Friday, February 20, 2015

ETC 2015: Boston

 What is ETC?

It has been a whirlwind of a week for me! I did not realize just how massive this conference would be. The conference has served two purposes. Over summer I was in Belize working with TIDE (Toledo Institute for Development and Environment). To become more financially independent, TIDE has recently launched an expeditions program to create revenue to be directed back into their conservation efforts, as well as their ongoing research projects. TIDE obtained a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation for marketing efforts. Part of this funding went to ETC in Boston (which was by no means cheap- the registration alone was a few thousand dollars for two of us). The point of attending was to find new clients for their expeditions program. 

I was recruited to help as I am involved with TIDE and located just a few hours north of Boston. This is where the second purpose comes in. My entrance to this event meant exclusive access to top notch NGOs and U.S./foreign travel operators that work directly with NGOs on the ground throughout all of Latin America (and the world). For those of you that do not know, the next handful of years my goal is to work in the Latin American environmental NGO sector.

As this is a travel conference, between my duties to TIDE, Tuesday through Thursday I spent networking like crazy, and Friday is when I zeroed in. Spending a week in Boston sounds fun, right? There was so much going on it was more work than play. After a full day of seminars and networking, Tuesday night included a social which was overwhelming with hundreds of people to sort, pin down, and meet. Wednesday was a full day of one-on-one meetings including The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Global Wildlife Conservation, and more. That evening at dinner I spent time with MIT, Harvard, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Syracuse, and UVirginia. This was also the day I acquired a bad cold and felt horrible the rest of the week.

Thursday was much the same routine, and at dinner on the 52nd floor of the Prudential Tower I spent time with a few big U.S. travel operators, and a company that works with National Geographic. Also in attendance as a guest speaker was Pico Iyer, known for his book Video Night in Kathmandu, former writer for Time magazine, current writer for New York Times, and many publications. In my entire academic career, I have never witnessed a speaker at seminars and presentations who is more eloquent. This writer had no visuals, just his voice. And he was mesmerizing to listen to. I will admit, I was a little too intimidated to go up and speak with him at the social events. 

Thursday night dinner I had ONE big goal. Find The Nature Conservancy and finish what I started. Unfortunately between the hundreds of people I was never able to track them down. But I was not returning to Maine until I had completed that goal. On Friday between my networking and meetings for TIDE, I spent my time circling the venue like a hawk waiting for the people I wanted to speak with. While waiting, I ran into the rep for Smithsonian. Had a wonderful conversation with her and made a solid connection. 

Finally I spotted The Nature Conservancy group in the crowd and made my move. While their organization has lots of job opportunities, it is difficult to get in without some sort of connection. And a connection I made. Success also happened in the afternoon when I made good connections with the company that works with National Geographic, some operators who work throughout Latin America, and a couple others. 

Aside from learning a great deal about the travel industry and being able to help out TIDE, I would say this conference was well worth it for all the networking both personally, and for TIDE. I might be exhausted, cold, and sick, but I am content with how the week turned out.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Eye Opening Trip To Asia
By: William York 

I dealt with jetlag and stomach pain, but I learned more about one sociopolitical group than I thought I could ever dream to in my recent travels. As a student studying Asian culture, politics, and economics I have prided myself on knowing so much, yet I now realize the magnitude of Asia and the magnitude that no matter your understanding of a place, you must go there to truly understand it. Even with that you will never master something. Singapore, the crossroads of Asia; truly a worthy title and a breathtakingly beautiful place. This small city-state is a true melting pot of cultures in the form of food, language, and religion. From the back ally restaurants of Little India, the ritzy shopping centers of Bay Sands, or the authentic food and smells of Little China, Singapore remains to be one of the best life experiences.

Yet besides the sites and sounds, I came to Singapore for the purpose to further my studies in understanding Rare Earth’s politics and policy with conjunction in working toward job prospects for after graduation. The 10th Rare Earth Conference is a meeting with leaders in all fields from mining, finance, politics, and environmental protection. It takes a melding of minds to answer the question, “How does the world deal with China and their current ownership of 90% of the world’s supply,” with conjunction, “how do we get the world to notice the importance of these resources”.

