Good Profile – Krystina Nguyen (US Peace Corps – Cameroon)

Good Profiles feature members of our Good Generation who are either out there in the field doing interesting work or still in the trenches of schools and institutions waiting to make their mark on the world. Have your own story to tell? Know someone who would be great to be profiled? Please sign-up or leave a note here!

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What are you up to nowadays?

I’m currently serving as a Small Business Advisor for the US Peace Corps in Ngaoundere, Cameroon.  The Peace Corps is an independent U.S. government agency that places volunteers in developing countries in various sectors across business, education, health, agriculture, environment, and community development. Peace Corps Volunteers serve for 27 months (two years of service after three months of technical, cultural, and language training) living at a level next to those they are serving. Each Volunteer is placed with a partner organization and can branch out to various other projects in the community. I will be finished with my contract in July 2012.

There are currently two core competencies for my Community Economic Development division: 1) Enhance opportunities for income generation and 2) Build local capacity for economic growth.

My partner organization is MC2, a microfinance organization found throughout Cameroon.  I serve as a consultant on various projects including strategic community outreach, benchmarking the loan review process, and training staff in IT.  I also manage and organize micro-credit cooperatives in the VSLA model; when individuals are too illiterate or marginalized for a traditional microfinance institution, the cooperative provides access to credit, a mechanism for saving, and an opportunity for low-risk investment.  As youth under twenty-five years old make up 60% of Cameroon’s population, I work with A2Empowerment to provide scholarships and income-generative activities for teenage girls who have dropped out of school.  My last weeks will be spent overseeing the final logistics to organize a market for a community of 8,000 people.

That being said, every Peace Corps position, even within the same division, is different. This is because the needs of each community and each Volunteer are different.

How has this experience shaped your career plans upon completion of your service?

Before Peace Corps, I worked in economic development and microfinance and had planned on returning back to those industries; however, I have come to love the roles that I have now as a consultant and project manager.  Thus, I’m heavily considering the nonprofit consulting side that allows me to continue working on various projects and diverse clients.  At the same time, I feel that many professionals who start directly in the nonprofit sector are tantalized by the idea of entering the private sector for a different environment.  I have much to think about over the next few months!

Since Volunteers serve on the ground level for such an extended time, the Peace Corps experience really makes you consider your role in development professionally and personally. No matter what opportunity I will pursue after this, I will have to be involved in service work throughout my life in one way or another.

What do you love most about your job?

I love that I have the opportunity to thoroughly understand local problems on a first-hand basis and do something about them.  I’m not just “helping people,” but those very same people I’m helping are my neighbors and friends.

Yes, there can be frustrations as you also see the failure of development; however, the achievements are so rewarding.  For example, one of the poorest farmers in my micro-credit cooperative regularly takes a $10 loan to buy corn to grind into flour. Before the cooperative, she had zero resources to access capital because she is illiterate.  As she makes less than $10 a week, the profit from the loan increases her net income by 60%.  A local teacher, who is struggling herself, found me and together we were able to provide girls who dropped out of school due to pregnancy and poverty the opportunity to re-enroll in high school.  It’s these experiences that make the job worthwhile – the opportunity to directly impact people to pull themselves onto a higher rung on the economic ladder.

I also love the enormous amount of relationship-building and freedom with this job – it’s my choice to work with multiple teams and people on a variety of projects. Thus, the environment forces me to listen well to the needs of the community and be creative and flexible with solutions. No two days are alike and no one can to predict exactly what you will do.

What would you wish were different about your service experience?

I can genuinely say that I’ve loved working with the Peace Corps including all the ups and downs, bad days and good days. That being said, I think I would have been more careful with my expectations.  In reality, few community members may be available or motivated for development projects due to their respective circumstances.  Though public service and grassroots development are fulfilling paths, they are by no means easy.  It’s not instant gratification all the time.  There are just as many challenges as in any other occupation with the added task of fighting poverty, promoting equality, etc.  However, I believe it’s these types of challenges that make the job so rewarding.

In general it would be great to clear up various viewpoints that I’ve heard about the Peace Corps. Though the average age of a Volunteer is 28, people join at varying points of their lives from straight out of college to mid-level of their careers to after they are retired; thus, everyone is here for different reasons, but is able to serve the same purpose. That is the beauty of it. Everyone’s experience varies so much.  We’re neither heroes nor hippies; we’re neither saints nor slackers.  We’re just normal people taking on an extraordinary experience.

What were some of the most important past experiences that you’ve had that led you to where you are today?

It was during college at USC’s Marshall School of Business, where I learned that business and public service could go hand in hand.  While involved with Troy Camp, I used techniques I learned in the classroom to create press kits, partner with local businesses, and cultivate sponsor relationships to promote our milestone year of mentoring 10,000 youth in South and East Los Angeles. As a class project, I also had the opportunity to work with a team to provide pro-bono consulting to a local minority-owned business.  I knew then I could make a career based around social good.

