Master of Arts in Sustainable International Development

Providing a personal approach to emergency response

By Karen Shih

It was a little school in Guatemala that spurred Noah Steinberg-Di Stefano, MA SID’17, into the world of international development.

He wasn’t sure what to do with his life after college. He didn’t want a career in either of his majors (journalism or political science) after trying out internships in both areas. He decided on a whim to apply to a fundraising job at the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy, founded by Jorge Chojolán, who fled Guatemala during the civil war after receiving death threats for his role in student protest movements but eventually returned to tackle educational inequities for indigenous students. 

“Meeting someone that was so invested in the problems facing their community and who overcame so much to make that a reality was just like, ‘Wow.’ That was a groundbreaking moment for me,” says Steinberg-Di Stefano, who still considers Chojolán a mentor.

His experience at the school led to another fundraising and communications role in Mexico, focused on agricultural capacity building and emergency response. After returning to the United States, he interviewed at major international organizations like OxFam. “But I felt like I wasn’t ready for any of it. I needed to professionalize,” he says.

That’s when he applied to Heller’s sustainable international development program. “The practicum option was attractive because international development is something that’s so dependent on experience. The opportunity to spend the second year traveling and working and getting exposure was really valuable.”

Steinberg-Di Stefano took in as much as he could during his first year at Heller, learning from both his professors and fellow classmates from all over the world.

“It’s so important in this career not to view things from a U.S.-centric perspective,” he says. “Anyone that works in this field does so because they care about the world. They don’t just care about the issues affecting their community, but issues affecting communities everywhere.”

For his practicum during his second year, he supported a Mercy Corps project in Jordan, which used neuroscience to reduce youth vulnerability to violent extremism.

“I think it’s important to learn how development organizations work at a high level,” he says. “It was really interesting to be in a place that’s a hub for development, like Amman, where many organizations have a base. There’s a huge influx of Syrian and Palestinian refugees.”

He pivoted after graduation to his current role with Lutheran World Relief as a program associate for emergency response operations, traveling around the world to places like India, Haiti and Puerto Rico to work with local partners.

“It’s pretty unpredictable,” he says. “Something happens and we have to mobilize quickly and get on a plane on pretty short notice. I’m still adjusting to that, coming from traditional development work where you have several years to see a project through.”

At the same time, he appreciates the opportunity to see an immediate impact, especially in areas often left behind by larger organizations with more bureaucratic hurdles. In Puerto Rico, for example, he was able to help a rural community in the mountains, about two and half hours from the capital of San Juan, get essentials like water filters, solar lanterns and cash shortly after Hurricane Maria.

“As a small organization, you can provide a more personalized approach,” says Steinberg-Di Stefano.