First, I would like to address what “Rare Earths” are. Simply, Rare Earths are seventeen different elements. These elements gain their name as “Rare” due to the product they are used in. These elements are used a majority of the time in products such as electronic components in your laptop or cell phone in the conductors and batteries. They are also used in nuclear reactors, solar panels, wind turbines, high strength carbon metals and polishing reagents. Without these elements, we would not be able to have smaller and more powerful electronics or handle the development of green energy sources. Thus, these little-known resources of the 20th and 21st centuries could be noted as a more important resource than petroleum.

In understanding the importance of these resources, you must also understand the policy points of these resources and where my SPIA education has given me such as great step up. Currently, China’s companies control 90% of the Rare Earths, either in mining operation or holdings within country, or in Central Asia and southern Africa. In 2011, China, angered by Japanese actions, placed an embargo on Rare Earth trade with Japan. China would lift the embargo after just one day, but provided the proof of their control of these resources. Since 2011, the international community has been extremely worried, which has created a very volatile marketplace for the buying and selling of Rare Earths. The United States, European Union, and Japan have set standards in place to prevent this from ever happening with respect to security plans to maintain world supplies of Rare Earths.

During this conference I was inclined to talk to leaders in both policy and finance and ask them their thoughts on the current issues. Talking with leaders from Germany, Japan, the United States, and China I had the ability to not only learn about their opinions and issues, but also show my understanding of the issues and show my opinions on what policy points could bring the security of these resources together without infringing on China’s national pride. One of the speakers from the United States gave an overview on China’s national policy on Rare Earths. During lunch I was lucky enough to sit next to him and a gathering of business leaders from China. I made a note that during his presentation he made an error in not making note that Afghanistan did not border China. He then proceeded to argue with me telling me it did not. Thus, I brought up a map showing him the Wakhan Corridor, the boarder, and then went on to tell him how China is currently investing $30 billion in resource extraction projects, and told him of a great piece in the “Economist” about this story. His jaw dropped, and with a large smile he said, “Where did you learn this? How do you know this?” I told him about SPIA, and he shock his head in pride that a little state school could produce such knowledgeable students that could speak up. After a few minutes he excused himself, but not before giving me his business card. The next event was what brought everything together. One of the China’s business leaders at our table looked at me and bowed. He told me in a soft voice, “What you said young man was correct. For you to speak with such confidence is a tribute of good mentors.” His team then all bowed their heads. It was an inspiring experience.

In closing, the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine is a world-class program. Having professors that always ask for more but always give a helping hand to learn and to understand is paramount. With examples like having a professional like Captain Settele drill into our heads with military precision, our program only produces people of the highest caliber who will lead in any project they want to be a part of. With representatives in the Cohan Group, Mercy Corp, United Nations, FBI, and many more we have some of the most qualified students and I am proud to be one of them.

Monday, September 29, 2014


Hello all, I hope you are doing well. As an update of what I have been up to I decided to share with SPIA probably one of the highlights of the beginning of my career and one that was created by SPIA. A couple of weeks ago I got an invitation to join the President of Kenya and other dignitaries at a reception in New York city after the 69th United Nations General Assembly. I was excited about it but kept my cool just in case everything did not work out. Everything did work out and on Thursday September 24th, I was sitting less than 30 feet away from the current President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, the First Lady Margaret Kenyatta and other dignitaries from the Minister International Trade and Foreign Affairs, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Defense, Minister of the Environment as well as Senators, Members of Parliament, Kenya Mission Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador and his Deputy Ambassador and the outgoing Kenyan Embassy in DC Ambassador. You can watch the event on the link provided (you may be able to spot me), the video is slightly long (

