I first met Vanessa J. Panaligan at the Women’s Foreign Policy Group Career Fair held at the George Washington University back in February. The plethora of high-minded, career-oriented young professionals with similar interests and a passion for international aid and development, public policy and global affairs were both overwhelming and refreshing. We just broke away from one of the roundtable discussions and she came up to me, and asked about my field experience with LED projects in the Philippines. Turns out, she’s also a fellow Filipina with a strong interest in international affairs and development. I asked her if she was looking for internship placements, and she indicated that she’s done quite a bit of them and this time, she’d like to find some work– to add more momentum to her career as well as to get paid. I smiled to myself. Fair enough. Because once you’ve enriched your resume with volunteer placements encompassing projects in South Africa, the Dominican Republic, and Morocco, along with other accomplishments under your belt, you’re bound to land on to something great; and recently, Vanessa began working in the Middle East Department of the International Monetary Fund.
Born in the Philippines and raised in the United States, she explained that her decision to pursue a career in international affairs and development found its roots from her experiences as an immigrant and her upbringing in multi-cultural environments like Chicago and southern Florida. Currently, she lives in Washington, DC, where she obtained a Master’s degree from Georgetown University. With such grace and modesty, it’s difficult to gauge how accomplished and talented she is, as her humble spirit cloaks her in a shroud of a friendly front with smiles peering through her teeth. But be warned, she is a dark horse with a strong undercurrent, almost with a stealth-like temperament. Vanessa is a force to be reckoned with and here’s a look why:
“I definitely believe that the experiences gained simultaneously from traveling and working or studying contributed to my overall professional enrichment.”
You’ve done quite a bit of internships and volunteered overseas. How has your time abroad shaped your ideas about work/career path? How has it developed your ideas about international affairs?
I first went abroad on my own when I was 18, just a year into my undergraduate program. I had, for quite some time prior to that, realized that I wanted to craft a career in international relations, but was not yet certain about a specialization. These summertime activities abroad, coupled with the courses I selected, helped me to figure things out. They fueled my interests in development and global governance. My work abroad, especially in South Africa, gave me very unique opportunities to observe first-hand, the challenges of development as well as ideas on the possible roles I could assume in my own career. More than anything, this offered me a glimpse into the efforts and goals of grassroots organizations and the ways in which they interact and involve the communities on which they are focused or are serving. I was shown examples of how people and communities can be their own agents for progress and development, particularly those with limited resources or the marginalized. These experiences were quite moving and incredibly valuable especially as I learned, down the line, about the work of larger entities like NGOs and international organizations. I came to appreciate the efforts of various parties engaged in tackling very large-scale challenges like the puzzle of development.
What’s more is that I think that the time I spent abroad, especially in France and Belgium, sort of unexpectedly planted a curiosity about the Arab world and its relations with the West. At that time, the social welfare and cultural adaption of Arab immigrants in Europe piqued my interest, and I relayed that interest back to my studies where I was able to expand upon it with through my research and various projects like my participation in the Soliya Network Fellowship and my visits to Morocco and Egypt. So that’s how my career goals and interests have evolved.
You have varying degree of proficiency in five languages! (English, French, Tagalog, Spanish, and Arabic ). That’s pretty amazing. How has it helped you so far in your career?
My skills in the French language have undoubtedly been the most helpful to me. I was determined to master it because of its importance in global affairs, as it is the working language of countless international organizations, and because it is spoken by millions worldwide. I have used it during my time living in Belgium as well as in my studies in Switzerland and my work in France and Morocco. Through full immersion in those environments, I was able to improve and hone my skills through constant practice.
I even relied on my French in some unlikely places. When I was researching in Egypt, I conducted an interview in French because my Arabic was not quite up to par and neither was the interviewee’s English. He was a Coptic Catholic priest in Cairo who had been educated in a French-speaking environment. So, we were fortunate that we had a common language that allowed us to communicate more effectively.
Since I have also been working on building an expertise in the Arab world, I endeavored to study Arabic. From my experience in working with issues related to the Arab world, having some knowledge of the language has been absolutely beneficial. It has been opening doors to a much keener understanding of Arab culture and society. Communicating in Arabic is essential to understanding what the Arab population is saying and hearing their opinions. Once you are able to communicate effectively, by listening as well as verbally expressing yourself, you break down barriers and give way to the constructive dialogue essential for collaboration.
You graduated from Georgetown University with a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology (specialization in Culture and Globalization). What made you decide to focus on this discipline?
My Bachelor’s degree was in international relations with concentrations on international political economy and the European Union. However, I found I was also interested in many other areas of international relations, such as sectarian conflict and cultural affairs. The CCT program spoke to all these interests and enabled me to see how those seemingly divergent spheres actually overlap.
The program gave me the freedom to craft my own degree. I focused my studies on the ways in which the increased frequency of cultural exchange and interaction influences development as well as interreligious relations.
And as I said earlier, I also honed a background in the Arab world while at Georgetown. I took courses on globalization and development offered by the CCT program, and I complemented them with courses that addressed various issues on the Arab world from the university’s School of Foreign Service. The mentorship of a handful of very astute professors and career counselors also helped me connect this curriculum to my professional goals.
How has your professional development experience thus far influenced your views of international affairs?
From my time studying abroad in Geneva to my traineeship at the European Commission and now at the IMF, my exposure to the work of international organizations has sharpened my insight on global governance, the distribution of influence in global policy-making and international cooperation. I have been able to learn how programs and policies are implemented, how they interact with their constituents, in addition to how daily operations are managed within those organizations.
I also credit my development in the field to the people with whom I have interacted and exchanged ideas, thoughts and experiences, including classmates, professors, the peers I have met at conferences, and other young professionals. From them, I have picked up on new perspectives on issues and received first-hand accounts of their own experiences abroad. Taking into consideration what they had to say added more dimension to my own perceptions and ideas.
Any short term/long term plans? What’s your next step?
I am currently enrolled in a certificate program on equity-focused evaluations in development. In the near future, I would like to acquire more training in the monitoring and evaluation of programs as it is an aspect of the field that I am very interested in developing further. As for long-term goals and plans, I am putting in some very thorough consideration as to whether or not I should pursue further advanced education.
Vanessa has indicated that she’s thinking of writing more articles and papers on issues that keep her up at night, especially inter-religious conflicts and youth capacity building. She’s also considering starting a blog for youth in long-term unemployment or underemployment with the objective of “providing possible ideas, resources, and networks that could help them in their situations,” a matter close to her heart. That’s something to watch out for in the coming months. But for now, you can visit her LinkedIn page at www.linkedin.com/pub/vanessa-j-panaligan/16/a45/488. It seems that there are no signs that she’s slowing down anytime soon. She’s dug in her heels, and is ploughing away.