When Katrina Kalcic enrolled at Columbia College Chicago in 2008, the Kenosha, Wisconsin, native was still reeling after losing her father to esophageal cancer in 2005.
“When I first went to college, it was a lot less about academic achievement and a lot more about struggling to find myself and struggling to redefine my identity without this person in my life,” she says.
“My father was absolutely everything to me,” says Kalcic, whose immediate family consisted of her and her parents. “He raised me and my mom went to work. I loved him completely. He was my best friend.”
Today, the University of Wisconsin–Madison alumna speaks with a strong sense of purpose – a commitment to a mission forged by a personal journey that has taken unforeseen – and decidedly international – twists and turns. During a visit to Madison, she recounts the experiences that fueled her passion for global health and public policy.
Kalcic entered college with plans to study journalism, communications, and international relations. In the spring of 2010, she says, “I had the good fortune to study abroad at Vesalius College in Brussels, Belgium, which was an incredible experience.”
That fall, she transferred to UW–Madison, where, she says, “I started studying genocide and mass atrocities, which was absolutely fascinating.” She also found work on campus as a sexual health educator with University Hospital System.
Then, through UW–Madison’s International Internship Program, she spent the summer of 2012 working with a non-governmental organization in West Africa.
“I really came to my turning point when I did an internship with New Seed International in Ghana,” she says. “The NGO works with women and girls who are impacted by HIV. I went there originally planning to be a communications person. But when I got there, I started working with a lot of the young girls and the young women who didn’t have parents and didn’t have families.”
Drawing on her experience, Kalcic says, “I wanted to teach an informal sexual health class to the girls who were at the orphanage. Even if they were not HIV-positive themselves, there was such a stigma that, if a member of their family was HIV-positive, they were at a disproportionally high risk for violence, poverty, and sexual violence.”
In her class, she covered such topics as sexual health, HIV transmission, healthy relationships, and domestic abuse.
‘Incredibly powerful moment’
Kalcic recalls one incident that had a particularly powerful impact: “I was with five of the girls whom I had a really close relationship with. We were all talking about our parents and I was showing them a picture of my mom.”
When the girls, all orphans, asked about her father, Kalcic explained that he had gotten sick and passed away before she had the computer that held her pictures.
“They all started screaming, and they lay down on the floor; they were just weeping, weeping and weeping. In Ghana, the tradition of funerary practices is they’re very demonstrative like this when someone dies.”
She adds, “They said, ‘Now when we talk to you, we’re also going to talk with him, because we know that he’s here.’ And then they all hugged me. It was this incredibly powerful moment where everything just became so real to me.”
Kalcic says her internship experience transformed what she previously had seen as abstract ideas into something real and so human. “I felt I really wanted to work in public policy and public health for the rest of my life.”
At the same time, parts of her experience in Ghana were difficult. She avoids saying anything disparaging about the NGO, “because it is operating in an incredibly difficult context,” but she indicates that she encountered situations she regarded as ethically and culturally challenging.
“Those experiences can be so exhausting and so draining. It’s very difficult when you are living in that to be able to have the perspective to remove yourself from the situation,” she says.
Over time, she has come to realize that difficult experiences can have benefits in the long-run.
“There’s always something you can take away, no matter what situation you’re working in,” she says. “Even if you go and cry every day and miss home every day, you’re going to come back a better person for that experience.”
She adds, “Probably the best advice I can give is that experiencing these difficult things is going to teach you more than a hundred positive experiences. My experience was definitely very challenging in a lot of ways, but when I reflect back on that now, I learned a lot about civic engagement and the problems of having Western donors trying to run a West African organization.”
Despite challenges, Kalcic returned to Madison with a fresh perspective. “I came back with a completely new focus. I was sharper, I was motivated. The little obstacles didn’t mean as much anymore.”
She graduated in December 2012, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science, and certificates in European and African studies.
Path leads to the UN
Kalcic came back to campus the following November for a public lecture by Zainab Bangura, the Special Representative to the United Nations Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Bangura also had served as the minister of health in her native Sierra Leone, in West Africa.
“I went up to her after her presentation and said that the work you do is so inspiring,” says Kalcic.
She told Bangura of her own work with sexual violence prevention, adding, “I want to keep doing this. Can I work for you? She said, yes, yes, talk to my colleagues and apply. Six months later, I was at the UN.”
Kalcic’s internship at the United Nations ran from April through November 2014.
“At the UN, I got to meet real practitioners in the field who were just at the next step of their career past mine,” she says. “They were people who had just completed their graduate degrees; they were working and were just maybe five to ten years older than me.”
She came to appreciate her internship experiences in Ghana even more.
“It really informed my work at the UN,” she explains. “When we talk about if there are going to be any problems interacting with our local partners, I know the flags that we should be looking for. When I’m asking myself what kind of organization I want to work for, now I know. I’ve learned the hard way. I cut my teeth in a situation that was very difficult in a lot of ways.”
With her UN internship completed, Kalcic reflects on what she has gained and how her career has progressed thus far:
“I’ve had a lot of exposure to what it feels like to be the little guy and my work has really become humanized to me in that way. I very much started from a place where I was lost in thinking about these big academic concepts and I wanted to get perfect grades. When I looked for internships and when I looked for careers, I wanted to work at the most prestigious places.
“What my career path has demonstrated to me is that it’s in the little places you can effect the most change. And if you don’t have those small experiences, you’re never going to be able to effect change on a really big scale.”
She adds, “If I had gone straight to the UN from undergraduate, if I had never worked in community health in Madison, if I had never gone to Ghana – those two things weren’t really in my plan; those things just happened to me – my work wouldn’t have made sense to me.”
Experiences fuel future goals
Looking ahead, she says, “I would like to study public policy and global health. I would like to go back into the field. In my ideal situation, I would like to go into a post-conflict country and study what’s going on there, how has the health infrastructure been damaged by the conflict, what are the actors that are involved on the ground, what kind of support do we need from local actors, regional actors, international actors, how can we get all these people together to start strengthening the health infrastructure in a really durable way.”
Kalcic also wants to engage with the business sector on development issues.
“I’m really interested in how corporations can help empower women in post-conflict spaces through their corporate social responsibility practices. I think this is especially interesting in lending and banking.”
“For so long, when we talk about women in post-conflict spaces, we talk about them as something we have to protect. We have to make sure that they have citizenship, food, and health care. The way we talk about this is that women are very passive in this discussion.”
She sees the banking and lending sector as holding the keys to empowering women to be active participants in society.
“We can give them the tools they need to protect themselves. If we work with a legal NGO, for example, to strengthen fair lending practices, fair housing practices, in a city that has a lot of refugees, and then we can help give women money so they can start their own business, they can pay for their own housing, and they regain the agency to start working again in their communities in a really meaningful way and start participating political and economic life in a meaningful way.”
She concludes: “That is durable, sustainable change. I’m very interested in studying how we can get these nontraditional partners involved in achieving goals like that.”
— by Kerry G. Hill