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.
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.