Career Profile: Kate Pearson

Working in Haiti has taken her far from her home state of Alaska, but Kate Pearson's job allows her to address issues that are close to her heart. "Even the poorest people living in the U.S. have it good compared to Haiti," she observes. "That harsh reality keeps me going."

As a child, Kate thought "old maps were really boring." But when it came to choosing a career path, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. Her father is a geography professor, her mother is a historical cartographer, and several other family members are geography or social studies teachers. After a semester in Ecuador piqued her interest in international poverty and inequality, Kate pursued a bachelor's degree in geography and environmental studies at Middlebury College and a master's degree in geography at the University of Arizona.

Kate joined Habitat for Humanity International's Haiti operation in February 2010, after five years at the organization's Latin America & Caribbean Area Office. Her primary responsibility is to develop and maintain partnerships with donors, including bi-lateral institutions, other NGOs, corporations, and faith-based groups. Prior to the devastating January 2010 earthquake, Habitat had provided housing solutions to more than 2,000 Haitian families. To date, it has helped improve conditions for 30,000 families in communities affected by the disaster, which destroyed or damaged roughly 200,000 homes. To support these efforts, Kate and her team have raised over US$45 million for disaster response programming.

Natural disasters are "mostly human disasters," especially in settings like Haiti, where so many structures collapsed because they weren’t built to withstand earthquakes. Rebuilding safer homes reduces vulnerability to future hazards while creating jobs and training opportunities for residents and boosting local economies. Efforts to understand the connections between housing and concerns such as public health, water supply and sanitation, environmental quality, safety and security, and cultural and gender sensitivities mean that geographers and other professionals with interdisciplinary backgrounds have valuable perspectives to contribute to these projects.

Kate notes that regional foci can sometimes create silos within international development organizations, so she advises prospective employees to acquire broadly transferable skills, such as grant writing, communication, basic mapping and GIS proficiencies, foreign languages, and project management, rather than being narrowly focused on a particular region. While specialized skills and knowledge can be an asset, she would usually rather hire someone with hands-on experience and no master's degree than vice versa. For example, international field work in challenging environments provides critical preparation for the difficult conditions often encountered in developing regions.

Because the field needs people who are proactive self-starters, Kate encourages job seekers to focus on highlighting their accomplishments and to do research on the organization and its mission in advance of making contact with a prospective employer: "You want to show that you have a mindset of 'getting things done.'" Kate estimates that a majority of positions today are filled through face-to-face contact, so she recommends digging into contacts within your networks, internships, and informational interviews as strategies for getting in the door.

"International development is a professional career and it requires all kinds of professionals," Kate observes. "It's a microcosm of the world as a whole in terms of opportunities." Geographers can contribute their broad skill sets and the "cross-sectional," holistic approach central to many development projects. Kate's work is intrinsically rewarding and meaningful despite the day-to-day challenges she faces. For her, the job is not only about helping others but "transforming your own life and perspective."

This profile was published in 2012 by Dr. Joy Adams

Update: Kate recently began working for Wetlands International as Resource Development Manager