Alumna Interview: Elizabeth Whelan

by Sarah McClung

Sarah McClung interviews Elizabeth Whelan, a Friedman alumna, about her work with Save the Children in Myanmar and how her degree has helped her in the field.

Friedman alumna Elizabeth Whelan. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Whelan.

Friedman alumna Elizabeth Whelan. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Whelan.

I wish I could write that this interview took place over soup dumplings at Xi Yang Yang Xiao Long Bao Dumplings in Yangon, Myanmar. Sadly, that was not the case, but that is where I met Friedman alumna Elizabeth Whelan on a rainy day this summer. Last year, I was fortunate enough to receive support from the Dr. Elie J. Baghdady Memorial Fund, established by Friedman School alumna Georgette Baghdady in memory of her father to help students interested in humanitarian work gain experience overseas.  I learned that Whelan, currently working with Save the Children in Myanmar, was a recipient a few years back. She graciously agreed to an interview for The Sprout, in which we discussed where her degree has taken her, advice for current students, and some fond memories of the program and life in Boston.

For nearly two years, Whelan has been working for the international NGO Save the Children in Myanmar. She supports the Leveraging Essential Nutrition Actions to Reduce Malnutrition (LEARN) project with the goal of “increasing the capacity of local and international non-government organizations to deliver a more comprehensive approach to food security that includes all three food security pillars: availability, access, and utilization.” She loves living in Yangon and has found being in the midst of the country’s national transition fascinating. (Myanmar was formerly known as Burma until 1989.) She also expressed something I found to be true about Myanmar: the people are some of the warmest and most helpful you will ever meet.

I asked Whelan about how she ended up at Friedman and she shared an impactful experience from her days volunteering with Partners in Health in Haiti in which she was watching a nurse fit a child with severe acute malnutrition (SAM) with a nasal gastric tube. Knowing malnutrition is preventable, Whelan said that it was at that moment she realized that nutrition—in some form—was her calling. Whelan walked me back further in her superhero origin story and explained that her father was an agricultural economist and his work brought the family to Zambia where they lived for five years, during which time the country experienced a famine. As a result, her interest in nutrition and food security began at an early age.

“Friedman really seemed like an obvious decision,” said Whelan. She explained that in the seven years between completing of her undergraduate degree and starting graduate school, she considered other career paths, including nurse midwifery and photography. Whelan realized that all of her work was hunger-related and rather than dismiss the pattern as coincidence, she decided better to recognize it and find a place to pursue her passion more formally.

Some of Whelan’s fondest memories of Friedman include sharing her learning experience (and food!) with other students. “It was nice to be around people who like to cook,” she noted of casual interactions like the Wednesday seminars that made the Jaharis auditorium look like a tapas bar with people breaking out their mason jars and Tupperware full of delectable leftovers.

I am preparing to complete my MS in the FPAN program in December and had to ask Whelan about her last semester. “Plans came through towards the end,” she explained. She applied and was accepted into the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) International Fellows program, which ended up taking her to Ghana after a three-month consultancy with Action Against Hunger (ACF) in Paris, facilitated by Professor Jennie Coates. “Don’t stress about the future and trust that things will fall into place. Tufts has a fantastic reputation in the nutrition community. There’s brand recognition.” I asked if there was anything she wished someone had told her when she was a student and she talked about how graduating with a degree with nutrition in the title creates the expectation that you are a nutrition science expert.

When asked about coursework, Whelan explained that she could not think of a Friedman class that had not come up at some point in her professional life directly or indirectly. She specifically mentioned Professor Jennie Coates’ Monitoring and Evaluation class, Nutrition Science with Professor Diane McKay, Survey Research with Professor Bea Rogers, Professor Will Masters’ economics class, and even though Statistics with Professor Bob Houser was really “painful,” was very useful. Whelan also mentioned a directed study on determinants of sustainability under Professor Coates and Professor Rogers on Title II Food Aid Exit Strategies, which extended into her second year and allowed her to apply what she had learned in other classes in a more “real world” context.

“The thing about Friedman is that the professors are of such high caliber,” said Whelan explaining that she regularly comes across research published by Tufts professors.

I offered to relay messages back to Friedman professors and Whelan said the following:

  • Professor Coates: “I’m impressed by and grateful for the impact you and the food security tools you’ve developed have had on international development. My colleagues and I rely on them regularly.”
  • Professor Rogers: “I didn’t realize how much I learned in survey research, one of the most useful courses I took at Friedman.”
  • Professor Masters: “Your words from a lecture years ago stuck with me, something along the lines of ‘economics is walking back in the chain of causality until you would make the same decision as a farmer, or vendor, or some other person in a low income context. We don’t always understand why people make certain decisions but people are generally doing their best to survive and we need to understand their daily realities.’ These words have proven true and useful working in the field.”

And I of course had to ask Whelan about food. She found it difficult to name just one favorite, but some of her top picks include soup dumplings, fruits (particularly some of the exotic ones from Myanmar like mangosteen and pomelo), classic pecan pie, and—my favorite response—vanilla baked goods, including highly processed yellow cake from the grocery store – we’re talking sheet cake from Stop & Shop.

When asked to name her favorite things about Boston, Whelan mentioned fond memories of the walk from the T to the Medford campus, Prana Power Yoga, quintessential pubs and coffee shops, and living amongst so many students and feeling like a part of a larger academic community.

I knew after our soup dumpling lunch that Whelan was someone I wanted to keep up with. Work in international development can be disheartening, and I come across people who have become demoralized and cynical more often than individuals who have a positive outlook. Whelan obviously genuinely enjoys her work, and it was inspiring to speak with her about her efforts in the field as I prepare to leave Friedman. To learn more about LEARN or Save the Children, you can check out their websites. And should you find yourself in Yangon, do reach out to one very impressive alumna.

Sarah McClung is a second-year, second-semester FPAN student hoping to use her Friedman degree to help feed hungry people… but not like as a waitress. Please send any job leads. But like seriously.

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