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Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2007

Armed with a Georgetown University diploma, Beth Hanley embarked in her 20s on a path hoping to become a professional world-saver. First she worked at nonprofit Bread for the World. Then she taught middle school English in central Africa with the Peace Corps. Finally, to certify her idealism, she graduated last spring with a master's degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University.

But now the 29-year-old faces a predicament shared by many young strivers in Washington's public interest field. After years of amassing so many achievements, they struggle to find full-time employment with decent pay and realize they might not get exactly what they set out for. Hanley, a think tank temp who dreams of aiding the impoverished and reducing gender discrimination in developing countries, is stuck.

"I knew this would be difficult," said Hanley, an Illinois native who lives in Adams Morgan. "A lot of people say, 'At some point, you're going to have to decide to explore other options,' and I guess I would start applying for jobs in other fields I don't care so much about. But I haven't gotten at all to that point."

Numerous young Washingtonians bemoan the improvisational and protracted career track of the area's public interest profession. They say the high competition for comparatively low-paying jobs saps their sense of adulthood, forcing them to spend their 20s or early 30s moving from college to work to graduate school and back to work that might or might not be temporary.

These wannabe world-changers, ubiquitous in Washington, New York and San Francisco, appear to be part of a larger demographic trend in which this age group is pushing off marriage and kids. The do-gooders' wanderings often clash with the expectations of parents who want them to stay longer in jobs and settle down.

"The public interest sector is a poorly funded one, and its organizations cannot afford to pay highly educated young people anything like what they would command on the open market. That makes it difficult for these young adults in their 20s to contemplate long careers," said William Galston of the Brookings Institution, author of "The Changing 20s," a study published last month. "But that doesn't mean they're willing to forgo the opportunity to work there."

Many globally minded people choose to work for nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, that advocate certain causes. Others opt for higher pay at the State Department, the World Bank, financial firms or consulting companies that specialize in emerging markets and international development. But getting any of these jobs, especially those based overseas, is tough.

Those who select the NGO route say they have it the hardest.

Valerie Schaeublin, 28, a program officer specializing in international affairs for a Washington nonprofit, was fortunate to begin her career at one organization and stay for five years. Now, she is restless and fears that her NGO has limited upward mobility. But she also worries whether her ambition has atrophied.

"It's a stagnant time. It's confused by the fact that I am happy, but I know I need to move on to something else," said Schaeublin, who coordinates State Department-sponsored trips by foreign leaders to the United States. "Maybe you forgo the next step because you're comfortable. But responsibilities are weighing in on you. You're not 22 anymore."

Even though premium NGO jobs have always been relatively scarce, more people seem to be angling for that world. The number of international affairs grad school applicants to Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and George Washington universities rose 63 percent in the five years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, compared with the total from the previous five years, data from the schools show. Enrollment in the programs increased more than 30 percent in the five years after the attacks, and the percentage of applicants admitted declined.

Those who graduate from the prestigious schools often start with a salary comparable to the annual tuition. At GWU's Elliott School of International Affairs, where tuition exceeds $40,000 a year, graduates who pursued nonprofit work found a market in which the average salary ranged from $38,000 to $48,000, according to the program's 2005-06 employment report.

Dina Khanat, 26, in her second and final year at the Elliott School, said she is grateful for her job but at the same time feels stalled.

"I feel like I am doing so bad. I think about this all the time. I graduated at 21 a year early with a double major. . . . Now I am going to graduate with a master's when I am 27," said Khanat, who just got a job as a program assistant at an NGO that promotes democracy. "But I really feel like by 27, I expect to be two or three years into work. You're supposed to have a career; you know what you're doing. . . . I don't feel settled."

Of thousands of NGOs in the region, many focus on such issues as children's health or farmer education in developing countries. But the supply of jobs is limited because the organizations have lean budgets built from government funding and private donations, said Barbara Wallace, vice president for membership and standards at InterAction, an NGO umbrella group.

Chief executives for NGOs, Wallace said, have told her: "Well, yeah, if we had the money, we'd be doing more. We can never hire as many as we want to hire." Wallace said her organization drew more than 100 applicants for a policy associate position. "The industry really needs to look at how to provide more avenues for young, educated people," she said.

Grad school officials say that the issue surfaces constantly.

"We spend a lot of time here on goals clarification," said Martin Tillman, associate director of career services at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins. "Students come into my office and think, 'I am a smart kid; I got into a great graduate school. I had wonderful grades in college. It should be a piece of cake to identify a position for myself.' One has to clarify that -- and one has to be clear about the range of salary."

Young people maneuvering within the NGO landscape say an odd feeling settles in by the time they are ready to start a job: They feel "old," but they don't truly feel like adults because they earn modest salaries and have limited responsibilities. Galston's study reported that about 30 percent of those in their late 20s and early 30s had mixed views on whether they had reached adulthood.

One night last month, Hanley had beers at the Topaz Hotel in Dupont Circle with a friend who had also just earned an international affairs degree and was job hunting.

"I have friends who did investment banking," Hanley said. "They were making more when they were 22. I don't think I'll ever make that. They seem more grown-up. But they seem miserable. Wait -- they seem fine. I would be miserable if I were them."

She continued: "A couple of them made comments to me suggesting I haven't grown up, like, 'I've been working for five years -- isn't that incredible?' "

At least for now, Hanley said, disillusionment has not set in. Indeed, she just turned down an offer from a for-profit consulting firm to manage a government contract. It paid well, but she was not ready to jump off the international aid track.

She's still holding out for the ideal: a job that takes her to Africa for health projects and gender relations issues. As she continues temping, Hanley scours e-mail forums for job possibilities and sets up interviews -- some with real stakes, some informational.

One evening, she stumbled onto an intriguing posting. The Open Society Institute was advertising a "mid-level" position to develop strategies and identify priorities for its mission in Africa.

"They want someone with a law degree, but they will consider advanced degrees in a related field," she said, head nodding, hopefully. "I could apply to this."

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