State of the Planet

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Student Profile: Bonita Treinen

During a seven-year career in international education—on a path that took her from Poland to Thailand to Spain and on to China before eventually returning to the United States—Bonita Treinen, a native of rural Minnesota and Wisconsin, took time off in every country where she worked to travel to rural areas and observe the challenges and initiatives of those who live outside the cities. She would seek out biosphere reserves, endangered species refuges, eco-tourism enterprises, cooperative communities, educational community farms, agricultural initiatives, permaculture enclaves and off-grid communities. She would learn about the health challenges in a particular area, the water systems rural communities relied on and the role of infrastructure in inhibiting or advancing a community’s development.

Back in the United States, working for a success coaching company in higher education, she continued to read everything she could get her hands on that discussed rural poverty and sustainable development. After almost a decade of self-study on development issues—even investigating similar infrastructure and community issues while traveling around the rural United States—Bonita had achieved a level of appreciation for what worked and what didn’t, and her ability to distinguish the successes from failures would direct her next career steps. She kept coming across well-intentioned but ill-informed development projects which seemed to be doing more harm than good. “Without an integrated approach, it’s difficult to predict how a change in one sector might affect another.”

Bonita knew that she wanted to work in sustainable development in rural communities using an integrated community-based approach. She envisioned a collaboration of field specialists, local experts and inspired local social entrepreneurs committed to bringing impoverished communities to prosperity in an ecologically sound manner. She recognized that while she had acquired several years’ experience in leadership, operations and project management both in the United States and abroad, she would be unable to implement the inter-sector projects she envisioned without going back to school.

It was during her research into master’s programs in sustainable development that she came across a video announcing the establishment of a new Master in Development Practice program, set to launch initially at Columbia University in Fall 2009 and around the globe the following year. “It was the only program of its kind, addressing the need for generalists to manage an integrated, systems thinking approach to the complex environmental, economic and societal issues we face. It was exactly what I was looking for.”

Bonita was selected to be in the first group of 24 students to join the new Master of Public Administration in Development Practice (M.P.A. D.P.), a program offered together with the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). The program is designed to train aspiring practitioners to understand and manage integrated approaches to development challenges. It is rigorous and cross-disciplinary, combining the social and natural sciences with an emphasis on the development of critical knowledge, skills and attributes of effective professionals in developing societies.

One of Bonita’s favorite core courses at Columbia was the Global Food Systems course taught by Professor Glenn Denning, a 30-year veteran of international agricultural research and development who has held senior management positions in the International Rice Research Institute and the World Agroforestry Centre. “It helped me understand what goes into an agricultural system. There is no single solution to food issues. Each environment has to be evaluated separately.” The Global Food Systems course introduces and explores systems of producing and ensuring equitable access to food. Denning also directs the M.P.A. D.P. program.

Another core course that Bonita particularly enjoyed was Global Health Systems taught by Paul Pronyk, the HIV/AIDS technical advisor to the Millennium Villages Project. The Global Health Systems course offered her and her fellow non-health experts a basic understanding of global public health issues. It focused on several Millennium Development Goals including child health; maternal health; and malaria, HIV, TB and other important diseases. Along the way, the course explores the challenges to health systems and barriers to access that commonly occur. According to Bonita, “The class is extremely practical. With this course, I felt prepared to parachute into an area and be able to understand the types of diseases and health crises that I was likely to encounter.”

Besides the class work, the fact that the Master in Development Practice program is on the Columbia campus and is based at SIPA offers the 24 M.P.A. D.P. students access and exposure to people they might otherwise never meet. “Being at Columbia is like being a kid in a candy store. All the events, all the specialists coming in—for example, each September all these global heads of state are in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly, and many of them come to Columbia to speak. And I have the chance to see and meet many of them right here.”

Bonita also relishes the sense of camaraderie she shares with her fellow students. “I love being surrounded by people with a wide variety of experience that I get to tap into. We work as a community, the 24 of us, sharing and cooperating, drawing on each other’s experiences in particular areas. I am sure that these relationships will carry on into our careers. We are the first class of what was a new program when we started. Now that a second class has begun at the School of International and Public Affairs, we are sharing the love with them.”

During the summer the M.P.A. D.P. students are assigned intensive three-month field internships to provide a rigorous, clinical preparation for development practice through hands-on, practical experiences. Bonita was one of two M.P.A. D.P. students who spent this past summer in a village called Samlout near the Cambodian border with Thailand, in an internship working for an integrated program aimed at conservation and community development, modeled on the Millennium Villages in sub-Saharan Africa and funded by the Maddox Jolie-Pitt Foundation. She had the opportunity to travel around Cambodia researching women’s vocational training centers, early childhood development centers and learning centers, and to participate in the planning stages of the first community center in the border area in which she was working. Having returned from that experience, she is better able to tailor her classes in her second year of study to support the gender-based work that she now sees herself heading toward.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, and co-chair of the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation-funded Secretariat of the Commission on Education for Sustainable Development, which spawned the M.P.A. D.P. program, sees a great need to train students like Bonita. “The field of sustainable development is growing rapidly and facing challenges of increasing complexity. Today’s practitioners must confront the enormous and interconnected crises of climate change, extreme poverty, epidemic disease, hunger, rapid population growth and environmental degradation. The new M.P.A. Program in Development Practice will train professionals with the multi-disciplinary knowledge, including the natural sciences, tools and management skills, they will need for success.”

Bonita, now beginning her second year in the program, recognizes the career transition that she will be able to make as a result of the M.P.A. D.P. program. “When I leave here I will be able to apply my managerial experience in a new context. With the background knowledge that I am gaining in the natural and health sciences, I will be able to impact the communities I’ll be working with beyond the field of education.” She sees herself returning to Southeast Asia as a development practitioner who will not only have good intentions, but also a new, sophisticated understanding of the complex interplay of factors contributing to rural poverty. She will be a development professional with the tools to actually engage and empower communities to achieve their development goals.

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