I would like to thank SPIA and all its supporters for creating the opportunities that lead to events like this being a possibility for students in its program. Being a former SPIA student I attended a conference in December 2013 by the Kenyan Embassy that was sponsored by SPIA. This conference led to me being able to achieve a goal that Captain Settele and I had in May 2013, which was to meet the President of Kenya. (In the past I had been in the same vicinity as a former president Mwai Kibaki but the recent experience in New York supercedes it.) The current President an alum of Amherst College encouraged the Kenyans living in the US to look for opportunities to bring them back home and assist in building Kenya. My favorite quote from the President was, "It is not the wealth that is beneath our ground that makes us great or that gives us potential, it is the wealth that walks on the ground that actually is our greatest potential. It is our human capacity that we should be focusing on." I found myself enthralled by the ease in which the President spoke, his laid back, approachable, relatable and charismatic persona. He also told jokes in Swahili and did not follow a scripted speech. The First Lady added to the charm through her grace, eloquence and humility. If I was ever waning in my duty to the country of my birth for a couple of minutes all doubts were cast aside.

During his speech the president mentioned how during his time in College he was invited to a similar event and heard the then President Daniel Moi call out to the people in the diaspora to return to Kenya and so he did.  He called for solidarity among Kenyans to pull together our ability, exposure, experience and technical know how to be the vanguards of creating the Africa of the future. He spoke of how we can transform the country through entrepreneurship, innovation and opportunities learned from the US so that we can help develop our motherland and find better solutions to the challenges facing the country. (This may have been a determinant in him choosing his current cabinet, as it is interesting to note that most of the Ministers have been educated abroad). I do not know if I would have had the same opportunity in Kenya to interact with the President in the manner that I did in New York as a member of the diaspora but I am fortunate to have been able to. 

My parting shot: I forgot to publish my final blog from the summer but here it is.
The last of the internship: Right after the conference coalition mapping begun which was finding out the scope and reach of the coalition members of the NEC, how many constituents they interact with and what their focus is and how it ties into the mission of NEC. The Annual Board retreat also took place with the three new Board members being voted in by the Board. There are also a few organizational structural changes that are happening. I am still plugged into NEC and the New Economy movement and would like to eventually become more involved with them. Through NEC I have been able to connect with Corporate Accountability International and Shareable cities and Tatua Kenya in Nairobi. They patiently await my return to discuss what I have learned and bring to them. However all my great plans got  a 12 week hold.

Thanks to working with NEC and being exposed to their constituent relationship management software system Salesforce I was hired for an apprenticeship with a company that works with nonprofits in implementing the software system and advice on business process. I am still in Boston and will be here until October which by then I would have earned my certification as a salesforce administrator. In my new position I am learning how to streamline nonprofits organizational needs using technology, Salesforce. Take a look at salesforce here ( They have a conference coming up in October called dreamforce featuring keynote sessions by Hilary Clinton, Al Gore, Marc Benioff and Tony Robbins ( I am hoping to be able to make it to the conference as it focuses on an interconnected world.

I have to say I have wide ranging experience but never did I think I would end up being so captivated by technology. In my time at 501 Partners I have met and interacted with local, national and international nonprofits that are using Salesforce and related apps. This is an opportunity I could not pass up because of the tremendous possibilities that it offered. The Salesforce foundation currently does not have any presence in Africa and having worked with the software at my internship I am having a better understanding of how powerful it can be in transforming business and organizational processes to enable them to concentrate on their mission. In class we talked about how technology had the power to revolutionize the world in the 21st century and I am experiencing that being immersed in Boston and with a technology company. A few ties from the city on research coming from MIT and Harvard that is finding usefulness in Africa. I also hope to meet Calestous Juma who presented at the Camden Conference and is leading in Agricultural innovation in Africa. I am hoping to refine my knowledge on how to effectively make an impact in Kenya by taking advantages of the opportunities that are available here in Boston.

If you should find yourself in Boston in the next couple of weeks feel free to drop me a line and I can talk about some of the great nonprofits I am interacting with before I find my way home…

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Final Blog Post From D.C.

By Ian McDonnell

After a tough but rewarding summer, I packed up my few belongings and departed from Union Station at 2am on a Sunday. I had a long time to reflect on the experience, considering the bus ride was over 14 grueling hours and I forgot a book. Many of the great things that happened these past few months have been covered in previous posts, so I will focus on things learned and skills sharpened.

