November 2017 Alumni Spotlight
November Alumni Spotlight with Saran Kaba MPA ‘09
In a school of public and international affairs, travel in service of both global perspective and civic contribution is highly valued. In this month’s alumni spotlight, Saran Kaba goes in-depth on her experience as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal, her ties to Guinea, and more.
This past summer you returned from service in the U.S. Peace Corps as a Response Volunteer in Senegal. Tell us about that experience. What were you doing there? What challenges did you face?
In May 2016, I took on a year-long assignment as a Response Volunteer for the U.S. Peace Corps. Contrary to the traditional 2-year Peace Corps assignments, Peace Corps Response offers shorter term engagements (3-12 months) and is not only open to returned volunteers but also open to professionals with more than 10 years of experience in a specific field. As a Response Volunteer you bring valuable skills and experiences to projects in places that need it most around the world.
In my case, I was placed within a fantastic organization called SEED Project (Sports for Education and Economic Development), where I served as an Organizational Capacity Development and Grants Specialist. SEED uses basketball as a tool to educate youth in Senegal and create future leaders. I essentially helped develop SEED’s organizational capacity in relation to programs, staff coordination, human resources, reporting, and grants.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect was being able to secure funding and implement two projects for the youth we served: one was a young women empowerment workshop series and the other was a project to help build public speaking skills. Getting to see firsthand the changes in behavior and the students’ tremendous growth was a great feeling.
What was Senegal like?
Senegal is one of the most welcoming countries I’ve visited thus far. They are very big on “Teranga”, which means “hospitality” in Wolof. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited to complete strangers’ homes to share a meal with their families. Because of this keen sense of community, I thankfully didn’t feel homesick while being away from my own family.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for me was learning Wolof, one of the main languages in Senegal. I took a few courses and could get around with some basic knowledge of the language; however, I would have loved to become more fluent to feel more integrated both at work and within the community. My being fluent in French helped a lot but as an avid traveler, I like to become fully immersed in order to experience different cultures to the fullest.
As a New Yorker, the slower pace of life was also frustrating and hard to adapt to in the beginning. I had to quickly learn to plan in advance and go with the flow when it came to things that were beyond my control.
You refer to yourself as an ‘Organizational Management Professional.’ Can you discuss that title and how your education at the Marxe School may have contributed to this type of role?
I define an Organizational Management Professional as someone who can find creative ways to improve systems and processes for a more efficiently-run and effective organization.
I’ve always been a planner. I think that is what pushed me to get my MPA at Baruch. I wanted to learn how successful organizations operated. Being able to apply the skills I learned during the program (financial management, data analysis, administration) throughout my career in both admin and operations as well as fundraising has been really beneficial. I really appreciated the courses Baruch offered.
Naturally, I got a Project Management certificate at NYU a few years later and passed the test to be PMP certified. Being able to show that I have the educational background and work experience to go with it, has greatly contributed to my being more valued by hiring managers for the positions I’ve sought.
Can you tell us about the coalition you cofounded, Guinée Espoir?
Ah! Guinée Espoir is something I am very proud of. The organization was founded in 2004 and is the product of my twin sister’s and my commitment to give back to a community we care deeply about. Our father (who recently passed and played such a huge role in instilling in us the concept of giving back), was originally from Guinea. Although he spent a big part of his life living in the U.S., he insisted we move to Guinea when he retired from the United Nations. And so my twin and I lived in Guinea for 7 years. During that time, we saw firsthand how difficult life could be for Guineans, especially children, and understood even more how fortunate we were. The lack of resources is truly crippling. When we returned to NY to attend college, we were determined to work with youth, providing them with the tools they need to succeed in life. We’ve worked on several projects bringing assistance to orphanages, schools, and women’s rights groups. Our most recent project was perhaps the biggest, most challenging and most rewarding one: we set up a library in the capital city (Conakry) at a school called Collège Kipé. The library is open to students as well as other children who do not necessarily attend the school. With Conakry being named UNESCO’s World Book Capital City 2017, we are excited to create new partnerships to ensure we are working together as a society to create safe learning environments for youth.
Photography seems to be very important to you. Are there any photos you’ve taken that stand out as particularly meaningful in their ties to your volunteer-based endeavors?
I love capturing memories. My family and friends often joke that when I travel, I never return with less than 500 photos. Honestly, that’s pretty accurate! For me, it’s all about capturing beautiful moments at the perfect time and being able to relive my journey whenever I need a reminder of why I chose the path I am on. I took some wonderful shots during my year in Senegal, taking advantage of my time there to explore the country through the lens of a first-time visitor. There is still so much for me to see and I am already planning my next adventure!