Insights on breaking into International Development – Experience from the field

You may be the the kind of person who thrives in situations where you are working in multicultural teams. You love learning from different cultures and perspectives and you enjoy the rush of being pushed outside of your comfort zone to solve problems and think outside the box. You may have even considered working internationally to fulfill this long standing desire to create positive change at a global level. If this sounds like you, you may want to consider pursuing a career in International Development

From a person who has experienced the life of a practitioner in International Development, I can tell you that it is thrilling, challenging, humbling, rewarding and, sometimes taxing. Here are a few things I learned along the way:

  • Gain “international experience” even in the USA…starting at Binghamton University. You don’t have to be in some far-away land to build your global and intercultural fluency skills. Engage in clubs, research, coursework, volunteer opportunities and extracurricular activities that promote cross-cultural interactions, understanding and problem solving! Learn a new language and interact with international students who attend BU. Virtual International Internships are also taking off and provide access for students who may not have been able to pack up and move abroad for an extended period of time.  
  • Here are a few Binghamton University Departments and opportunities to check out, just to name a few:

Study Abroad Office/IEGI (Think virtual international opportunities!)

International Connection

ELI Conversation Pairs:

Global Studies Minor

Dr. Ellen Kaschak Summer Research Grant

IGMAP – Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity

Minor In Human Rights

Center for international business advancement

  • Get regionally-focused and dive deep. Spend your time learning about the history, economics and socio-political factors that are influencing a region you are interested in. It’s not to say you are forever tied to this region in terms of professional and academic pursuits, but think of it more as training for your mind to see how interconnected these topics are and how they shape the present-day context. One important way to do this is to use class projects and research papers to dive deeper into these topics.  Communicate to your professors about your goals and discuss if there is a way to infuse some of these international topics into your coursework. You may be surprised at their response and support. 
  • Gain experience abroad, either in-person or remotely. Given the current context, it may not be feasible to gain in-person international experience. However, virtual international internships have proven to be very successful, fulfilling and great learning opportunities – and most likely they are here to stay, even when we “return to normal”. To give an example, SUNY Brockport recently closed out a virtual internship opportunity during the 2020 Winter Break called: Global Citizen Virtual Exchange Programs. The programs allowed students the opportunity to work in teams with a variety of local organizations in Tanzania, Peru and Bangladesh to create projects related to each organization’s work toward achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals. By the way – the site indicates that Summer 2021 Program Information will be added in by February 15, 2021, so check it out!

Here are more undergraduate international opportunities:


  • Carve out time to do your research. It is fairly easy to find resources geared towards careers in International Development. TAKE THE TIME TO READ! Inform yourself in a low-risk environment, Imagine you have been put in touch with the Country Director of your most favorite international NGO. You wouldn’t go to the meeting without doing your research, right? Intentionally carve out time to review pages like:
    2. International Development 101 by InterAction
    3. Learn about the Sustainable Development Goals
  • Talk to development practitioners in the field. I can’t stress this enough. Talk to people as much as you can – not just for the purpose of getting a job or an internship, but to learn about the realities of the field, and build rapport with professionals. Sign up for an account in Mentor Match to be matched with BU Alumni in fields of your interest and prepare to conduct an informational interview. 

Ask them questions like:

  1. What experiences propelled you into this field?
  2. What skills and experiences are needed to be successful?
  3. What does your typical day look like?
  4. What do you love about your work? What are the challenges?
  5. What advice would you give someone who is eager to break into this field?
  6. How has the field changed due to the COVID 19 Pandemic? Are there new needs that are arising with regard to services and hiring needs?

If you need other networking options, use your LinkedIn Account. Here is a *Linkedin Tip: Check out Binghamton University’s LinkedIn Page to use the “Alumni” keyword search function. Search alumni by industry, organization, geographic location or field and discover that you may have opportunities to connect than you originally thought. As you read profiles of practitioners in International Development – take special note of their career path, skills, experiences, projects and research. Use LinkedIn as a tool to learn the jargon and look for themes among various individual profiles you view. 

When you are ready, choose the person you would like to speak with and send a well written message requesting for a chance to speak to them about their experience! 

Identify your specific skill set and area of expertise. As with any career navigation process, it is important to understand your own strengths and weaknesses and how they may fulfill a need within the Development field. It has to be said that International Development is very competitive, so it’s even more important that you hone your skills now, learn to articulate them and identify what skills you need to master in order to compete among an international pool of applicants. Consider the various sectors you could engage in: microcredit, women’s empowerment, poverty, hunger, climate change, education, migration, democracy and civic engagement, conflict transformation, and the list goes on. What speaks to you?

  • Consider applying for Fellowships in International Development. There are a number of Fellowship opportunities that will put you on the fast-track to careers in International Development through the US Department of State.  Here is an article that outlines 30 to choose from. Keep in mind that you can also use the Scholarships and Other Awards Resource SOAR Database, which houses hundreds of fellowships and scholarships. The trick is to plan and apply EARLY for these opportunities, at least 1 year in advance. 
  • Know your “Why”. Take time to truly reflect on why you are engaging in this work. It’s important not to only put your hopes in a fancy title, or working for a singular institution like the United Nations, as you begin this journey. International Development work is very broad and there is a plethora of organizations, roles and paths of getting there. Find value in all the steps along the way to your goal and not just in the shiny title. 

Just a few words of wisdom from the field! I hope you find them helpful.

By Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi
Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi Career Consultant Jessica Lane-Rwabukwisi