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Fellowship lands recent grad in a real hotspot

And she couldn't be happier about it. The John Gardner Fellowship funds priceless experience abroad for Berkeley grads with a yen for public service

| 10 September 2009

Sasha PippengerJohn Gardner fellow Sasha Pippenger has traveled widely – from Berkeley to Pakistan, and beyond – while preparing for a career in public service. The fellowship makes it possible for recent graduates to get an inside view of how the world really works. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Less than a year after graduating summa cum laude from Berkeley in Peace and Conflict Studies, Sasha Pippenger '08 found herself living and working behind barbed wire in a guarded compound in one of the world's most dangerous cities — Islamabad, Pakistan.

She spent her days behind a desk trying to prod sometimes-recalcitrant bureaucracies into action on behalf of some of Pakistan's 3 million internal refugees. Humanitarian colleagues were killed by a terrorist's bomb. Walking even one block on foot was out of the question, and she chafed at the restrictions she felt as a Western woman in an Islamic republic.

And yet, on a recent stop back in Berkeley, Pippenger said, "For me, this is a dream job."

Her statement may seem at odds with the description of her daily reality. But her three-month stint in Pakistan last spring proved to be an extraordinary opportunity for any new college graduate with the hope of going into public service — and it landed her in a fulltime position doing exactly the kind of humanitarian work she long desired.

In Pakistan as a participant in Berkeley's John Gardner Fellowship program, Pippenger was able to plunge into meaningful refugee- relief work in a crisis-torn region for the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC), a world leader among NGOs engaged in humanitarian aid. She worked closely with an IRC executive, her mentor. And she earned a living as she learned the ropes.

In addition, because of her connection with her mentor, she took a 17-day swing through five Asian capitals, meeting with senior government and business leaders in Tokyo, Beijing, Bangkok, and Jakarta before the last and most fascinating stop of all: war-ravaged Kabul. For a newly minted graduate, the tour provided a rare inside view of the workings of the world.

"There's no way this would have been possible without the Gardner," Pippenger says. "The program resolves the problem of being a new graduate wanting to get into public service: You want to work for your dream organization and you want to do the real work. Most graduates have to choose between the two.

"The Gardner catapults you into the mix."

Big Game brainstorm

The Gardner Fellowship program was founded 25 years ago as a joint Berkeley/Stanford project honoring one of their mutual alumni: John Gardner, a distinguished public servant and social innovator who, among his many achievements during a long career, served as secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Lyndon Johnson, making key contributions to the development of Medicare. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in psychology from Stanford and his Ph.D. from Berkeley.

"The whole idea was hatched at a Big Game," says Terri Bimes, who teaches political science here and co-administers Berkeley's end of the fellowship program through the Institute of Government Studies.

According to Bimes, Berkeley's then-chancellor, Ira Michael Heyman, sat next to Donald Kennedy, Stanford's then-president, and by the final whistle the two had shaken hands on a plan for a fellowship that would encourage students from both universities to devote their lives to the kind of public service Gardner exemplified.

Consistent funding support

The Gardner Fellowship began with foundation and university funding, and a succession of Berkeley chancellors and Stanford presidents have supported it since its start. Each year, three about-to-graduate seniors from Berkeley, along with three from Stan¬ford, are selected. They receive a $27,500 stipend, plus travel and expense money, to cover 10 months working with a mentor in a U.S.-based non-profit or government agency.

The Gardner Fellowship celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2010. The application deadline for fellowship applications for 2010–11 is Feb. 25, 2010. For information, visit The Gardner Fellowship.

Pippenger was one of three Berkeley students selected for the 2008-09 class of fellows. Co-fellow Christina Hisel, who graduated last year with sociology honors and a psychology degree, served on the social-innovations team of the Mercy Corps, an international- development organization based in Portland, Ore. Illness kept the third fellow from participating.

Berkeley's three fellows in the current class, and their fellowship assignments, are Jenny Cooper (the State Department's Office of Global Change); Eyal Matalon (the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based sustainability agency); and Basant Singh Sanghera (the State Department's South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau).

For 2010-11, however, only two Berkeley students will be chosen, because the economy has put a dent in fellowship funding, according to Bimes. Program administrators are seeking ways to close the funding gap for future years.

For Pippenger, two trips to Africa and several months riding an emergency vehicle in Hurricane Katrina-devastated areas had given her a taste for public service even before she arrived at Berkeley from the University of New Hampshire. Then she spent a semester with UCDC, a systemwide program that sends students to Washington, D.C., to learn the workings of government.

Going to Pakistan took things to a whole new level for Pippenger, both because of the danger and because of the enormity of the humanitarian crisis her team faced there: 3 million Pakistanis who have been displaced from their homes by the ongoing war to subdue the Taliban in the mountainous regions near the Afghan border.

Pippenger was one of just three non-Pakistanis on the IRC team providing health, education, and sanitation services to the refugees, and advocating for them with government agencies.

"People assume you're on the front lines handing out food to people," she says. But she spent her time writing briefs and trouble-shooting issues — a latrine shortage in one camp, or discrimination against one group.

The Asia tour was an unexpected bonus, something she got to do because her mentor was invited to do analytical work not related to the IRC — and took her along.

"You can see how opportunities are born of opportunities," Pippenger says, flipping through a passport thick with visas.

When her fellowship ended, the IRC offered her a fulltime job, and she jumped at the chance. By early September she was back at her desk in Islamabad.

With the Gardner, she says, Berkeley puts its money where its mouth is when it comes to public service: "No one wants to pay a new graduate, so Berkeley steps up and pays for a year. Now I have the skill set that allows me to get the kind of work I want. That the Gardner allows you to realize your idealism is a great thing."