Changing Course: A conversation with Nicholas Bassey
Posted on October 5th, 2015
The Institute for International Public Policy (IIPP) was a fellowship focused on increasing diversity in international affairs. Fellows benefited from a sophomore-year summer policy institute; a junior-year abroad program; a junior-year summer policy institute; internships-junior year, senior year, and after undergrad; a senior language institute; and a master’s degree program in international affairs. The program was funded with grants from the US government and was defunded in 2011, effectively ending the fellowship. At that time, PPIA stepped in to bring the IIPP alumni into our network to ensure their continued access to peers pursuing graduate degrees and careers in international affairs. PPIA is thrilled to have these fantastic individuals in our alumni network and looks forward to sharing more of their stories in the future!
Your undergraduate degree is in biology. How did that turn into an interest in higher education?
It was both a trip and a journey. Growing up I thought being a doctor was my plan. When I was a little kid I wanted to be a veterinarian and then as I grew up I thought being a medical doctor was the thing to do. I was a biology major because that’s how you got to medical school. Once I was in college I realized being a doctor was my grandmother’s dream for me, not my dream for myself. I realized right around my junior year that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next.
I went to Morehouse College and was very involved in community service during my time there. I finished the biology degree, more out of stubbornness than out of any affinity for the subject. I started working for the college’s Office of Community Service. My job focused on making connections between the college and the community and administering community service-based scholarship programs. I was talking to folks at local schools, community organizations, and churches looking for placements for students who wanted to volunteer. I did that for about four years and then I moved to Washington, DC to work for the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools program. The program focuses on improving K-12 literacy by connecting young kids with high-energy college students who were interested in making reading the cool thing to do. I started as a Program Associate and left four years later as Deputy Director. Through that experience I recognized the role that colleges and universities play in changing people’s lives. I wanted to be a part of helping young people achieve that goal.
How did that impact your career path?
My next job after Children’s Defense Fund was working for the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) on programs designed to expose first-generation (potential) college students to the idea of going to college and give them the tools they would need to be successful there. Our programming provided support and mentors to help them along the way. It transitioned them into thinking about college and graduate degrees. During that time I chaperoned a group of first-generation college students on a three week study abroad program in Western Europe. At that point I wasn’t very well traveled so as these students were having these eye opening experiences I was too, but from more of a programmatic and career perspective. This experience changed how I thought about access to education. Instead of just thinking about education access, I now thought about access to an internationally focused, globally relevant higher education experience.
After leaving COE (I was laid off because of budget cuts) I transitioned to the UNCF Special Programs Corporation and became involved with the Institute for International Public Policy (IIPP). I was hired for a Program Manager position and eventually became the Director of the program. I recognized the transformative power that intentionally structured, long-term programs have to change the trajectory of people’s lives. That’s what excited me the most about IIPP. I felt like it was this sweet spot of helping students, networking with interesting people and looking at ways to address social issues around diversity in international affairs. I did this while pursuing a master’s degree in higher education administration from the George Washington University, by the way. Whew!
What was the most rewarding aspect of working on a fellowship like IIPP?
The most rewarding thing was seeing the very specific ways that the interventions and experiences we designed transformed individual lives. It was powerful to see how those individuals then brought their own personal values and experiences to their careers going forward. Though Congress decided to cut funding for IIPP about four years ago, it remains a tightly-knit network of colleagues and friends.
Now, you are leading a fellowship at USAID. What is the Research and Innovation Fellowship?
It’s a program designed to connect science and technology with international development. One goal is to help research-based organizations in developing countries access the research talent they need. We partner with U.S. colleges and universities so when these organizations need a certain expertise and lack that in their country, they can leverage the skills, energy, and creative ideas of American master’s and PhD students. Another goal is to help bourgeoning American scientists and researchers to look beyond the domestic applications of their work to see the broader international implications. If you are interested in eradicating disease, for example, your work can have a much greater degree of impact in a developing country than it could in the United States. Showing how transformative science and innovation can be is key.
The program works by providing funding and an online catalogue where research organizations and potential research partners can connect. We share our catalogue with our partner schools and with the general public. The goal is to match the skills of graduate students with international development-centered research needs. Students propose how to tackle the identified need. If the organization thinks it’s a good fit, they bring the student on board and we provide funding for the student’s 2-12 months in country.
As you know, PPIA’s mission is to prepare people to make a difference through public service. In your experience, what qualities or characteristics does a person need to have in order to be effective in the public sector?
The two most important characteristics are curiosity and a desire to address thorny issues. I also think that a person must have a strong belief that they can be the one who makes a difference – either as an individual or as part of a group. There is a certain level of confidence that is needed to think that this little piece that I’m doing over here can make positive change in a broader way. One must be motivated by a desire to create positive impact. I think that negative (or short-sighted) policy is created by those acting on self-interest or for the benefit of a narrow band of people. That’s not what public service should be about.
You’ve had a long and varied career. When you think back over it, what are you most proud of?
Well, on a personal front, I’ve been happily married for eight years and recently welcomed a daughter – I’m very proud of that. From a professional perspective I’d say, I’ve been away from IIPP for about three years and very rarely does a week go by without some sort of contact from a former fellow. To me that says we were able to make a positive impact on their lives and they associate me with that time. I am always honored when they ask me for feedback or information about their professional way forward. The fact that they continue to reach out shows me that we had an impact and I’m eager to remain in contact and to continue supporting them. I love being able to do that.
I’m also proud of the work I did at the Peace Corps – where I was for the three years before transitioning to USAID. We completely revamped the Peace Corps’ placement process while doubling the size of my team. There were a lot of moving pieces and I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish together. I can’t wait to see what the future has in store for me!
You mentioned that you like being able to help others looking for support so what advice do you have for people who are interested in following in your footsteps?
I would say that there isn’t really a wrong path that you can take. I know that lots of students fret about the years immediately after graduation, thinking that those years will dictate their lives going forward. They think that one wrong move is the difference between rags and riches. That, fortunately for me, isn’t generally true.
If I could go from a struggling biology student to leading teams at the Peace Corps and USAID, anyone can. You just need to be secure in the belief that you can reinvent yourself. You need to be open to hearing what others have to say and pursue your curiosity about things you think are cool that other people are doing. You are the author of your own story. You can weave a career path from so many disparate strands to create something meaningful and impactful for yourself and others. My career makes the most sense to me in retrospect. I could not have planned it this way from the start. In reality, I was following the threads of things that sounded interesting at the time, aligned with my personal philosophy, and that I thought could help me to make a difference. All of these things connected with my belief in the value of access to education and interest in global citizenship.
What do you think is the most powerful aspect of programs like PPIA and IIPP?
One piece of advice that I would give to PPIA Fellows is to recognize the power of the PPIA network and their cohort of fellows. It’s important that they do their best to maintain contact with as many people as possible. Through this program you are actively growing your professional network. Every formative experience I have had in my career involved a few people with whom I will always keep in contact. They are people I go to for advice, either professional or personal, and that’s the network that I’ve created. Other people benefit from it as well. It’s critical to build your personal and professional networks because you never know when you’ll have an opportunity for a mutually beneficial partnership. These networks also come in handy for everything from needing to crash on someone’s couch when you visit a new city to accessing insider information about a potential new job. Being intentional about building a strong network was one of the best career decisions I could have possibly made.