Stephanie Ahlgrain graduated from CU Boulder in 2013 with a double major in International Affairs and Anthropology. While at CU, Stephanie received a Global Grant to participate in the CIEE Nicaragua: Managua Social Justice and Development study abroad program. Her experiences abroad and her interest in locally-led social and environmental projects brought her to Mexico City (pictured above) where she has worked for the past eight years. Stephanie first taught English through the Fulbright Program, then worked at the Mexican nonprofit Amextra, and currently is a Capacity Development Officer for Resilient Civil Society Activity, a 4-year initiative funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented in Mexico by the nonprofit organization FHI 360.
What is your favorite memory of your time CU?
One of my favorite memories of CU is participating in the Global Studies Residential Academic Program (GRAP). It was a huge privilege to live with classmates and have guest speakers from around the world host talks right in the lobby of our dorm. Most of my best memories from CU are with friends I met in through GRAP, some of whom I’m still friends with today. It’s inspiring to see where those friends are 10 years after graduation and how they’re contributing as journalists, teachers, entrepreneurs, doctors and members of the community that are always looking for a chance to learn and be better humans. Several of these friends have visited me in Mexico City and we often talk about our experiences at CU.
What aspects of your IAFS studies did you enjoy most? What were the hardest?
What I enjoyed most is that my classes felt applicable to the real world. I’ve seen this since graduating as I’ve had several personal experiences with issues that were essay prompts during my undergraduate studies. For example, I wrote a final essay in a Spanish class on the treatment of garbage in Mexico City. Years later I ended up working at Amextra, a nonprofit that has an education program serving the same community of pepenadores (people that earn their living from recycling materials) that I had spent time researching for my essay. In another class, I wrote about the total abortion ban in Nicaragua and shortly after, conducted field research with doctors and patients affected by this law during my semester abroad.
At the same time, the hardest part of my IAFS studies were those same open-ended research prompts that I now appreciate. Prompts such as “write a paper on an environmental issue in Latin America,” led to overwhelming possibilities, requiring hours of research and decision-making even before beginning to write. But now I realize that flexibility allowed me understand what issues I truly care about and is one of the aspects I most appreciate about the program.
What advice would you give to current students on how to develop employable skills as they consider what courses to take at CU Boulder as International Affairs students?
My biggest piece of advice is to take classes you are interested in even if you think it’s just a personal interest, not necessarily a professional one. I took classes on Nutritional Anthropology and Nutrition for Health and Performance at CU because I was interested in them, not necessarily because I thought I’d use them professionally. After graduation, my first job was as a Bilingual Case Manager at a family practice clinic in Denver, where my baseline knowledge in nutrition along with speaking Spanish helped me excel.
Can you share with us how your Global Grant study abroad experience influenced your life after graduation and your career choice?
My semester in Managua, Nicaragua (pictured) was one of the best experiences of my IAFS career. My program combined a seminar component with taking classes at the national public university. In the seminar course we learned about the history of social justice and development in Nicaragua and traveled to different social projects both in the capital Managua and in rural areas. Participating in classes with local students had its own benefits, but the field experience facilitated by the seminar course was what really influenced my life and pursuit of a career in social justice.
In addition to helping me decide my career path, my semester in Managua also taught me that I felt at home in Latin America. Mexico is very different from Nicaragua, but the larger capital and cooler climate made it just the right fit for me.
You have had professional experience in different fields such as healthcare, education, fundraising and most recently, philanthropy. Can you share the process of how you gained skills or reframed skills you already have to a new context?
Sometimes I look back at my career since graduation and think there is no way I could have planned for how my career has panned out. For me, one of the best lessons is to take your career one step at a time, because one thing leads to another and in a few years, you may be doing something you never planned on.
When I look for a new job, I don´t have an exact idea of what I want, only a list of skills I have and a vague idea of what aspects from my current job I want to pursue further. This ensures I have the experience necessary to excel in my new job, but also that I learn something new. In my most recent job change I went from being a fundraising manager at a small Mexican nonprofit to working with a nationwide grantmaking and capacity development program. I knew I had fundraising and grant administration experience and I wanted to share those with a larger organization or with multiple organizations, but I was open to doing that in any number of ways. My advice is to embrace uncertainty and never underestimate your ability to love a career path that you can’t even imagine right now.
Where do you see yourself going in the future? Do you plan to stay abroad, or have you considered returning to the United States?
I see myself living in the U.S at some point in the future, but I haven’t settled on how or when! For now, I’m content in Mexico City. Although I truly miss my family and some elements of life in the U.S., professionally and personally, Mexico City is the place I feel the best for now.
If you could give one piece of advice to IAFS majors interested in an international career, what would it be?
My advice is to be realistic about the skills you offer if you are considering working abroad. The skills you need for a certain career path in the U.S. may or may not be the same in that same sector abroad. For example, I loved my first job after graduation as a Case Manager at a family health clinic. After finishing my Fulbright program in Mexico, I looked for a similar job as a social worker in Mexico. I quickly learned that the skills and experience I had gained as a Case Manager with immigrant populations in the U.S. (such as speaking Spanish and being familiar with U.S. social services and legal systems) weren’t helpful for being a social worker with immigrant and refugee groups here. Here, organizations and agencies were looking for more case workers who speak French, not English.
Eventually I realized I needed to broaden my horizons and applied for jobs in fundraising, not social work. I ended up loving the administrative side of nonprofits. This openness to try something new is often necessary abroad and can help you make more valuable contributions to your new country.