Seeing the Forest through the Trees

Michigan Tech Peace Corps Master’s International (PCMI) alumna Amber Lily Kenny has devoted her educational and career paths to improving infrastructure and humanitarian aid for African communities. Her journey has taken her from the Keweenaw Peninsula to West and East Africa, where she continues her work in international development to this day.

As part of the PCMI program in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science, Amber served as a Peace Corps Natural Resource Management and Agriculture volunteer in Togo, West Africa from 2004-2006. Additionally, she received the Loret Miller Ruppe Scholarship, was a finalist in the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools Distinguished Thesis Award competition, and published her research “Land Allocation with the Introduction of Teak: A Case of Smallholder Farms in Southern Togo” in the Journal of Sustainable Forestry. She graduated in 2007 from Tech with an M.S. in Forestry.

Today, Amber is a tenured Agricultural Foreign Officer with USAID in Uganda, where she supervises a unit committed to improved programming for vulnerable populations. These programs aim to shift the focus away from food aid toward long-term investments and strategies to decrease vulnerability. Before working in Uganda, Amber worked for USAID in Kenya and as an Urban Forester in Washington, D.C. Additionally, she worked with the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service on agriculture development programs in Afghanistan and Iraq.

How did Amber reach this point in her career so soon after she graduated? She attributes much of her success to the PCMI experience – the responsibilities as well as the skills she learned in this program. “PCMI prepared me to be able to apply my natural resource management background to many other things—for instance, it helped me understand land systems and best use practices. It also taught me a lot of lessons to prepare me for my continued work in agricultural development.” As a volunteer in Togo, Amber’s approach to natural resource management and agriculture work was to observe and research the needs of the area first. She performed community mapping exercises, found out farmers’ interests, and considered what was and was not working. She then built on this information in her research project, aiming to be practical and produce a product that would help the farmers in the area. Investing nine months in this initial stage of observation and continuously receiving excellent support from her MTU team of advisors, Amber was able to reach her goals. In particular, she was able to make a significant contribution to the community she served in, reversing deforestation through the planting of several thousands of indigenous species, wood lot trees, fruit trees and agroforestry species of trees.

Other lessons Amber learned in Peace Corps came in various forms, such as learning to prepare speeches under time constraints—speeches that she would deliver to a large audience, comprised of a different culture, using a different language. “You get over stage fright really quickly!” Amber acknowledges. In this process of engaging in public communication, she also learned diplomacy. In particular, she learned which situations it is appropriate to speak in and when it is wiser to observe.

Amber also gained a deeper understanding of human nature, drivers of poverty, and productive collaboration in PCMI. “People living in villages, underserved areas, and stigmatized populations have just as much dignity and aspirations as anyone else on this planet and it is possible to help make a difference for them, as well as for Americans.” In reference to Americans, she stresses the importance to improve our relationships with other cultures through the understanding which comes through programs like PCMI.

Working now at a project management level, Amber is able to direct significant amounts of resources toward bringing about real change and bettering people’s lives for the long-term. She is able to bring together technical knowledge of natural resource management and agriculture with a deep understanding of social context.

Her work is one contribution to making our world a more stable place to live. For her, this journey began with PCMI: “It is really empowering to go to another country and be able to contribute to something greater than yourself. It’s hard. There's no doubt about that. But what you get out of it is priceless.”

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