Elizabeth Ross '09
Elizabeth graduated from Calvin in 2009 with a degree in international development studies. After spending time in Costa Rica, her interest in sustainable agricultural development led her to Texas, where she currently works with the Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition.
What sparked your interest in international development?
I started out as a political science major, interested in international relations and foreign affairs. I was extremely interested in travel and in learning about developing countries, and my advisor recommended I explore international development as a major. After my IDS intro class, I was hooked. I'd always had a passion for social justice and education and health care and food security, and the IDS classes I took showed me how I could use those passions in a career. I became convinced that international development was the route for me during my semester abroad in Thailand. I saw political issues unfolding before me, encountered environmental protection issues and land rights, experienced coastal degradation firsthand, and came to know some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. I loved everything about that semester - the language, the views, the expeditions, the coursework, the field studies, the food (oh, the food!), the host families, the adventures.
Describe your path since graduation.
Very shortly after graduating, I moved to Costa Rica as a mission volunteer through the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). I spent a year in the small town of La Guacima de Alajuela, serving in community development, mainly in the youth area. While there, I realized that although I had a lot of knowledge on development work as a whole, I lacked a specific field or specialization. I felt inadequate in my work and wanted something practical to focus on. I had already begun to recognize a lot of the issues surrounding food while in Thailand, and my experience in Costa Rica confirmed my passion to work within food systems and development. After moving back to the States, I searched for internships or educational opportunities in sustainable agricultural development. My search led me to Waco, Texas, where I interned at World Hunger Relief, Inc (WHRI) for two years. At WHRI, I spent my days milking goats, growing vegetables, and educating others on the realities of hunger and poverty. I found a lot of need in the city of Waco, and felt called to stay for the time being to work on food issues in the city.
What are your current activities, and what is your official position where you are working now?
Currently I am on staff with the Heart of Texas Urban Gardening Coalition, whose mission is to strengthen the local food system, improve access to healthy food, and empower folks to grow their own. As a part of my position, I direct the community garden at Baylor University. This garden is part of the Campus Kitchens project, which rescues prepared, but not served, food from the dining halls and donates it to local shelters and kitchens. The garden teaches students how to grow, harvest, and cook fresh, local produce and the food they cook is donated to after-school programs and abuse shelters.
As is the nature of the non-profit realm, my financial support comes from a third-party organization, which has its own set of responsibilities. The Family Health Center of Waco has a Community Health Corps program, similar to the Peace Corps, but stationed in the U.S. and specificaly centered on health care. Through Community Health Corps, I am the Healthy Futures Coordinator, responsible for cooking and nutrition classes and garden demonstrations for health center patients and families. It gets a little complicated to explain everything my position entails, but I absolutely love what I'm doing.
What is your most memorable experience in the field?
This field of work is NEVER boring and is chocked full of memories, laughter, tears, and a whole lot of joy. I think some of my favorite memories are from teaching garden club. There was one week when we harvested a hefty amount of collards from our school garden. The kids wanted to sell the greens at the farmer's market to make a little money. We sold maybe $3 worth of greens, but the kids were so proud! When we asked what they would like to do with it, we expected them to ask for pizza or candy. No, no. They decided they were going to buy more seedlings with the money so that they would have more vegetables in the garden so that they could give those extra vegetables to hungry people. One small second grader said, "Why don't we buy seeds and TEACH people how to grow their own food, then they'll never be hungry again?" I could have cried. In fact, I may have. That one second grader summed up my four-year development studies degree. It was truly a beautiful moment.
How has your faith influenced your work in development?
I could not work in development without a strong foundation in Christ. Development is not an easy field to be in, and I am not sure if I could handle it without full reliance on the Lord. My faith drives my work. My desire to build the kingdom through development work influences my decisions to take low-paying, often below the poverty line, positions. My love of Christ and of His teachings and His example direct the way in which I lead my life every day.
What is your favorite aspect of Calvin and what do you wish you would have done differently while attending Calvin?
I love that Calvin is a liberal arts school. It gave me the opportunity to explore several different disciplines and gave me foundational knowledge in multiple fields. I wish I'd have taken more classes. I discovered my passion for food and agriculture just before my senior year, but I was so anxious to graduate that I didn't really consider adding any extra classes to my load. I could have gleaned a lot of wisdom by just taking one or two extra classes in that final year.
I definitely would have paid more attention in my language classes, and I would have taken more advantage of international interims.
What advice or words of hope and wisdom would you give to current IDS students?
Never take a class for the sole reason of it being an easy A. The class I learned the most in was the hardest class I ever took, and I was absolutely thrilled to get a B-. My challenging classes are the ones that gave me the information that I now use on a daily basis.
Learn a second (or third) language. Don't just take the beginner required classes. Take all the classes you can. And then go abroad where you are forced to use that language on a daily basis. It will be one of your best IDS career moves, trust me.
Talk with your advisor. A lot. Not just when you're told to. As much as possible. Tell him/her what you're passionate about. Ask for advice. Ask about potential internships. Ask about overseas programs. Inquire about post-grad opportunities. Ask your professors. Keep up with professors after you've graduated - they will be one of your best resources for professional development, job opportunities, references and moral support.
A background in development is a wonderful thing to have, but having a particular focus within the development field makes seeking a career so much more fun. Minor in business, economics, environmental studies, gender studies, education, journalism, nutrition, photography - take what you are passionate about, and incorporate it into your fieldwork. You will love what you do.
It is a hard field to be in. But it is SO worth it.