Grant writer Lisa Dietz's Globe-Trotting Life
In high school, Lisa Dietz was voted "Most Likely to Become an Anthropologist." She's spent her career working in international development, first as a Peace Corps volunteer, then with organizations including the Special Olympics and the World Wildlife Fund. She tells us about growing up a triplet, a "transformative" trip to Ecuador in high school, and how there are many paths to work in international development.
FAST FACTS ABOUT Lisa
Where she’s from: Cape Cod and Western Massachusetts
Grew up with: divorced mom and dad, and two sisters- she's a triplet!
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Hispanic studies from Brown University and a master’s in Public Administration from the George Washington University
Where she lives now: Washington, DC (but when we spoke she was in Quito, Ecuador)
Growing up she wanted to be: working with people from different backgrounds and countries
Now she’s: Senior Grant Writer at a refugee aid organization
When we spoke, Lisa was living in Ecuador and working for Catholic Relief Services, where she'd been for about two years.. Shortly after that, she returned to Washington D.C. to work for HIAS, a refugee aid and advocacy organization.
Lisa, can you tell us a little bit about growing up as a triplet?
I have one identical sister, Sarah, and one fraternal sister, Jen, and we each have our own personality and interests. My mom always encouraged us to be individuals. She gave us each a color and our rooms were painted that color, our toenails, our clothes, and so I grew up with the message that you're your own person and you don’t have to be like them. You can do your own thing.
You were on the cross-country ski team in high school. What else were you into as a teenager?
I played softball, both the high school team and an intermural team. I was in the marching and concert band growing up, and I played the euphonium, which is like a small tuba. The band took up a fair amount of my time. We would travel as the band, and most of my friends were in the band. I also went to band camp in Maine.
I took Spanish from middle school on, and was very interested in the language. I spent one summer in high school in Ecuador, and that sparked my whole interest and passion for international development. That was really transformative.
How did the opportunity to go to Ecuador come about?
My dad found a program that takes teenagers to different developing countries and sets them up with volunteer assignments and opportunities to travel around and get to know the culture, so that summer I went to Ecuador, Sarah went to Costa Rica, and Jen went to various Caribbean islands. I can remember being so scared when I got on the plane at Logan Airport in Boston.
How did you feel about school?
Overall high school was enjoyable. I was a nerd, but I had friends who were nerds. Even though I was particularly shy in high school, because I was a member of a set of triplets, people always knew who I was.
I liked most of my classes. I always did much better in the humanities like English, social studies, Spanish, psychology. I was usually in the high honors or AP classes for everything except math. I really enjoyed gym class.
Who were the adults who were important to you growing up?
My parents. We lived primarily with my mom. My parents are divorced. We would still see our dad on the weekends, so I had a lot of contact with both parents. I felt like I could always go to my middle and high school band director if I was having a problem even if it didn’t have anything to do with band.
there was never any pressure from my mom or my dad about what career path we should take. I had to figure out my own path.
Your mom is an artist and your dad is a doctor; did they want you to pursue a particular path?
It was expected that we wouldn't take any time off between high school and college and that we would go to grad school eventually, but there was never any pressure from my mom or my dad about what career path we should take. I had to figure out my own path and was helped by the Ecuador experience and studying Spanish and then in college being a Hispanic Studies major.
What did you study as a Hispanic Studies major?
In the beginning I was taking Spanish language classes and then progressing to more literature and history focused classes that were conducted in Spanish. In my major, I was the only non-native speaker, and I was very shy about speaking up in class because of that, but I still was able to do well when it came to reading and writing.
Peace Corps seemed like the best thing to do right after school, and I wasn’t really interested in getting a normal job right away.
How did you decide you wanted to join the Peace Corps after college?
A recruiter from Peace Corps had set up shop in a mailroom at Brown. I stopped and started talking to him and found it really interesting and something that would fit very well with what I had studied and my experiences and background. It seemed like the best thing to do right after school, and I wasn’t really interested in getting a normal job right away.
Did you go into the Peace Corps wanting to use your Spanish language skills?
