Name: Mary Cobb
Education: B.A. in Biology, Bellarmine College
MPH in International Health and Development, Tulane University School or Public Health and Tropical Medicine
SFS Program: Kenya Fall ’96
Why did you choose SFS as a study abroad program?
SFS was appealing to me because of the unique campus locations (Kenya!) compared to other study abroad options and the really specialized focus on ecology and natural resource management that I was interested in.
What did you gain from your SFS experience?
So much! Great friends, of course. Amazing memories and adventures, and the chance to thoroughly explore a part of the world most people never get the chance to see. I think study abroad programs in general really push students to be a little more independent, self-reliant, and aware of the world, and SFS definitely allowed me to do that. I also learned a tremendous amount in the classroom as well as outside the courses. Not just the science, but aspects of anthropology, social and cultural themes, the importance of putting local people’s perspective front and center when trying to help solve a problem, and even language skills. Some of the other students and I really worked hard to learn as much Swahili has possible. I’ve used MANY of my SFS lessons throughout my career and still do today.
What is your most profound or lasting memory from your SFS program?
There are many. Everything from game drives to our directed research projects to making great friends with other students from all over the country. A lot of my most vivid memories are not really of specific events but of feelings I had in certain moments, like pitching a tent under the most unbelievable sunset I have ever seen before or since, watching a cheetah chase its prey, and quiet early morning birding walks with my friends.
What advice would you give to a prospective SFS student?
Go for it! There is really no other experience like this. You’ll be inspired by everything: your surroundings, the staff and instructors and other students, and the travel and discovery. But it’s not just travel, because you’ll get to know that place better than you could just travelling there on your own. And, you’ll get college credit. What’s not to love?
What do you do for work?
I am the director of a refugee resettlement office.
What does that actually entail on a daily basis?
Refugees are people who have been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence. Each year, the federal government selects a small percentage of the world’s refugees and – after a long screening and vetting process – invites them to permanently resettle in the United States. Refugees are authorized to work right away and have a path to citizenship, so they’re on a good path, but they are starting their lives all over again, which is a huge effort, and the role of a resettlement agency is to help them through that process. We assist with everything a newcomer family needs to get settled, from meeting them at the airport, setting up a home, cultural orientation and English language training, connecting to local medical and social services, enrolling the kids in school, helping with job preparation/job search, etc. so that they can become self-sufficient here in the US. These families have gone through circumstances I can only imagine, but most are so resilient and do amazingly well here; within several months of arriving they are working, getting around on their own, kids are thriving in school, making friends, and the parents feel like they are finally safe and able to provide for their families.
Normal days could include anything from meeting with clients in the office or on a home visit to see how they are settling in, helping set up an apartment for someone about to arrive, writing service plans and reports or for our funders, speaking with community groups about refugees and how they can help, fundraising, budgeting, promoting our programs through media or social media, helping staff troubleshoot problems, etc. No two days are the same.
Did your SFS experience contribute to where you ended up?
Absolutely. SFS was really a major step for me on a career path focused on international development and humanitarian work. It sort of opened the door to the world in some ways. During my SFS semester, some classmates and I happened to meet a Peace Corps Volunteer living in the most beautiful countryside in Uganda. I was enthralled with the idea of having my own hut somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa for 2 years. So I did it. I applied for Peace Corps not long after returning from SFS, and left for Lesotho (southern Africa) on my college graduation day. From there I completed a master’s degree, focused on international issues, and then joined the foreign service as a USAID officer. After many years of that in several countries, I decided to come back to work on community development and social issues at home. I never thought I would get the chance to work with international/humanitarian-related issues back in Kentucky, so when an opportunity in refugee resettlement arose and I jumped at it. Bonus: I get to use the Swahili that I learned at SFS! Although I didn’t ultimately pursue wildlife ecology as a profession, the lessons that SFS taught me about looking at problems from different perspectives, honoring local perspectives, and working with people have all been valuable throughout my career.
What advice do you have for other SFS alumni looking to get into your field?
Refugee resettlement is a great line of work. It is interesting, rewarding, challenging, and gives you the chance to work with amazing people. I’m not sure I really have advice about it, except that if it’s something you hadn’t considered working on but are interested in, find the resettlement office(s) in your city and look into it. You can start as a volunteer if you just want to get involved and see what it’s like.