Here are a bunch of those things right in a row as a nice sample: there are no rough drafts outside of academia; if you are only on time, you’re late; it is very easy to spend a lot of money while living in the city; you can never, ever be unprepared for anything; people like to work with other people who aren’t jerks; wear suits all the time because girls will check you out 70% more; Shake Shack is fantastic, but not for your health; live near the metro/Harris Teeter when in DC; never turn down a free lunch (as if that even needed to be said); and many more that only come with the premium subscription to the SPIA Abroad blog.

Looking forward, I have one more academic year in which I can target and acquire specific skills, namely those that I now know are important in the business world. My writing improved, but I still done need to get betterer. I need to expand my repertoire of sources when it comes to research; gone are the days in which World Bank Data stuffed into a graph is adequate. On a related note, doing wizardly things in Excel proved to be a valuable skill this summer, evidence of the importance of a math degree perhaps? There is always room for improvement however, and throwing a few macros or low-level coding into the arsenal could pay off in future endeavors.

All in all, the summer was great, and the internship experience was an extraordinary opportunity in innumerable ways.

I do have to say that Maine has a few things the big city does not. The day after I returned to Bangor I climbed Mt. Katahdin on an 80-degree and windless day and saw no signs of civilization. Another driver on a one-lane dirt road politely backed up and pulled into the woods to let me by. I bought a sandwich for less than 8 bucks. I have seen zero cockroaches, etc. etc. etc. What Maine does not have are the amazing career opportunities I was given in DC; and the network of intelligent and accomplished people there was impossibly vast. I would count myself lucky to be among them someday.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Until We Meet Again, Belize

8/12. About every five years, sections of the Rio Grande River are GPS habitat mapped and a color coded map is compiled showing the overall health. This includes point source pollution, farm land close to the river banks, slash and burn, water quality, and tons more. We took off early in the morning and began our journey down the river in kayaks in the middle of a huge storm. I was worried my kayak was going to fill with water and sink because it was raining so hard! Kayaking down a river sounds relaxing, does it not? Not in a rainforest. It was a constant battle of crashing through vines, navigating around and under fallen trees, complete with spiders and lots of different kinds of bugs continually falling on me. And it was fun! Minus the giant spiders. It’s a really cool feeling to actually be out in the field knowing it is not just a classroom experiment and that the data you are collecting is actually being used.

8/13. Day two of river bank monitoring. My arms are so sore from yesterday that it was a struggle at the end of today. Got lots of scrapes and bruises trying to navigate the river. Later in the day we packed up and headed to the private lands for reforestation and ecosystem rehabilitation work.

8/14. After two days of kayaking, I turned out pretty useless with a shovel today. The boys worked long and hard shoveling and scooping mud, the women used the day for some shut eye and painting some educational signs.

8/15. Woke up early this morning and headed up the river for reforestation work. For years farmers were using land close to the river banks and this caused lots of erosion, habitat loss, and biodiversity loss. TIDE takes this land and plants native species of trees and fruit trees along the banks to recreate a stable environment. As we went up the river the rangers pointed out what trees were planted x years ago, y years ago, z years ago. It was incredible to see the difference and the impact that has already been made. Hiking, digging holes, and planting trees is no easy task when its boiling hot out with no wind and you cannot jump in the river because there are crocodiles. A little upset I have not gotten to see a crocodile yet. After that work we packed up and headed back to BF. 

8/16. Today was a bit of a free day so a group of us caught the bus into PG, hung out in town (aka wifi), and did errands. Turns out the bus time we were planning on taking home doesn’t run on Saturdays, but luckily our awesome friend Bevington took care of us and got us headed in the right direction. We then all decided to go out for a fun night. At our first bar I was walking down a staircase that had water on the stairs (sober), slipped and fell the entire way down the staircase. I have a bruise the size of a soccer ball. It was so embarrassing as everyone in the room paused and looked over at me. My cohort could not stop laughing.

