Interview with Professor Susan Shepler of American University

Interview conducted by Allison Mohrfeld
[School of International Service] [American University] [Sierra Leone] [Ebola] [Peace Studies] [Conflict Resolution] [Japan] [Peace Corps]

Below, BNID intern Allison Mohrfeld interviews Professor Susan Shepler, who is an Associate Professor of International Service at American University. Dr. Shepler's research interests include youth and conflict, reintegration of former child soldiers, post-conflict reconstruction, refugees, education and economic development, NGOs and globalization, transitional justice, and childhood studies. In addition to her academic work, Dr. Shepler has conducted research for UNICEF, the IRC, and Search for Common Ground. Her work has appeared in The Journal of Modern African Studies, Africa Today, Anthropology Today, and the Journal of Human Rights. Her book on the reintegration of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Childhood Deployed, was published by NYU Press in June 2014.

Q: How did you became interested in international development?

A: I was a math major as an undergrad and I joined the Peace Corps right out of college to become a high school math teacher because I loved math. However, being there gave me a new appreciation for a different context. I was sent to Sierra Leone, which ended up being the country that I’ve been most interested in for the rest of my career. It was the Peace Corps experience that got my foot in the door.

Q: You are currently working on some research on Ebola in Sierra Leone. Can you tell us about that?

A: I was there doing a research project on teachers and whether they taught about the past conflict when Ebola was first starting. So, I was there for that moment when people weren’t really sure what was going on. I was there again when it was really starting to take off. I ended up doing research on Ebola because I happened to be there on another project, but then I got some funding to go back near the height of the outbreak to do research on how local people were understanding the response. There was some lack of trust in the response and we wanted to see why people were concerned. I’m an anthropologist, so my work is about trying to understand what is going on at the ground level. A lot of what I have studied is about how people understand development interventions designed to help them, and what it looks like from their perspective. Since then, I’ve done some other work on Ebola about corruption in the response, again from local people’s perspective, and how they think money went astray, who were the most corrupt actors, and so on.

Q: Tell us about American University’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution program and what it offers students.

A: It’s a masters program; ideally for people who have had a little bit of international experience. It’s unique because it really bridges the peace studies side and the conflict resolution side. The conflict resolution side is more about the skills that are needed to do conflict resolution such as negotiation, etc. Peace studies is a little more theoretical: What is peace and how do we conceptualize it? We have people who are working in lots of different areas from different disciplines. We have political scientists, social psychologists, peace studies people, etc., almost everyone is doing some kind of practical work in the field. We also have practicum projects that students get involved in at the end of the program. We have people doing internships here in D.C. with a number of international NGOs, government and intergovernmental organizations. People are learning in the classroom and immediately putting what they’ve learned into practice.

Q: You recently spent a semester teaching in Japan. How does your research and studies relate to the time you spent there?

A: It actually doesn’t have much to do with my research. At SIS (American University’s School of International Service), we have a relationship with Ritsumeikan University’s School of International Relations. So I went there to teach about Africa and taught a class about Ebola. It was really interesting to teach mostly Asian students about Africa. Since they didn’t know much about it, they were very interested to learn. I did meet a couple of Japanese colleagues; political scientists mostly, who are interested in researching Africa. It planted a seed for a collaborative project I’m doing with a Japanese scholar where we will both do research on Sierra Leone, but from the Japanese and U.S. perspective.

Q: What did you learn from your experience working in Japan?

A: I also taught in Nigeria for a year when I was a Fulbright Scholar there. I think of them as similar experiences of teaching in other university systems. It made me proud of the fact that at SIS we bring so much practical stuff into the classroom. In both of those other experiences, it was very much about theory and writing term papers. We’re very much like: here’s a real world case, let’s attack it in class or have a project that counts for credit that has you working with people who are doing the actual work. It has also made me more appreciative of different higher education cultures, so that if people are quiet in class, I shouldn’t just assume that they have nothing to say. I learned that I need different strategies in class to address the different cultures in the room.

Q: What words of advice would you give to students trying to pursue a career in international development.

A: Peace Corps was a great entry point for me. I like it because it’s completely government funded. There’s nothing like the experience of living for two years in poverty and understanding what it’s like to live that way. It just gives you such a perspective on development, and instead of thinking, “Oh we have the answers from here” if you’ve lived in poverty for two years in a particular place, you can say; “oh well that solution won’t work.” It’s a good foot in the door, but it also serves you well for the rest of your career because you always have that touchstone of what daily life is like for people who are the target of development. I often recommend that to students. Another thing I tell students is, “Go there!” If you can find a way to get to a place you’re interested in, it’s often easier to get your foot in the door, get that internship, get that little tiny contract if you’re in country. If you’re already there, you’ve already solved a problem for them. Show them what you can do--In some cases, that’s an easier way to get in. It can be scary for some people, but I’ve seen it work.