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Profile: Peace Corps, Grad School and Nonprofit Career

Joe Bednarek, project manager at IREX, talks about his path from college to Peace Corps to grad school at Harvard and then to a successful career in the nonprofit world.

What have been the most defining moments along your career path?

After spending a year at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, I knew that I wanted to spend more time in Europe, either at a university or through work. Therefore, I joined the United States Peace Corps in order to volunteer somewhere in Eastern Europe or Eurasia. My experience in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer led me to an even stronger interest in teaching and working for nonprofit organizations.

How did you get your big breakthroughs? 

Featuring your Peace Corps experience on your resume normally strengthens your resume considerably. My time in Ukraine helped me find a nonprofit position in Chicago, and it also helped me gain admission to graduate school at Harvard.

How did your education help you in your career path? 

Majoring in International Relations at Georgetown and being a part of the School of Foreign Service there gave me considerable exposure to international students and their cumulative experience. This contact led me to study abroad in Scotland and to join the Peace Corps. My graduate degree from Harvard of course strengthened my ability to get interviews for jobs in international development in Eurasia.

What skills you can't learn in school, but can only gain through experience on the job? 

Working with people on a daily basis to accomplish necessary tasks. Graduate school, and school in general, is mostly an individual exercise, but nearly every job requires extensive people skills.

Is it important to go to grad school in order to work for a nonprofit? 

Absolutely. However, grad school does not necessarily prepare  you to work for a nonprofit, nor does it always improve your ability to be effective at a nonprofit. A grad school degree is important to work at a nonprofit because nearly everyone else either has one, or eventually gets one! If you want to move up in an organization, a grad school degree, not necessarily the "education" component of that degree, is essential.

What was the best advice you received when you were first starting out in your career? 

Be confident about the skills that you already have, even though you may not have much "work" experience. You may not be aware that you already have many of the skills necessary to be effective in your career.

What have you learned from your experience? 

How to listen to a superior and learn from them. In addition, how to be more careful about the projects/papers/reports that I produce.  

What most excites you about your job right now? 

Working with scholars that are enthusiastic and that will have a great impact on their home countries.

Would you recommend the nonprofit sector as a career destination? 

Yes, of course. Generally, the people that work in nonprofits are people that share many of the same cultural and political values as you do.  Most of them are not obsessed with money or making money. Most people in the nonprofit sector want to affect change through their careers, and nearly all are skilled at building and strengthening personal relationships.  

What is the best part about working for a nonprofit? 

Knowing that you are assisting the scholars in the program, in my case, to make their experiences truly meaningful.

What advice would you give to students interested in working for a nonprofit?  

Be professional about your career choice and your work. You cannot get by solely on your enthusiasm and desire to do good.  The nonprofit sector is still learning how to be professional and most effective with the resources they are given.  It is the responsibility of the nonprofit sector and people that work for nonprofits to demonstrate that volunteerism, aid, and international development can be effective in creating and sustaining change all over the world.

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