In 2009 I had just wrapped up work on my first research project for graduate school and was looking for a new challenge to pursue in order to complete my PhD work. It was at this stage of my graduate school career that I heard about the inaugural iSTEP Program offered by TechBridgeWorld. I was looking for a research opportunity that was socially relevant, so iSTEP seemed to be a perfect fit. At the time I didn’t know much about information and communication technology for development (ICTD), but I was eager to learn and get some experience working in field research, as opposed to sitting at a desk in an office staring at a computer screen for hours on end.
My iSTEP experience taught me much more than I could have imagined. The preparatory coursework was helpful, but really no classroom course or textbook can fully convey the actual joys and pains of conducting field-based work. I remember feeling like a fish out of water during those first two weeks on the ground in Dar es Salaam Tanzania: overwhelmed, jetlagged, homesick, and completely out of my element. However, it was those initial difficulties that offered me the most useful opportunities for learning and growing. By week 5 or 6 on the ground I had, without conscious thought, learned to work through many challenges on the ground, including power outages, water shortages, loss of Internet access, rats in the bathroom, running out of phone credit, language barriers, IRB delays, finger cramping from sending so many text messages to community partners who had no email, and so on and so forth… By the end of the internship, I felt that I knew a lot more about ICTD work, especially pilot field research projects. I eventually went on to complete my PhD two years later with a focus on evaluating ICTD projects in collaboration with TechBridgeWorld.
But iSTEP wasn’t just an academic stepping stone for me. Those 10 weeks I spent in Tanzania with my fellow iSTEPpers offered me some of the most memorable experiences that to this day I look back on with a grin on my face. I learned a lot from my teammates and shared many a good laugh with them. Additionally, TechBridgeWorld mentored and guided me when I felt overwhelmed or lost along the way. As a result, I came out of the experience with a refined sense of self confidence, and belief in my ability to work in the field and take the lead on different aspects of the work.
Fast forward to 2012, and here I am on the other side of things serving as an advisor to current iSTEP interns and working as part of the TechBridgeWorld team. I can see some of the same struggles and “aha” moments echoed in these students’ experiences compared to my own, but I also see how this program has grown and continues to offer CMU students a unique opportunity to work in the field on real-world problems, and make an impact, even though small, on an actual community of people. I am excited and proud to continue to be a part of this wonderful program.
About the author: Bea is TechBridgeWorld’s Postdoctoral Associate focusing on assessing ICTD projects. She has also served as a Needs Assessment and Evaluation advisor for the iSTEP 2010, 2011 and 2012 internships. Bea participated in the inaugural iSTEP internship in 2009 and spent 10 weeks in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania as the Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator and iSTEP 2009 team leader.