Career Matters: Life As It Could Be

November 9, 2016

Christy Ihlo bypasses a "Traditional" Career Path to pursue her passion in Tanzania

by Christy Ihlo MEM'13

Nicholas alum Christy Ihlo took a huge, but carefully
calculated, risk leaving her post as a policy associate at
Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
to pursue her passion for international conservation with
an NGO in Tanzania. She went as an unpaid six-month
intern for the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW). Now
she has been hired, with a great promotion, to direct their
monitoring and evaluation efforts, a growing sub-field in
international conservation. Her story is about developing
skills, weighing—and then taking—risks, and building a career
in an unexpected way.

Just four days prior, I was having
dinner with a friend who asked
me if I would ever go back to
Tanzania. “In a heartbeat. It would
have to be for at least six months,
all expenses covered, and my
best bet is with the organization
I worked with before. But I don’t
have any skills they need.”

And then the email about
an opportunity landed in my
inbox. Six months, all expenses
covered, but no salary with the
African People & Wildlife Fund
(APW), helping to set up their
new monitoring and evaluation
department. With that email, I
hopped on the roller coaster that
has been the past year.

I figured I at least had to apply
for it, or else I would forever
regret not trying. So, I did the
standard resume sprucing-up and
cover letter writing. I thought
they would grant me an interview,
especially since I had some skills
that could be applicable, thanks
in part to my position with the
Nicholas Institute.

Six hours after sending in my
application, I got a response
offering me the position. Floored
does not begin to describe how
I felt at that moment. After
interning with them in 2012, I
wanted to work more abroad. But
my relative lack of international
experience combined with my
less-than-stellar language skills
meant that road would be a tough
one. In fact, I thought the door for
that career path was closed. Not
only closed, but slammed, triple
locked, and sealed by fire! And
yet, it had just flown wide open

Over the next several weeks, I
made one of the hardest decisions
of my life, a calculated risk.

That was walking away from my
perfectly good position at the
Nicholas Institute, with its pay,
benefits, and relative stability
in this job market, into an
unpaid position.

What to do with my apartment?
My car? My stuff? My pets? How
would health insurance work?
Did I really have enough money
to sustain me through all of my
possible worst-case scenarios?
(One of which came frightfully
close to coming true when I
twisted my foot three weeks in. I
thought it was broken and I would
be sent home. Thankfully, all
was fine.)

I debated, hardcore debated, for
weeks. I talked to a lot of people,
using every professional resource
I had available: Nicholas School
professors, career services,
alumni services, and colleagues,
plus numerous other friends
and of course, my family. I was
more than a little surprised at
the number of people that took
time to talk with me, weighing
the pros and the cons, asking the
tough questions—often through
multiple, and long discussions.
I tried to cultivate relationships
while in graduate school that
would be beneficial long-term, and
after this experience, I can say I

One of the most valuable
conversations I had was with the
Career Services staff. It centered
not on the professional reasons
to accept this position, but on the
personal reasons to do so. I wanted
to challenge myself on both a
personal and professional level,
contribute something to people
that really need it, and directly see
the impact of my work (sounds
cliché, I know, but it is all true).

I left that conversation
knowing that simply doing
this for personal reasons was
good enough, an outcome
that surprised me. There were
professional benefits as well, for
sure, but also professional risks.

Although I would be on a leave
of absence from the Institute,
there was no guarantee a job
would be waiting when I returned.
Lots of things could happen. For
example, what if my boss got
another job offer and decided
to leave the Institute? Would I
still have a job? I wasn’t sure.
Would the work I was doing
abroad translate to domestic
employers? Some of my advisors
were concerned that this was not
a given. Would I be setting myself
up for only international work,
or work with large international
NGOs in cities like Washington, DC,
or New York, which was a different
career trajectory (and one I wasn’t
sure about)?

On the other side, would I regret
not taking this opportunity for
the rest of my life? What kind of
doors might open? Perhaps none.
I had no expectation this position
would lead to a longer-term paid
position. I had no doubt that
taking the internship would fulfill
some personal needs, and in the
end, I decided that—combined
with the potential professional
benefits—outweighed the risks. So
in honor of my 35th birthday, I took
a deep breath, closed my eyes,
and jumped off the cliff hoping I
was wearing a parachute.

Once I accepted the internship,
all concern about the risk
dissipated. I still struggled with
details, but even most of those fell
into place. I was a little concerned
about being able to deliver what
they were expecting. I wasn’t the
ideal candidate. I didn’t have the
perfect background. I had never
done anything exactly like what
they needed. The best thing (I
think) I had going for me was
having been there before, so they
knew I wouldn’t freak out living in
the middle of the bush.

Fast forward six months, and I
have been offered a salaried twoyear
position with significantly
greater responsibility, an outcome
I certainly could not have
anticipated last fall. The prospect
of spending the next two years
abroad in this role is both exciting
and terrifying, a combination I’ve
decided means I’ve taken the right
risk at the right time.

As the department director, I
will oversee all data collection,
analysis, and reporting while
managing a small team. APW’s
programs are highly diverse,
meaning we work with a wide
variety of data types, collection
techniques and analysis methods.
Exposure to such diversity will
expand my skillsset. That, plus the
managerial experience, will prove
valuable to the next step in my
career, whether it be abroad or
back in the United States.

I’ve taken a different sort
of path in my career—one that
seemed at times to have no
particular direction. Along the way
I passed none of what I considered
“traditional” milestones signifying
official entrance into adulthood
(marriage, children, owning a
home, having a clearly defined
career path, etc.), which left me
feeling quite lost. But had I any
of those things, I would not have
had the freedom to jump off the
cliff and land in Tanzania for six
months, and now two more years.

My decision will be a defining
moment for the rest of my career,
and now I see my life as “what it
could be, not what it should be.”

Christy Ihlo earned her
Master of Environment
Management degree from
the Nicholas School in
2013 with a concentration
in Ecosystem Science
and Conservation. During
her first internship in
Tanzania, she blogged
about her experience
at blogs.nicholas.duke.