Elizabeth Quinlan ’10 On the Complexity of Service

November 3, 2014   |   Alumni Post « Back

Elizabeth Quinlan ’10 shares what she discovered as a Princeton in Africa Fellow, and the ways in which Leaving to Serve surprised and challenged her.


When I think of my last day of high school in May 2010, one memory sits in the front of my mind: I’m riding home in my dad’s pickup truck, passing Golden Gate Park and he’s says, “The world is opening up to you, now. There’s no telling where you can go and what you can do.”

Fast-forward four years and a few months, and I’m in my first post-college job serving as a Princeton in Africa (PiAf) fellow in Nairobi, Kenya working for the International Rescue Committee. “Enter to Learn, Leave to Serve,” was certainly an aspiration I looked to fulfill during my formative years at SHC and one that resonated with me countless times throughout college. But there’s no way my 18-year-old self would have guessed that four years later, I’d be on a one-way trip moving 10,000 miles to act on those six words.

I was initially drawn to applying for the PiAf fellowship because its motto: “Service for a year, commitment for a lifetime.” It felt natural to choose a year of service following the completion of my formal education. You might think I had a comprehensive understanding of what ‘service’ means after 13 years of Catholic school and countless service experiences, but you’re mistaken. Surprised? I was, and still am.

Leaving to serve was the best thing I’ve done; it brought me adventures, challenges, triumphs and new friends. It empowered me to deepen my perspective, and ultimately, it allowed me to more critically engage with the issues I want to change in the world.

The first two months of my yearlong fellowship placed me in an 8-5 office job on a laptop blundering my way through Excel sheets and grant reports. It’s been a constant learning-on-the-job experience, at times frustrating and at times gratifying. Number crunching, editing and writing weren’t activities I envisioned when I imagined how I could best serve others. I had a snow-globe-utopian idea of how the humanitarian field functions. I’ve quickly found that the cheap, plastic exterior has shattered to reveal a complicated world of competition, tight deadlines, high expectations and constant communication.

Currently, I am responsible for the grants that support IRC’s programs in the northeastern region of Kenya, which has seen a large influx of South Sudanese refugees in the past few months. In the last two months, I’ve come to know in intimate detail the number of beneficiaries per program, the amount being spent on certain activities, the challenges each site faces, and the issues that are most pressing for some of Kenya’s most remote communities.

While I initially wanted to enter the humanitarian field to know people and their stories—and allow that knowledge to inform how I could best support efforts—I find that I’m here to do a different job. Which brings me back to service. What I’ve found in the short time I’ve been here is that the numbers do matter. They make a difference in accountability, in what projects get more funding or targeted support, in expressing the often desperate and always complicated circumstances at hand in clear terms to those who have the ability to support.

The better the reporting, the stronger the relationship with the donor and the more authentically reality can be represented to those who are not living it. Through my service work, I’ve found compassion in the tedium of numbers and reporting. With that in mind, I’ve revisited my definition of service and am working at expanding my perspective on what it means to use my strengths, gifts and experiences for a cause.

Leaving to serve was the best thing I’ve done; it brought me adventures, challenges, triumphs and new friends. It empowered me to deepen my perspective, and ultimately, it allowed me to more critically engage with the issues I want to change in the world.

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