To hear 2005 grad Bill Schmitt talk about his career, ending up in West Darfur, Sudan, was just a matter of good fortune.
In June 2012, Bill Schmitt headed to Kabul, Afghanistan, to be the country representative for Catholic Relief Services. The agency's program focuses on community based education, natural resource management, and agriculture livelihoods in some of the most remote parts of Afghanistan. Schmitt has served in a number of countries, including Sudan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Haiti.
Schmitt is spending the summer of 2015 at home in Wisconsin before starting a new position in Turkey, assisting with Catholic Relief Services' ongoing humanitarian needs. WauwatosaNow.com profiled him in a July 1, 2015, article.
The area coordinator for the northern corridor of West Darfur for Catholic Relief Services spent 15 months in Sudan aiding internally displaced persons and host communities by distributing emergency food rations, constructing household shelters and schools, supporting agriculture, connecting farmers and merchants, and improving water, sanitation and nutrition. Catholic Relief Services provides emergency relief and recovery services to more than 160,000 internally displaced persons and residents in the troubled and conflict-ravaged region of West Darfur.
Schmitt's good luck came into play when Catholic Relief Services offered him a fellowship a few months after he graduated from the La Follette School with a Master of International Public Affairs degree. "With all the emphasis on networking, getting out and meeting people in D.C., here my application over the Internet, where you click and send your résumé into what sometimes feels like a black hole, was accepted," Schmitt told a classroom of mostly first-year students enrolled in the one-credit public affairs Professional Development Workshop in 2008. He was visiting Wisconsin in September after leaving Sudan and before heading off for at least two months in Afghanistan.
Schmitt first worked in Nicaragua, "as luck would have it," he says. "As far as working in the developing world goes, it was a really good first posting." The country is beautiful and relatively safe, he says. A large and active community of non-governmental organizations are doing interesting and innovative development programming there, plus forming friendships and a social life was easy. The location fit with Schmitt's academic focus on Latin American and economic development, and he spent his assignment helping farming cooperatives develop business plans, achieve international fair trade and organic certification, diversify their crop production and identify new income-generating activities.
Prior to enrolling at La Follette in fall 2003, Schmitt spent two years as a volunteer teacher, one in Milwaukee and another in Ecuador. Between his first and second years in the MIPA program, he took an internship in U.S. Senator Russ Feingold's office in Washington, D.C. While the position was unpaid, "I looked at it as an investment in my future," Schmitt says, advising students to take advantage of opportunities that will be interesting and beneficial in the long run, even if they pay nothing in the short term.
After graduating, Schmitt moved to Washington, D.C., without a job or internship so he would be closer to international opportunities and have more networking options. He briefly labored at temp jobs, did some immigration work with an NGO and was about to accept a full-time job with an education consulting firm when the Catholic Relief Services fellowship came through.
Bill Schmitt, left, says business cannot be conducted in Sudan without drinking tea. The 2005 international public affairs graduate discusses program plans with a Catholic Relief Services colleague and a local sheikh in Sirba in West Darfur. Schmitt worked in Sudan for 15 months before heading to Afghanistan.
In Nicaragua and Sudan, Schmitt found the skills he honed at La Follette helped him in the field: organizing, thinking critically, analyzing, dissecting problems, devising alternatives and figuring out how to overcome obstacles. All his ex-pat co-workers have master's degrees, he says, and many in technical advisory positions hold doctorates. Any international experience, such as his teaching in Ecuador or a tour in the Peace Corps, is beneficial. "Apply to an entry-level position, get your foot in the door and then prove yourself," he advised the class.
When asked to go to Sudan, Schmitt was at first unsure about accepting the post. Faced with the insecurity and violence there, he says, "part of me was nervous, anxious and afraid, but I also recognized that it was an unbelievable opportunity to challenge myself and hopefully make a difference." His time there was often hard, he says, but very worthwhile and rewarding on many levels. "Aid workers are at least a few steps removed from the difficult conditions," Schmitt says. "I knew that if things ever got really bad that I would get evacuated to a safer location. The people who live there obviously don't have that luxury. Nonetheless, they are incredibly resilient, and it was inspiring to see their strength and determination to move forward."