College internship inspires 2009 alumna’s move to India
May 19, 2011 By Leigh Cocanougher
artisans) is currently working in Kolkata, India, with the non-
profit organization Nest.
Peterson (above, celebrating the Indian holiday Holi, the festival
of colors) turned an internship into a full-time position after her
passion for Nest’s mission was ignited while she was at Centre.
Internships at Centre College, one of the three guarantees made to students in the Centre Commitment, prepare students for success in countless ways. For 2009 graduate Shaina Peterson, it was an internship that paved the way to her current life in Kolkata, India, where she is working with the non-profit organization Nest to help further its mission of “empowering female artists and artisans around the world.”
After reading about Nest’s founder and its aspirations in a St. Louis newspaper, Peterson was quickly inspired to apply for a summer internship. Because the organization had at that time only been around for three years, it consisted solely of the founder, Rebecca Kousky.
“She still operated Nest out of her home,” Peterson says, “so that summer we would have meetings at her apartment or local coffee shops, and I’d help her take inventory in her spare room!”
Peterson believes the internship was valuable in numerous ways, one of which was exposing her to real-life applications of microfinance.
“I found microfinance to be a groundbreaking concept,” she says. “But even at that, Nest’s model isn't black-and-white microfinance; we actually call it ‘microbartering’ because the loans are interest-free, and the women repay the loans with products, which we work with them to create for a Western marketplace. I loved how Nest took several ideas and fused them into this unique model. It was something new and innovative and effective, and I was really excited to be a part of it.”
Since the internship, which was held during the summer before her senior year at Centre, Peterson has been passionate about Nest. At Centre, she participated in a student-led Nest group, and after moving to Boston upon graduating, she volunteered with the local Nest chapter.
“In Boston, I was working at another microfinance organization, but the majority of my work was behind the scenes,” Peterson says. “I really wanted to work ‘on the ground,’ and I specifically wanted to work internationally. So when the opportunity arose to work for Nest in India, I jumped on it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Having already been in India for three months, Peterson has enjoyed every minute of her time abroad.
“My work is different every day—it can be a little crazy, but it keeps it exciting,” she says. “We work with three groups of women in very different regions of India, and they all speak different languages. They also produce different products: beaded jewelry, woven saris and hand block-printed textiles.”
Because each of these groups is repaying their loans, one of Peterson’s responsibilities is to facilitate those processes. “That involves working with the artisans on product development, quality control, meeting deadlines, procuring materials, etc.,” Peterson says. “It’s a daily test in communication and cultural understanding.”
Studying abroad as a Centre student helped prepare her to ace this test. After her freshman year, Peterson traveled to Poland with nine other Centre students and religion professor Beth Glazier-MacDonald for a Holocaust remembrance trip. She also studied in Strasbourg the spring of her junior year.
“Oddly, although I didn’t study in a developing country, I think both of my experiences abroad helped prepare me for India by exposing me to different ways of life and challenging me to adapt,” she says.
Currently, she is thrilled to be witnessing Nest’s “full-production cycle, from the time we receive an order to the time we package it up and ship it off to the United States. Before this job, I knew the stories behind Nest’s products, but now I actually experience them. It’s amazing to hold a bag stitched by a woman who was trafficked into Kolkata's red light district, or to wear a necklace created by a woman who has never left her tiny village.”
And, she adds, “I love knowing that each day my work can empower a woman and help her provide for herself and her family.”
Her ability to work in such a rewarding—and demanding—job, Peterson says, was strengthened by her Centre experience.
“I definitely have Centre to thank for where I am now,” she says. “The College exposed me to the field of international relations—and more specifically to international development. My classes helped me understand the complexity of this field and then helped me recognize Nest as an organization that successfully tackles those complexities. I’m also grateful to Centre for sharpening my critical thinking skills, as my day-to-day work is a constant battle in problem solving!”
To learn more about Centre alumni who are working abroad, click here.