Working for an NGO During a Pandemic

Nichanun (Nat) Puapattankajorn C’22, a Philosophy, Politics and Economics major from Bangkok, Thailand, worked alongside the Public Policy team at Girls Inc for her Fox Fellowship during the summer of 2020. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the fellowship to be remote, Nat was able to embrace the opportunity and learned about how a world-class Non-Governmental Organization shifts their operations during such uncertain times.  It was also a unique time to work at Girls Inc as they focused much of their programming and their work around the 2020 election.


You completed a fellowship with Girls Inc. this past summer. Tell me a little bit about what Girls Inc. is and what you had the opportunity to do in your fellowship.

Girls Inc., they kind of represent themselves as is an NGO that represents the girls that they are serving. They're broken into two parts, the national, overall overarching office and the regional offices. The regional offices work with underprivileged girls from different communities. They work in those specific communities and provide after school programs. They provide leadership programs for these girls and develop their skill sets and work with their families to help the girls build themselves towards being stronger, bolder, and smarter girls in the future. The national office is there to support these regional offices. I was working for was the policy office in the national office where we basically communicate with people in Washington DC. We communicate with the government while also communicating with these girls on the local level about what they want, what they need, and what kind of policies would be good things to push forward to represent the girls. It's a kind of this NGO system that's doing really big, holistic work while at the same time serving these specific curriculums and specializations for girls to develop and empower themselves.

I know you worked remotely because of the pandemic. What did you end up doing as part of your fellowship?

I think my role is definitely super different compared to what it would be in a normal summer. But what I ended up doing mostly was just a lot of policy research, jumping into calls, and helping to assist with any administrative work that they needed done. So, I got the opportunity to kind of like learn how to use this system of sending emails and stuff like that - I think it's called Quorum. And then I also learned how to be on the calls – like the coalition calls or the government calls - where people are talking about issues. People were talking about updates about what was happening that day or in that week on the Hill. It was a lot of note taking, a lot of learning, while also at the same time, as I worked on personal projects, a lot of researching and helping to come up with the policy points. I also got to engage with their blog where I could write about things that I was passionate about. It was a very interdisciplinary kind of internship where I really just got to define my work and contribute in any way possible. It was super flexible depending on just what you wanted to do, but what you end up really learning is how NGO organizations work, as well as also how research policy and how government works in terms of serving their constituents.

What type of blog post did you write up?

I wrote one about voting which is so funny because technically I am American so I get to vote. But I'm also not American, in the sense that I've never really fully lived there, but I got to write a blog post about what barriers prevented people from being able to vote. Especially young voters and how you could overcome these barriers on your own. I think that was because this year was a voting year so it was super important for Girls Inc. to convey that message and a lot of girls and a lot of NGO organizations were doing work on getting people to vote. That was really fun. I got to write policy points and checklist on what you can do if you want to become a voter and be engaged with politics in America.

What do you feel like you learned through your fellowship?

The first thing that I learned was what really goes on with policy making and how to make something real. It's really difficult and I think you really feel the pain when you're in that situation. You really know how things are and how difficult it is to get people to listen you to you when there's so many things going on in the world.  But you need to be this interest group that goes in and represents a group of individuals. So that was both hard but also really rewarding. And I guess the second thing for me personally was just how positive a work environment it was because I always imagined work as a little bit scary. I always thought you have to do your job, you figure out how to do it and you're on your own. But the team at Girls Inc. were really supportive. They were really nice and they're really like ‘Hey what do you need? What can we do to help you?’

What surprised you about your experience?

N: The first thing is probably that they were so nice. I think like one of the biggest things that surprised me was just that I've always seen NGO work as a way for me to contribute to society but going into it -  this might not necessarily be a good thing but - seeing how much pushback you can get on initiatives. You can put all this effort into something that doesn’t necessarily materialize. That surprised me. I guess you have to expect at a certain level when you're talking about like working with government officials, they don't have time for you. But it definitely surprised me a little bit that when you put in effort it doesn't result in the same kind of thing. But that's kind of the nature of a job and the nature of a world where there is limited space and time and interest and a lot of things to fix. So that definitely took me aback and really made me evaluate how I saw the world and what I want to do going forward.

I'm curious how does the fellowship, if at all, connect to your future plans for yourself?

Well, I think unfortunately it left me more confused than I initially was, but it really depends on the person and it's okay that I'm a bit more confused about what I want to do in the future. But it definitely connected to what I like to study in school. This semester I was able to do a whole research project based on the effectiveness of NGOs. It's definitely super fun to use what I know and research a little bit more about it. But in general, I think it also kind of gave me a humanizing aspect to what I study. I think a lot of times when you study something academically it makes you try to be objective about things and it makes you want to see it from an academic point of view. What is good, what is bad. But when you actually work in an NGO, you see all the effort and everything you do isn't just about what is good and what is bad. It is actually affecting someone, so it really humanized it and it really gave meaning to what I did. So, I think it just reinforced why I wanted to study it and why I wanted to learn about this topic a little bit more. It definitely made me feel stronger that this is something that's important even if it's not something that helped me solidify what I want to do in the future.

My last question for you is what advice would you have for someone that's going to participate in this fellowship in the future?

I think my advice would be before you go in, really establish what you're passionate about in terms of topic area, in terms of your interest in a research area or even just with the type of people you want to work with. Because this fellowship is so flexible. But at the same time this kind of organization changes what their main goal is and what their main issue is every few years because the girls they work with demand and want different things every few years.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.