I thought it would be a good opportunity to go to a part of the world that I had never been to before. I went to Bangladesh as an English teacher. Unfortunately, about two weeks after we arrived [in 2005] there were some bombings throughout the country. We were evacuated after about six months of my service because the situation got to be unstable.
I was able to be much more specific about [how] I’d really like to go to a Spanish-speaking country, and at that point they placed me in Ecuador.
What kind of work were you doing with the Peace Corps in Ecuador?
My site was Salcedo, which is a relatively small town mainly populated by farmers, about two-and-a-half hours south of Quito. My assignment was to work with youth in elementary schools and also through an established youth group on topics like self-esteem and values, hygiene, English language, all sorts of topics.
I was living in such a beautiful place. On a clear day, I could see four different volcanoes, some of them snowcapped. Being able to speak Spanish and enjoy the wonderful fruits and vegetables and other food here was very pleasant.
Did you have a specific idea of what you wanted to do after the Peace Corps?
I was interested in working within international development and had some ideas already that I had come up with in Peace Corps like working for NGOs like World Wildlife Fund and CARE. But I didn’t necessarily know how to make that happen and I didn’t necessarily have any contacts.
After the Peace Corps, you worked for Special Olympics; then you did end up at the World Wildlife Fund. What did you do there?
I was able to join them and started working with them to identify new funding opportunities for the organization through the US government with a big emphasis on USAID and was a member of many different proposal teams in that role.
After about two years, I moved over to their Market and Transformation Program, where I worked for a global program called the Global Forest and Trade Network, which works with forestry and trade companies all along the supply chain from the forests to big buyers to help them make their practices legal and responsible for timber and non-timber products.
For example, I was managing a project funded by the IKEA Foundation in several different countries in Asia, and they wanted to ensure that the wood that they were using in their products was responsible and sustainable. I met with staff from IKEA to update them on progress from the project and brainstorm future directions, so that was really collaborative, and a good example of a partnership between an NGO and a private business that meets both the more development and conservation goals of the NGO, and also responds to the drivers of the business and their desire for more sustainability.
At the same time, you were in graduate school earning a master of public administration in international development. How did you decide it was the right time to go and the right degree for you to pursue?
I wanted to keep working because I was interested in what I was doing and didn’t want to leave WWF, so that helped me to decide to stay in D.C. for grad school. I was also looking for a degree that would be very general and that wouldn't lock me into one particular area. My sister and also one of my best friends did the same program, and so I discovered the degree and the program through them. It was a seven-minute walk from my office to school, and I went to class at night, so it was really just the option that made the most sense, and I got in, so it was very straightforward.
In order to really work at higher levels in my field, typically, you need a master’s degree of some sort, and also my parents had set that expectation out that at some point I would get a graduate degree.
Grad school was helpful from a networking perspective. I'm still in touch with some of my professors and with some of my classmates, and I'm actually mentoring a current student in my program now. It's really nice to be a part of that community.
I was very interested in being based in the field for a while and to be able to see the work on the ground and have a deeper understanding of that.
What made you decide to switch gears and work in a different sector and return to Ecuador?
I was very interested in being based in the field for a while and to be able to see the work on the ground and have a deeper understanding of that, so I looked for opportunities to do that with World Wildlife Fund, and they often work with local staff rather than hiring international staff.
I happened upon CRS, Catholic Relief Services, and they have a very large international staff program and was able to identify a position based in South America, which was a place that I love and that I was very excited to potentially be based. I made the very difficult decision to leave WWF at that time, and to leave behind conservation at least temporarily. My current organization works mainly around human development and sustainable development issues.
Can you tell us a little bit about your work with CRS and how that supports the mission of the organization?
I work in business development for South America. I'm based in Ecuador, and I support Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil. My work revolves around identifying new funding opportunities for CRS, strategically positioning CRS in front of potential donors and partners, developing proposals together with teams or as part of teams, and working a bit on the communications and marketing side to really highlight CRS's strengths and discriminators in front of potential and future donors.
The work is really varied, and is always tailored to the priorities and the needs of the donors and partners that we work with, so I'm very involved with that, and also developing strategies for future fundraising down the line.
