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Elise Ditta '10

Academics / Departments & Programs / Global Development Studies / Careers & Outcomes / Alumni / Elise Ditta

Current Activities (2019): Research at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame
Major: GDS and Spanish with a minor in Sociology

What sparked your interest in international development?

After spending two years in Indonesia as a child, I knew that I wanted to study something that would teach me about how different groups of people lived. As I got older, I focused more on questions about inequality. Why do some people get an education and others don't? Why do some people have access to legal representation and others don't? To put this positively, I was interested in global justice, and international development seemed like a good field of study in which to look at this further. At the time, not many undergraduate institutions had an International Development program, and Calvin's seemed like a great fit. I was especially excited about the opportunity to study abroad in Honduras.

Can you describe your path since graduation?

After I graduated I worked with the Association for a More Just Society in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I started out as a volunteer there through the Mennonite Central Committee, and then became a full time employee of the organization. My colleagues at AJS work to provide legal and psychological aid for victims of violent crime and corruption, and also strive for change in education, security, and health policy at the national level. My job as the Director of Communications was to connect the stories of success happening in Honduras with our North American partners.

Both my co-workers and the host family I stayed with were incredible in teaching me about Honduran context and culture. As I learned more, especially about how violent crime affects local communities, things I learned in development classes at Calvin kept coming back to me. I wondered how communities could ever come together to create positive change if they were afraid of each other and the authorities. I wanted to learn more about how to build trust in violent contexts. To do that I started looking for masters programs in peace studies. In 2014 I started a two year Masters program in International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. When I graduated from the Masters program I started working at the University on a project that monitors the implementation of the peace agreement signed between the FARC-EP rebel group and the government in Colombia.

What is your most memorable experience in the field?

Where do I begin?! On the funny side, on my first birthday in Honduras, my host family said they had a "special Honduran blessing" for me. Next thing I knew, they had broken three raw eggs over my head, in what I later learned was a favorite birthday tradition. Generally, living and learning with a host family was a huge part of my experience in Honduras.

On the work side, accompanying my lawyer, investigator, and psychologist colleagues as they worked for justice for victims of violent crime and corruption was incredible. I remember one time I was in the courtroom with the mother and sister of a man who had been murdered. After the guilty verdict was read, the sister said to me, "Elise, I wish I had a camera so I could take a picture of this moment. I want everyone to know that justice can be done!" In my current job, the opportunity to provide real time data to decision makers in Colombia to help them improve the implementation of a peace agreement that was 50-years in the making has been incredible!

How has your faith influenced your work in development?

I love the idea shared by Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper that "every square inch" of this world belongs to God. If that is the case, although everything is broken, there is hope for renewal in all things. This conviction allows me to do my small part for renewal where I am. I will have successes and failures, but in the end, God's work of restoration and renewal will continue only through his faithfulness.

In addition to my faith influencing my work in international development, my work has influenced my faith. The false sense of control that we in the Global North have due to technology, financial stability, and relative physical safety is often not present in the Global South. I am learning to give up thinking I have control, and instead focus on God's provision and grace.

What was your favorite aspect of your Calvin experience and what do you wish you had done differently?

Calvin was a holistic experience for me. I really enjoyed my classes, but the extracurricular opportunities were equally important. I lived on the Mosaic (now Grassroots) floor, worked at the Service-Learning Center, studied abroad in Honduras, helped to organize the Faith and International Development Conference, and taught ESL at a local church. All of these things taught me a lot about myself and the world.

If I could do it over again, I would take more time to rest and build relationships. Often I was so focused on school work and activities that I didn't take time to do these two things. Now I see and I am a better student and employee when I take time to rest and be in community.

What advice would you give to current IDS students?

  • Study a language (and practice it)! It is scary at first, but it will make a difference in the job market.
  • Take advantage of service-learning opportunities in Grand Rapids. You don't have to go abroad to work with marginalized populations. You can learn a lot through tutoring, doing administrative work, or helping with grant writing right in Grand Rapids.
  • Take time to get to know yourself. This sounds cheesy, but knowing your strengths, weaknesses, and culture will make you a better development worker, especially when you're put in new, stressful situations.

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