Becoming Engaged With the World

By Lyla Bashan '98, Director of the USAID Sustainable Development Office, Armenia

How Catlin Gabel helped me learn about the world and the roles we can play in it.

It’s hard for me to believe I graduated from Catlin Gabel almost 20 years ago! Alas, I’m not sure if I’ll make it to the reunion, because it would mean flying halfway around the world. That’s because I live in Armenia, a small country sandwiched between Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. But I’d love to make it back because the foundation of my international career can be traced back to my time at Catlin Gabel. 

When I was young I wanted to save the environment. But it was Catlin Gabel’s academic rigor, high expectations, and commitment to excellence that taught me to direct my passion in specific, practical ways. While at Catlin Gabel, I learned about the field of peace and conflict resolution and later, in college, I learned about humanitarian development. I realized that people wouldn’t and couldn’t care about the environment if they couldn’t provide food, shelter, and safety for themselves and their families. That is why I’ve committed my career to conflict resolution and humanitarian development. Ultimately, it’s a way of helping individual people, the environment, and the world.
I’ve spent my entire professional life working on, travelling, and living throughout this big, beautiful world of ours. And let me tell you, it never gets boring! But my international career started in our very own, beloved Portland. After my sophomore year at Lewis and Clark College, I began interning at Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian relief and development NGO. After going to grad school in Washington D.C. and interning and working for a few other awesome NGOs, I became a diplomat working for the State Department. My favorite job at the State Department was as a conflict prevention officer for Sub-Saharan Africa. I loved it because I got to travel throughout that region working on a wide range of conflict prevention activities. I met so many interesting people who had to respond to myriad challenges, but ultimately were all trying to just live their lives.

I loved living in Washington, D.C., and travelling all over the world, but I always wanted to live abroad more permanently. So, after a few years, I left the State Department civil service to join the foreign service of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Being a diplomat of any stripe is interesting work, but I thought USAID would be a better fit for me because I could focus more on humanitarian development. USAID is the U.S. Government’s lead development agency and works in developing countries around the world to help alleviate poverty and suffering, promote good governance and human rights, support economic growth and food security, and improve health care and education. 

My first tour with USAID was in Guatemala, which is still recovering from its decades-long civil war and facing the crippling effects of the drug trade. My next tour was in Tajikistan, which is a fascinating, isolated country in Central Asia, to the north of Afghanistan. And now, after a few years back in D.C., here I am in Armenia where I serve as Director of the Office of Sustainable Development. My office manages all of USAID’s programs in Armenia. 

I do this work because I believe that development is the most effective way to create global stability and prosperity. Now more than ever, global issues affect all of us. Issues that once seemed far away—health epidemics, financial crisis, conflict—are now intertwined with our everyday lives.

Because of America’s political, military, and financial power, it is important for Americans to be engaged with the world. Whether through a career in international affairs or not, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what is going on in the world in order to create positive change. Today, everyone’s voice counts. Catlin Gabel helped me learn more about the world and the role my voice could play in it.

We can all work to make the world a better place. Whether it’s volunteering in your community, calling your congressional representative, or donating money to an NGO—all of this is helping. You don’t have to fly off to a Bangladeshi refugee camp, but you do need to care. That’s what Catlin Gabel taught me, to direct my care in real ways. Sure, you’re not going to alleviate global poverty and suffering by volunteering at a local homeless shelter, but you are going to make a difference in someone’s life. And that matters. The ripple effects of positive change can be immense.

That’s why I wrote Global: An Extraordinary Guide for Ordinary Heroes. I want to give people a way to easily understand the complexities of the issues and systems that comprise what we call “global affairs.” And it has good career advice! Global is the book I wish someone had written 20 years ago when I was starting my career in international affairs. My only goal is to get others involved!

What most inspires you? Is it working on preventing human trafficking, getting more girls in school, improving sweatshop labor conditions, increasing food security, reducing female genital mutilation, building climate change resiliency, and on and on? All of these issues and more are just waiting for ordinary heroes to focus on them. Domestically and globally there are tons of great organizations out there doing amazing work. 

The opportunities are endless. All you need to do is take the first step.

Lyla Bashan ’98 serves in the diplomatic corps for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and is the author of Global: An Extraordinary Guide for Ordinary Heroes (Red Press, 2017). Over the course of her nearly two-decade career in international affairs she has crisscrossed the globe, living in Armenia, Tajikistan, and Guatemala and working throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. Working for USAID, the Department of State, and non-governmental organizations, she has committed her career to being an ordinary hero and strives to help others to do so too. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Government. 

[Excerpt from Global]

Lyla Bashan’s Global: An Extraordinary Guide for Ordinary Heroes: An Excerpt

Rather than chronicling her world travels and accomplishments, Lyla wrote Global as a way to help others understand how the international system works, and inspire them to get involved. A portion of proceeds from the book are donated to social justice causes.

[L]et’s agree on one thing: lucky doesn’t mean better. We don’t go out into the world because we are superior. We go out into the world because we want to serve. Because we can serve. I didn’t grow up in a wealthy family, but I lived in safety, I had a warm bed, enough food to eat and access to quality education and healthcare. I am grateful for my good fortune, and I spend my life working to help those less fortunate than me. It’s an honor, and a privilege. Nothing more; nothing less.

Copyright © Lyla Bashan 2017