I travel on average between 50 and 75 percent, mainly among the countries that I cover. I'm on a plane at least once a month, and it's always very dynamic, and every trip is a little bit different, so I'm never bored in my job.
So you work a lot with funding opportunities and donors; do you get to interact much with the people that are executing the projects?
I do. I work closely with our CRS project managers and then I will also work typically with our partner staff, who are playing more of a hands-on role of managing things on the ground, and then I do get to visit the field every few months, meeting with beneficiaries and hearing from them firsthand about their challenges and also, what's working well for them. It's a good chance to get some feedback on the work that CRS and our partners are doing and to learn how we can do it better.
ONCE I STARTED WORKING, I CAME OUT OF MY SHELL A LOT. I GOT A Lot of Experience BUILDING FRIENDSHIPS WITH PEOPLE FROM DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS AND CULTURES.
You mentioned earlier that you were pretty shy growing up. Do you still feel like you're a shy person or has that part of you changed?
Once I started working, I had to learn to be more extroverted and talk to people who are really different from me, and I came out of my shell a lot. Each of the offices I worked in was very, very international and I got a lot of experience and practice with getting to know and building friendships with people from different backgrounds and cultures.
I think by nature I'm shy and introverted, but I'm able to function in a relatively extroverted way when I need to. Stretching myself and going out of my comfort zone in Spanish has been really valuable, and I'm proud of the fact that in the past few months I've given a couple presentations in Spanish. Each one lasted between three and four hours consecutively with no break.
What does your day-to-day life look like in Ecuador?
When I'm not working either at the office or in the field, I like to cook, and I've really stretched myself here in Ecuador in the cooking department. There's not as many prepared or frozen foods available here, but there are great fruits and vegetables, so I've really gotten a lot more creative and practiced in the kitchen, so I really enjoy cooking, and I'm now really into healthier eating.
I also have my cat here with me. His name is Miguel, and I adopted him when I lived in D.C. He has his own yard, so he has a lot of fun. I also have a good group of friends here, who are a mix of Ecuadorians, Colombians, and people from the states.
Things are not rushed here. It's more relationship focused, and it's a sense that everything is going to get done, but we don’t have to stress ourselves out like crazy about it.
You’ve had some pretty exciting life experiences. What did you imagine your adult life would be like when you were growing up? Did you think you would live abroad?
I did imagine spending time abroad and having the opportunity to travel to many different countries and to work with many different kinds of people. In high school, people voted on different things like most likely to succeed, and mine was most likely to become an anthropologist. I'm still working a lot on people issues and I'm very interested in different cultures and in working in different places, so that is still pretty accurate.
I didn’t know in high school or even in college what international development was, so I didn’t have a name for it or role models or career paths, but I knew in general what it was that I was going to do.
there may be a path into international development by following your interest whether it's agriculture or health or technology and science. There are a lot of different ways to work in the field.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to work in international development or be in the Peace Corps or live abroad?
Peace Corps is a great experience, and I have not met anyone who had regrets about doing it. Most people say it was one of the best things they ever did.
Any time that you can spend working and living in another country is definitely valuable whether it's an internship or work experience or even volunteering is really useful. Talk to people in the field of international development and learn about their career paths and how they went about getting to where they are.
When you're in high school and college, just focus on what you're really interested in and there may be a path into international development by following your interest whether it's agriculture or health or technology and science. There are a lot of different applications and ways to work in the field.
What advice would you a girl like you were growing up?
Team sports are really valuable for life because you learn how to work together with people. You learn more about what you're good at and what you're not good at and then you learn what it's like to work towards something greater than just yourself. A lot of times we work on teams at work and those teams aren’t too different from the sports teams that were on growing up, so that’s one thing.
The second thing is just to try to actively find out what you're interested in and try to develop those interests and figure out how to get on a path where you can use those interests in your career.
Listening to yourself and not necessarily being too influenced by other people. The path that your parents or your families think you should be on isn’t always the right one, so just that you listen to yourself and trust your gut.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out some of Lisa's favorite books and find out more about her work!