Nurturing A Lifelong Commitment: Princeton in Africa

By Anne Levin

Photographs Courtesy of Princeton in Africa 

fter the deadliest flooding ever recorded in Malawi, a group of recent college graduates were on hand to help with emergency response efforts. In rural Togo, another corner of Africa, some of their colleagues wrote grants to help an organization called Mothers2Mothers in their fight against pediatric AIDS. Still others from the group taught English, math, science, and history to secondary school students in Botswana.

All of these dedicated volunteers were fellows of Princeton in Africa, a 17-year-old program headquartered on the Princeton University campus but not limited to Princeton graduates. PIA invites young alumni and graduating seniors from all accredited colleges to apply for admission, which is highly competitive—from 400 to 500 hopefuls vie for 50 positions each year.

The highly motivated, talented graduates who make the cut are put to work all over Africa, helping organizations like Bristol-Myers Squibb, the Clinton Health Initiative, Lutheran World Federation and the Rwanda School Project work in advocacy, research, agricultural development, conflict resolution, and conservation, among other fields.

Spots on PIA’s roster are coveted not only because of its reputation, but because it is unique. “There are very few programs for people who want on-the-ground experience in Africa,” says Jodianna Ringel, PIA’s executive director. “And they become very dedicated. Last year, a quarter of them stayed on the continent to work, most with their host organizations. The year before it was 37 percent. We love to see that.”

Ms. Ringel, who grew up in Lambertville and worked with an organization in West Africa and later in the development field before taking over at PIA, is quick to emphasize the program’s purpose. “It is a tricky situation, because we don’t want to take credit for the work these organizations do,” she said. “We look at ourselves as supporting their work, rather than helping to create it.”

PIA bears some similarities to Princeton in Asia, a Princeton-University-based program that has been around since 1898. “The process is the same, where both of us look for host organizations and pull from recent graduates to fill those needs,” Ms. Ringel says. “But many of the Princeton in Asia posts are teaching-related. Our program, in general, is designed to be a first step for young professionals looking to enter international development or finance. We like to think of it as a first step in a career.”

Before even thinking of the candidate pool, Ms. Ringel and her PIA colleagues consider the needs of the 30 different organizations in 15 different African countries that the program serves. “Let’s say it’s a small development organization in Rwanda,” she says. “They’ll let us know they might need an expert in communications, or whatever. And we start from that.”

Initially, PIA was open only to Princeton University graduates. But after a decade, the program was expanded. Those who apply are encouraged to read reports by fellows from previous years. “That really gives them a sense of not just what type of work they might be doing, but maybe what it’s like to live in a big city like Nairobi versus a small, rural area,” Ms. Ringel explains.

She and other staffers try to interview less than 200 people, either on campus or through Skype. “After that, we start the placement process, which is what makes our program so unique,” she says. “We try to find not just the best candidate, but the best for a specific position. We have a rolling process, starting with certain organizations and pulling top candidates for the position they need filled. We send candidates to the organization, and they ultimately make the final decision. We want to be sure they are just as invested in their fellows as the fellows are invested in the program. And if we send a candidate forward and that person is not selected, they go back to the pool.”

The most popular requests PIA gets are for grant-writing, development, monitoring, and evaluation. Fellows are sent to locations that span a wide range of living conditions. “Some of our conservation posts are very rural, sort of off the grid,” Ms. Ringel says. “Then there are people who live in Nairobi, in apartments that are nicer than any I’ve ever had. It really runs the gamut. It’s similar to finding the fellow who has the right skill for a particular project. That’s as much a part of the fit as anything, and we ask on the application, right from the start, what they prefer.”

Participants in PIA create connections likely to last a lifetime. Many are offered permanent jobs with the organizations with which they have worked. Others might work in international development back in the United States; still others go to law school or get other graduate degrees. “We like to keep track of how much they stay involved in the continent,” Ms. Ringel says. “Even if they come back here, we hope they will keep that connection. That is our long-term mission.”