Master of global affairs graduate uses technical skills to promote global health

Kara Venzian MGA ’21 is a monitoring and evaluation specialist at the international development consulting firm Chemonics International. In her role at Chemonics, Kara measures the effectiveness of a USAID-funded global health supply chain project that delivers lifesaving health supplies to those in need. In this role, she provides insight into the provision of products for those with HIV/AIDS and malaria and also commodities related to maternal, newborn, and child health. 

Working remotely from Washington, DC, Kara collaborates with more than thirty field offices, working most frequently with those in Angola, Eswatini, Indonesia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Zambia, Nepal, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Rwanda, and Lesotho. Kara supports these offices in their quarterly reporting by providing technical assistance for end user surveys and providing data quality assessments. Kara also is on the leadership team of ChemPRIDE, a Chemonics diversity and inclusion initiative.

As a master of global affairs student Kara was the recipient of a Coverdell Fellowship, a full-tuition scholarship for returned Peace Corps volunteers. She also served as a research associate for the Pulte Institute for Global Development and completed a year-long consultancy project on sustainable housing with Catholic Relief Services through the Integration Lab (i-Lab).

In the interview below, Kara shares what it’s like to work in monitoring and evaluation and recalls the most valuable aspects of her master of global affairs experience. 

Q: What do you enjoy about your current role and what do you find challenging?

A: I love being part of a team of nine monitoring and evaluation specialists from all around the world. We are a diverse team from multiple field offices who bring all sorts of experiences to our daily monitoring and evaluation work. 

Our project deals with public health commodities for four different areas:  HIV/AIDS; malaria; family planning; and maternal, newborn, and child health. Our data provides the big picture of how well our project is doing in general—whether commodities are being delivered to the right people and whether they’re receiving it when they need it.

I monitor the supply chain and distribution key metrics for those products, such as procurement and delivery. Our field offices report their data to me quarterly and  I work with them to create the final version of their data. When that’s finished, I turn data into visual form, write narratives to accompany the data, and submit it to USAID to review before publishing. I also code surveys for the field offices to implement so they can survey their end users and verify, for example, that medicines are being delivered to the right people. 

I also work directly on the development of new surveys and indicators to help answer really interesting questions about those most impacted by these medicines. And finally, I evaluate the sustainability of the project—the longevity of the work that we’re doing. We want to ensure that supply chains are lasting so that there is a continued supply of medicines. In other words, when the project closes and  transitions to its next iteration, will the country’s supply chains still work effectively?

Outside of my usual responsibilities, I am able to participate in many important global health conversations. For example, there are always webinars I can attend to learn new things. Chemonics really cares about the professional development of its employees, and there are so many trainings available to us. There are even “mini master’s degrees” in select areas of supply chain management. I took a class on design thinking in monitoring and evaluation and it was covered by the company. Additionally, Chemonics frequently wins awards for being a great place to work for LGBTQIA+ staff. I have become involved in their diversity and equity employee resource groups and am on the leadership team for ChemPRIDE.

The extensive bureaucracy does sometimes have its challenges. It can take a while to get new things approved by the upper management at USAID and I have learned to give any non-standard projects a lengthy timeline.

Q: How did you land your current role at Chemonics?

A: I give a lot of credit to the Keough School’s  i-Lab, who partners with Chemonics on student projects. I didn’t work with Chemonics directly on my i-Lab project, but the fact that I had participated in the i-Lab on another student team opened that door for me. I was applying for jobs in the middle of the pandemic which was really challenging. I submitted about 150 applications and received about a dozen responses, including Chemonics. During my first interview with my direct team, they mentioned that they had previously worked directly with a past i-Lab team, and I knew then that Keough had helped me get my foot in the door.

Q: What were some of the most memorable and valuable parts of the MGA program?

A: The most influential part of the program was the people. Of my current closest friends, half are all former MGA students who graduated with me or the year after me. The networking the Keough School provides is incomparable—the school was constantly expanding my universe and the professors were incredibly helpful.

Professor Paul Perrin was a great mentor to me in monitoring and evaluation. He provided excellent references and resources so that I could be successful in this career. Now that I am working in the monitoring and evaluation realm, I realize that having this job wouldn’t have been possible without his influence. Professor Tracy Kijewski-Correa helped direct my career trajectory and since she was my i-Lab advisor, I worked really closely with her. I learned a mountain of things about grant writing, project management, and working quickly to create a viable product from her. All of these skills are transferable to many fields, but especially international development.

Q: How did you become interested in the MGA program?

A: Global affairs had been on my radar because I had studied anthropology previously. I had also been an activist, had served in the Peace Corps, and knew I wanted to learn more about different cultures. I wanted to find something that would marry anthropology, activism, and aid work and also provide an anti-colonial path to development and culturally sustainable approaches to development projects. 

I found out about Notre Dame’s Coverdell Fellowship through the Peace Corps graduate school portal. I am not Catholic and had no history with Notre Dame, but looking back I’m very happy to have chosen it. The program goes beyond economic sustainability to include the cultural and environmental aspects of sustainable development—part of the integral human development approach. I know that many graduate programs are very competitive, but Notre Dame’s program was far more collaborative than anything I ever expected. 

I would highly recommend this program to anyone who wants a fully immersive and collaborative graduate school experience, who is enthusiastic about diverse cultures and opinions, and who thinks international development should be about the people and not the profits. The Keough School provided all of this for me, valued my opinions, and, because of my fellowship, I had generous financial support. I am so grateful to have found a program that practices what it preaches: valuing its people over potential profits.  

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