In hindsight, perhaps one of the best things that happened in my career was when my Peace Corps medical clearance became delayed.  That allowed me to work in New York in domestic microfinance and economic development, which not only provided a solid base for my current work, but provided opportunities to join alumni clubs and professional organizations such as Women Advancing Microfinance. Through various events and professional panels, I was able to learn about industry trends and meet seasoned professionals that could serve as mentors. Even if it was just a few minutes over coffee, everyone imparted knowledge that is so invaluable for any young professional to hear.

How did you get this opportunity?

I spoke to several Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, attended numerous recruiting events, and scoured the internet before deciding this was right for me.  Sub-Saharan Africa was my top choice, so I took additional French language classes in addition to being active outside of work and school.  The process includes the application, an interview, and medical and legal checks to find a right “fit” with a country and program that works with your professional, educational, and personal background.  It averages a year for most people, but I’ve known colleagues who applied and left for service within four months, while it took me two years.  I had to be extremely persistent in the process.

There is a trade-off of taking yourself away from a “normal” 9-5PM office job. Most people understand why professionals move from the private sector to the nonprofit sector, but most people may not understand why an American would move from the US to a developing country.  Be ready to critically think how a two-year service with the Peace Corps will play into your career and be able to express that to employers and even family and friends.

There are also the obvious trades-offs: lack of luxuries, separation from home, and foregoing a traditional American salary.  Volunteers also face varying degrees of trade-offs amongst themselves: in today’s globalized world, it is not uncommon for someone to live in a city and have regular access to internet, yet have a more difficult time integrating into the community.  At the same time, a Volunteer living in a village may not have electricity, but is well-integrated into their site.  Either way, you are stronger than you think!

If you had to make trade-offs, do you think they were justified or should it be different for others in the same situation going forward?

For me, the intangible benefits far outweighed any physical discomforts.  I find the transferable skills I’ve developed here – such as project management, resourcefulness, and communication amongst diverse cultures – incredibly valuable to forming my story, both professionally and personally.  This was a decision that I’ve thought about for years and I can genuinely say that I’m happy.  Imagine a situation where all you have are people: no computers, no electricity, and no literacy – what can you do?  Use and apply yourself. No one can take that away from you or the community.

If you did not have this job and time/money were not a constraint, what would you ideally like to do?

I’m exactly where I want to be, but if not, I would go home and spend time with my family and friends as they were my support throughout this entire experience.  I’ve learned that no matter what it is that you do professionally, it’s the people and the relationships that matter most.

Finally, what advice would you have for others in the Good Generation who are interested in what you did?

Before Joining

Joining the Peace Corps is more than just a job – it’s a life decision. There is a degree of flexibility involved, but I’d recommend holding out for a position that you truly want.  I discussed with my recruiter from the start (and he saw from my background and education) that I was interested in Business Advising opportunities as opposed to Agroforestry or Health opportunities (which I had friends with business backgrounds take simply because they wanted to leave as soon as possible).  Have patience, a backup plan, and take the initiative to inquire about your file. This is the same advice that could be applied once you are in service as well!

During Service

You will not “save the world” in a two year service. However, you can make a positive impact. Remember that projects will only work if you listen to what is needed.  Don’t be afraid of failure. It will happen anyway, but so will the successes!

Know why you’re choosing to serve and what you want out of the experience. In your hardest days, remembering these reasons will be the greatest sources of resilience.

And don’t forget…

Do something for yourself as well. The most successful people I know are also the most interesting. Practice yoga, write a blog, learn an instrument, etc. and let it be your outlet.

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*Have your own story to tell? Know someone who would be great to be profiled? Please sign-up or leave a note here!

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7 thoughts on “Good Profile – Krystina Nguyen (US Peace Corps – Cameroon)

  1. Javier says:

    I am duly impressed with your ability to see the big picture in all of your decisions. You sound like an amazing person Krystina. I am sure your future will be as bright as your smile!

  2. Big Steve says:

    Great advice on being a PCV. Very insightful.

  3. Lawrence F. Lihosit says:

    It’s never too early to think about the Third Goal. Check out Peace Corps Experience: Write & Publish Your Memoir. Oh! If you want a good laugh about what PC service was like in a Spanish-speaking country back in the 1970’s, read South of the Frontera: A Peace Corps Memoir.

  4. This is very inspirational! As a fellow Trojan who has been invited to serve in Cameroon this coming May, you provided valuable insight. I too am assigned as a small business advisor volunteer. I am excited/nervous/anxious…along with other range of emotions about my upcoming service. I hope we can link up!

  5. sahelit says:

    This is awesome. As a fellow trojan who has been invited to serve in Cameroon this coming May, I have found your insight invaluable. I hope we can link up! 🙂

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