FALL 2016

Life As It Could Be

Christy Ihlo bypasses a “Traditional” Career Path to pursue her passion in Tanzania

by Christy Ihlo MEM’13

Nicholas alum Christy Ihlo took a huge, but carefully calculated, risk leaving her post as a policy associate at Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions to pursue her passion for international conservation with an NGO in Tanzania. She went as an unpaid six-month intern for the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW). Now she has been hired, with a great promotion, to direct their monitoring and evaluation efforts, a growing sub-field in international conservation. Her story is about developing skills, weighing—and then taking—risks, and building a career in an unexpected way.

Just four days prior, I was having dinner with a friend who asked me if I would ever go back to Tanzania. “In a heartbeat. It would have to be for at least six months, all expenses covered, and my best bet is with the organization I worked with before. But I don’t have any skills they need.”

And then the email about an opportunity landed in my inbox. Six months, all expenses covered, but no salary with the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW), helping to set up their new monitoring and evaluation department. With that email, I hopped on the roller coaster that has been the past year.

I figured I at least had to apply for it, or else I would forever regret not trying. So, I did the standard resume sprucing-up and cover letter writing. I thought they would grant me an interview, especially since I had some skills that could be applicable, thanks in part to my position with the Nicholas Institute.

Six hours after sending in my application, I got a response offering me the position. Floored does not begin to describe how I felt at that moment. After interning with them in 2012, I wanted to work more abroad. But my relative lack of international experience combined with my less-than-stellar language skills meant that road would be a tough one. In fact, I thought the door for that career path was closed. Not only closed, but slammed, triple locked, and sealed by fire! And yet, it had just flown wide open again.

Over the next several weeks, I made one of the hardest decisions of my life, a calculated risk.

That was walking away from my perfectly good position at the Nicholas Institute, with its pay, benefits, and relative stability in this job market, into an unpaid position.

What to do with my apartment? My car? My stuff? My pets? How would health insurance work? Did I really have enough money to sustain me through all of my possible worst-case scenarios? (One of which came frightfully close to coming true when I twisted my foot three weeks in. I thought it was broken and I would be sent home. Thankfully, all was fine.)

I debated, hardcore debated, for weeks. I talked to a lot of people, using every professional resource I had available: Nicholas School professors, career services, alumni services, and colleagues, plus numerous other friends and of course, my family. I was more than a little surprised at the number of people that took time to talk with me, weighing the pros and the cons, asking the tough questions—often through multiple, and long discussions. I tried to cultivate relationships while in graduate school that would be beneficial long-term, and after this experience, I can say I succeeded.

One of the most valuable conversations I had was with the Career Services staff. It centered not on the professional reasons to accept this position, but on the personal reasons to do so. I wanted to challenge myself on both a personal and professional level, contribute something to people that really need it, and directly see the impact of my work (sounds cliché, I know, but it is all true).

I left that conversation knowing that simply doing this for personal reasons was good enough, an outcome that surprised me. There were professional benefits as well, for sure, but also professional risks.

Although I would be on a leave of absence from the Institute, there was no guarantee a job would be waiting when I returned. Lots of things could happen. For example, what if my boss got another job offer and decided to leave the Institute? Would I still have a job? I wasn’t sure. Would the work I was doing abroad translate to domestic employers? Some of my advisors were concerned that this was not a given. Would I be setting myself up for only international work, or work with large international NGOs in cities like Washington, DC, or New York, which was a different career trajectory (and one I wasn’t sure about)?

On the other side, would I regret not taking this opportunity for the rest of my life? What kind of doors might open? Perhaps none. I had no expectation this position would lead to a longer-term paid position. I had no doubt that taking the internship would fulfill some personal needs, and in the end, I decided that—combined with the potential professional benefits—outweighed the risks. So in honor of my 35th birthday, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and jumped off the cliff hoping I was wearing a parachute.

Once I accepted the internship, all concern about the risk dissipated. I still struggled with details, but even most of those fell into place. I was a little concerned about being able to deliver what they were expecting. I wasn’t the ideal candidate. I didn’t have the perfect background. I had never done anything exactly like what they needed. The best thing (I think) I had going for me was having been there before, so they knew I wouldn’t freak out living in the middle of the bush.

Fast forward six months, and I have been offered a salaried twoyear position with significantly greater responsibility, an outcome I certainly could not have anticipated last fall. The prospect of spending the next two years abroad in this role is both exciting and terrifying, a combination I’ve decided means I’ve taken the right risk at the right time.

As the department director, I will oversee all data collection, analysis, and reporting while managing a small team. APW’s programs are highly diverse, meaning we work with a wide variety of data types, collection techniques and analysis methods. Exposure to such diversity will expand my skillsset. That, plus the managerial experience, will prove valuable to the next step in my career, whether it be abroad or back in the United States.

I’ve taken a different sort of path in my career—one that seemed at times to have no particular direction. Along the way I passed none of what I considered “traditional” milestones signifying official entrance into adulthood (marriage, children, owning a home, having a clearly defined career path, etc.), which left me feeling quite lost. But had I any of those things, I would not have had the freedom to jump off the cliff and land in Tanzania for six months, and now two more years.

My decision will be a defining moment for the rest of my career, and now I see my life as “what it could be, not what it should be.”


Christy Ihlo earned her Master of Environment Management degree from the Nicholas School in 2013 with a concentration in Ecosystem Science and Conservation. During her first internship in Tanzania, she blogged about her experience at blogs.nicholas.duke. edu/internshipblogs/ tanzania-2012/.