Professor Joseph Assan is a BNID Board Member and is an Assistant Professor at Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.
Professor Assan, tell us a bit about your life before becoming an Assistant Professor at Brandeis University.
I pursued and completed my Ph.D. program at the University of Liverpool in England. After that, I did post-doctorate work at the University of East London for a year, then took a lecturer position back at the University of Liverpool. Back in the UK, we use the “lecturer,” “senior lecturer” structure, so a lecturer is equivalent to an assistant professor in the United States. Three years later, Trinity College in Dublin offered me a faculty position. I was also a program associate director, so I mostly taught sustainable development in in the graduate program. That’s a global consortium that comprises about 16-20 universities; Columbia University, University of Arizona, and the University of Florida, among the U.S. schools. I taught there until I received my faculty appointment here at Brandeis.
Before earning my Ph.D., I worked in the Ghana office of The Hunger Project, an international development organization in New York. This is where I developed my passion for local sustainable development and became interested in pursuing graduate studies in the field. After graduation, I debated going back to practice or to academia, and I chose the academic path. Now, my interests also include supporting student-oriented research in international development and economic policies.
Can you tell me about some of the projects you are currently working on?
At the moment, I am a principal investigator on a new project that we are involved in here at Brandeis and am a lead investigator at the recently established research center here at the Heller School at Brandeis called the Center for Global Development and Sustainability. We examine issues related to global sustainable development and try to understand women’s relationships and women’s policy research that goes along with these fields, with the intention of creating new lessons and new ideas for teaching, but also exploring research that could reform policy and get graduate students involved in policy research opportunities.
I am leading a project that involves an evaluation of school “lunch” programs in India. The Indian government, in partnership with private organizations, is running a program that provides lunch for schools in rural areas, especially in deprived and impoverished states. We are now partnering with an organization called Akshaya Patra Foundation on a project in Lucknow, in the Uttar Pradesh state. The foundation has an office in Boston, though their NGO is based in India. The foundation here in the U.S. helps raise funds through charity events and consulting.
Can you tell our readers about the Akshaya Patra Foundation?
The foundation in India works with government organizations to solicit resources to provide meals for schools. Akshaya Patra builds industrial kitchens in different parts of India, like Lucknow and Bangalore. They make the meals in these kitchens and distribute them to the schools. Our goal is to advise Akshaya Patra and the Indian government on how they can improve the program, which has the potential to affect the lives of the 65,000 children, now and in their ability to continue into secondary and tertiary school. So, this project has many development and policy implications.
Some of my graduate student assistants just arrived in India this week and are hosting a training workshop for Indian undergraduate and graduate students so that they can help with the program. They will visit the schools in teams and gather information such as the children’s’ physical measurements. Our hope is that Indian students can continue and expand the program. This is one way to ensure that young people go on to improve the educational system and contribute to the labor force. We especially want to promote more gender inclusion and are seeing an increasing number of female student researchers, which is very exciting.
When researching and working in the field of development, one can sometimes feel hopeless – as if there is no difference we, as individuals, can truly make. How do you maintain hope and motivation?
I get a lot of motivation from my students and try to channel a lot of my motivation into my students. The involvement in international development is common in European schools. Campus groups and organizations are very active within the context of international development. These kinds of groups tend to create a lot of momentum for change. Students often invite politicians, civil rights activists and civil society groups to speak to their members, which helps inspire other students to get involved. This is where change starts.
Participating in conferences and forums also fuels motivation. When I was younger, I had the opportunity to attend a conference at The Hague and a United Nations Forum on indigenous groups. When you see so many groups from across the world gather and watch them tell their stories, you come back inspired and excited to help improve these situations. Some of my students who have attended these conferences come back with similar experiences, and it’s clear their passion will push them forward. These experiences ultimately lead to lifelong careers and lead people to find networks of like-minded, supportive people.
What advice would you give graduate students or young professionals who are trying to break into the field of international development?
One thing I like about the United States regarding educational structure is the opportunity to participate in internship programs. I admire that because it is a very dynamic and deliberately incorporated aspect of many graduates and some undergraduate in Europe, it is not as easy to get accepted into an internship program. Internships allow students to apply conceptual studies to the realities of policy-making. This is an excellent way to bring students into the field and expose them to real issues. The Sustainable International Development program at the Heller School offers students the opportunity to go out and work with an organization during their second year of graduate school for at least nine months and counts toward their master’s degree.
These experiences offer students exposure to people who wouldn’t normally be accessible to them. That makes a big difference because students get the academic perspective and the practical insight into their chosen fields. They get the big picture concerning how the field works.
A question I always hear from students is, “Should I go to graduate school first or get work experience first?” As long as you work hard for your career, you can get anywhere. Whether it is making connections through graduate school or being exposed to opportunities through a work experience; any kind of experience can lead to success.
What words of advice would you have for my generation?
One piece of advice I often give my students is that we live in a very competitive world, and so you have to make yourself competitive. You must avail yourself opportunities that come to that you feel can help transform your position or lead to self-improvement. I sometimes notice that students are constantly thinking about the big picture – the big job, big organizations – which is fantastic, but they forget about the small steps that will get them there. So, I advise my students to consider the small steps first including utilizing the great resources at BNID.
Interview Conducted by Andrea Poveda
Boston University, Class of 2017
Please feel free to contact Andrea at [email protected] if your organization is interested in being featured in a blog post.