinese sport system and write about three diverse but intertwined sport topics. This also will help align me with how I want to be seen as a future academic, as a scholar who can examine cultural and social issues in sport, issues in sport management, and physical education coaching/teaching pedagogies.

    Delete

    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    My daily life is currently centered on coordinating and structuring practices for select tennis players on the Jiangsu team, interviewing key stakeholders in the Chinese sport industry on the above topics, and most importantly, observing and participating in as many opportunities as possible in Chinese sport.  My ultimate goal is to build bridges and make inroads with those who are involved in Chinese sport, and to help dissolve cultural misconceptions between the east and west, which in turn will help build stronger bilateral relationships between China and the US. 

    This article is part of a series by our Fulbright Fellows in the field. Interested in learning more about the Fulbright Fellowship? Check out the listing in the Fellowship Finder database. Our Office of External Fellowships provides one-on-one proposal review for your fellowship proposals. Attend one of our workshops or schedule an appointment with the Office of External Fellowships today!       

               

  • Roots, Routes, and Returns: Discovering an Effective Writing Process as a Graduate Writer

    PART I: Snapshots of the Writing and Thinking Roads I’ve Taken

    It might surprise you if I were to share that first as an MA student and now as a PhD student in English (Literature emphasis) here at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, I have accumulated several 9 x 12 or 8.5 x 11 spiral-bound sketchbooks and that they have played a central role in helping me discover an effective writing process. So too have I used up the last drops of ink in a fair number of colorful pens and markers when writing across these surfaces. Thinking and writing for me, then, are inextricably linked in a visual and tactile process.

    Writing is an individualized process; mine is one of many and not the only process. Writers, then, should experiment with processes to see what works best for them. Tracking progress in a log, trying out different mediums, and figuring out when to incorporate freewriting into a more structured rhythm are all places to start for experimentation.

    My destination in Part II of this blog post is to further address common writing productivity challenges and provide tips. To get there, though, I want to provide some sketches of my path. I do so to explicitly model the types of reflection that will prove useful to graduate students.

    As a first-semester graduate student, it took me a few attempts at sitting down in front of my laptop with a blank document staring back at me to realize that I needed more space to think through how to generate, support, and sustain arguments across different page-length requirements, in various genres, and to specialist and non-specialist audiences. I went back to the drawing board and revived one of my writing sketchbooks leftover from my undergraduate years.

    On paper versus a digital screen, I can better sketch my way into an argument, comment on the ideas that I brainstorm and mold or refine them into a foundation for a paper, and chart out what I have and what I need to find to successfully carry out my writing goals. A sketchbook also affords me a space to create an archive of my thinking process. If I write with assorted colors of pens, I can track the development of my ideas and arguments. I find this visual mapping especially useful as I regularly step away and return to my writing with a fresh pair of eyes. I can also ask questions of my writing and try to answer them by freewriting.

    I use my example to underscore that practice thinking about and articulating the what, how, and why that underpins your writing project, however short or long that piece may be, will help you develop your confidence in starting, developing, and revising a draft.

    PART 2: A Different Kind of Scenic Route or, Practical Recommendations for Writing Productivity

    As we like to remind all writers who visit us in the Writers Workshop, writing is recursive. I use questions like those suggested by Joan Bolker in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis to return to a writing project after some distance away. Example questions from Bolker include:

    • “What stands out for me most in what I’ve written?”
    • “Is there an argument in this mess?”
    • “What point do I want to make?”
    • “Is what I’ve said here true?”
    • “Do I still believe this?”
    • “What am I really trying to say in this argument/chapter/section?” (and we would add, in this paragraph or sentence?)
    • What words, phrases, or sentences stand out and could be further explored?

    Questions like these help me recognize what I have accomplished and gaps or routes that have opened in my writing and thinking.

    Reflection will also help you create a writing schedule, identify feasible writing goals, give yourself positive reinforcement, and make steady progress. To that end, here are some additional tips from the community of consultants at the Writers Workshop:

    • Take a personal writing inventory to assess what works well for you. Some writers need to vary their environment to stay focused, shifting locations throughout the course of the week or even a day, while other writers can work on different projects in a regular place.
    • Once you have determined the best times and spaces, set a schedule and use your calendar to block off time for writing.
    • Be honest with yourself about procrastination habits that lead you to put off writing. Productive writers set aside time to write every day—even if only for a couple of hours, stick to that time, and self-regulate to avoid distractions.
    • Still, start fresh every day. We are humans and sometimes things just don’t work quite how we intended. In other words, if you missed your scheduled writing time or had an unproductive day, just acknowledge it and let it go. There’s always tomorrow!
    • Do not pressure yourself to write something well-polished on your first attempt. Instead, practice valuing a messy first draft, asking questions, and mining that material into succeeding drafts.
    • Recognize your accomplishments. What did you do well with a paragraph? A page? A draft? A longer piece of writing? And with your writing habits and process?

    In addition to reflecting on your writing and practicing these writing tips, we recommended taking a trip to the Writers Workshop! We offer individual and small group consultations, host graduate writing groups, and offer several workshops throughout the semester on such topics as staying on track with thesis and dissertation writing, making sense of critical feedback, writing a literature review, and preparing materials for the academic job market. Find out more online.

    Here’s to your own rewarding writing journey!

    Delete

    Edit embedded media in the Files Tab and re-insert as needed.

    Helen Makhdoumian is a PhD candidate in English, where she teaches literature courses as a graduate student instructor. She also serves as Assistant Director of the Writers Workshop. Her research interests include memory, trauma, and genocide studies; diaspora, migration, and transnational studies; and Armenian American, Arab American, and American Indian literatures.