8/18. Because turtle high season is almost over, today we headed out to Moho Caye to spend a WHOLE week camping on the island in cabanas. This decision was made because the cayes we monitor for turtles are closer to Moho and we will be spending all night into the mornings patrolling. The cabanas are incredible! It’s almost like Bora Bora, the cabanas are over the water with incredible sunrise and sunset views. No electricity. Dropped our belongings off early in the morning and headed out to Abalone to get the dive gear. We did two conch monitoring dives then headed back to Moho for dinner. After dinner we went out and did night beach patrols for turtles. The stars were incredible tonight! 

Our cabana on the island

8/19. Did not do any dives today, but we did go out for some incredible snorkeling and hung out on the island.

8/20. While we waited for the boat to pick us up from the island we went kayaking and snorkeled from some of the closer islands. Today we finished the last two conch monitoring dives.

8/21. Our last Thursday in Belize. Incredibly sad. Today we started sea cucumber monitoring dives. No one in Belize eats sea cucumbers, but recently it has become popular to harvest as this is an Asian delicacy. They have an ongoing research project to monitor the impact of sea cucumber harvesting. This involves two teams, one on each side of the anchored boat dropping a cement block with a buoy attached to it. A tape is then attached to the buoy and about every four meters until we hit 11.28 meters, we travel in a circular pattern looking for sea cucumbers. If one is found, its length and width is measured, then taken up to the boat to measure its weight. Much easier than the conch monitoring dives. Out of the 19 research dives, whatever we do not get to the research team will finish for us. Tonight we started all night beach patrols. Our group was split into two and we spent all night until 5:00am patrolling two different Cayes. This was not all fun and play. The wind made it very cold, and the sand flies are treacherous little creatures. Oh and the occasional rain. The reason for these patrols is a group called EcoMar provided TIDE with a turtle tracking tag (not cheap by the way). This group is interested in the Hawksbill turtle, so not only did we have to watch for a turtle to come up to the beach and lay its eggs, but we were looking for a particular species as well. Did not see any turtles tonight, but we did get to see the sunrise from Moho Caye!

8/22. Woke up in the afternoon, and went on a fun dive. This dive was a max depth of 60 feet and the corals/fish we saw were gorgeous! The biggest fire corals I have yet to see here. Tonight we did an all-nighter beach patrol again. I was just about asleep on the beach when at 12:30am Javier went to water the plants and came running back saying “I think we missed a turtle”! We went to investigate and there were turtle tracks, the turtle was just digging its hole to lays her eggs! Waited half an hour to confirm it was a Hawksbill turtle, then the boat went to pick up the second team on another Caye who had the tag gear. Ever tagged a turtle? Sounds a lot easier than it is. The men had a hard time getting the turtle, then once it was stabilized on the cooler they had to physically hold it in place as the turtle was trying to use its powerful limbs to escape. The whole process took about three hours as we had to clean the shell, apply the glue, wait for it to dry, put another layer on, wait for it to dry, and release the turtle back into the water. Started at 2:00am and finished at 5:30am. We were some tired little campers once we reached our cabanas. 

4am waiting for the glue to dry

8/23. Woke up in the afternoon and went for two fun dives. The first dive was a deeper dive at about 60 feet, and the second dive was a shallower dive. I was finally able to take my iPhone on a dive! It’s been hard because we have either been doing research dives or the dives have been too deep for the phone to go. Surfacing was very bitter-sweet as it was officially our last dive before we return to our respective homes. Once I was back on the boat, I realized I will leave something forever in Belize. On my very LAST dive, one of my diamond earrings managed to fall out. I consider it a gift to the reefs. To celebrate our last night on the island we had some fun and relaxed the whole night.

Iphone photos underwater :)

8/25. Spent the day in town last minute shopping and enjoying the day. Tonight we are going out for a big dinner, relaxing tomorrow, then Wednesday we depart Belize. It’s been fun, it’s been real, and I am very sad to leave. Gained some awesome friends, had wonderful experiences, and now as this chapter closes, the next chapter of my last year of grad school begins. If I have my way, after graduation I will be back in Belize for six months. 

Sunrise on the island