Sofia Hurtado Epstein MPA/ID 2015 shares her biggest lessons from her summer internship.

August 6, 2014

Sofia Hurtado Epstein MPA/ID 2015 is executive vice-president of the Harvard University Mexican Student Association (HUMAS). Before coming to Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), Hurtado Epstein worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, handling topics related to development cooperation at different international fora.

I have been working for the past two months with Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN), a grassroots NGO that works with women in rural India. PRADAN was founded with the idea that development work requires professional, well-prepared, and caring people. Therefore, for the past thirty years, they have made it their mission to find capable individuals among graduates from the best universities in India and send them to over 5,000 villages across central and eastern India. Their work began with agricultural productivity, now they have expanded to adult literacy, women empowerment and water and sanitation systems.

PRADAN realized, however, that increasing income did not directly translate to better nutrition for women and children. And that’s where I come in. As part of their strategy to expand their work to nutrition, they asked a colleague and I to do a study to assess the nutritional scenario of the villages where they work and to evaluate if their programs improve nutrition in women and children. To that end, I spent one month visiting villages to do surveys and conduct focus group discussions (with the help of a Bengali translator), and another month studying and analyzing the information we gathered from our fieldwork.

My biggest lesson has been to keep an open mind.

Keep an open mind to what you find in the field—our work was never dull because we were constantly surprised by our daily experience. I was impressed by the strength of the women we worked with. They live in extremely difficult situations; they live with less than one dollar a day; none of them have access to toilets; most of them are illiterate; and many of them have to walk long distances to get water from the public tap or well. They are sick often, and their children are sick often as well. Knowing this, I was not expecting such a warm welcome and so many kind smiles. These women opened their lives to us and were always willing to help. They laughed often too. I was not expecting the fieldwork to be so cheerful and fulfilling.

It was also challenging. When we arrived to the area, we were told there were two possible dangers in the region—wild elephants and communist guerrilla (called Naxalites). We never saw any elephants, but in one village we had to weigh and measure more children that we had anticipated to placate angry fathers that we were discreetly told were Naxalites. There was another village, for example, that we had to visit twice because the first time we went we were caught in a heavy monsoon rain and almost no one came.

I’ve also learnt to keep an open mind to what you will find in the research—the reality behind complex problems can seem confusing. We found that about a third of the women in these villages were malnourished (half of them severely malnourished), and that a vast majority of the children in our sample were underweight, stunted and wasted. When we were looking for explanations for the troubling numbers, again and again we found that children that were being breastfed were worse off than the ones that weren’t. We explained this paradoxical result when we dug deeper in the numbers. It turns out those children were fed less solid foods, and some were not given solid foods at all. Patterns seem to emerge in places where they’re least expected—you just have to look long enough.

All and all, it has been an extraordinary eye-and-mind-opening experience—part of the world of possibilities that the Kennedy School gives to its students.

In particular, I have to thank the Center for Public Leadership and Glenn Dubin, whose generosity allowed me to embark in this incredible journey (both to study at the Kennedy School and to give back a little through my internship research).