Maggie Fleming is one of those alums who can lead anyone with wanderlust into a haze of daydreams when they hear the adventures she's had since finishing her degree at Pittsburg State.
Fleming, who graduated with her degree in communication in 2001, has traveled far from her Pittsburg roots in the past 10 years, having worked with several organizations assisting villagers in Africa.
"I knew when I graduated that I wanted to do service work," said Fleming, the Africa advocacy officer for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a non-governmental humanitarian organization. Based in New York City, the agency works with refugees and internally displaced people in 40 countries and 22 cities across the United States. As part of the advocacy team, Fleming is based in Washington, D.C. where she is the representative on Africa for the IRC to the U.S. government, international organizations and other NGOs.
Fleming returned to PSU this spring as a guest of the Department of Communication to give a perspective on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the issue of gender-based violence, and the country's upcoming elections. Stricken by conflict for well over a decade, the DRC remains one of the worst forgotten crises in the world.
Her early experiences working in Africa, she admits, were life-changing considering she'd never left North America. After the Sept. 11 attacks canceled her work plans in New York, she joined the Peace Corps and was stationed in Togo, West Africa, as a community health and AIDS prevention volunteer.
Living in a village of 1,200 people where multiple languages were spoken, Fleming said it was a year that opened her eyes.
"It was a shell shock," she said of her work educating villagers about vaccinations and health awareness. "But it was a great and humbling experience."
After she left the Peace Corps, Fleming spent time living with a cousin who worked for the United Nations in Tanzania. During her stint there, she found work with a local organization focusing on HIV/AIDS awareness. She returned to PSU for graduate courses that would prepare her for a master's program in African studies through the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, which focused on gender-based violence in war-torn countries. The program enabled her to spend six weeks in Tanzania, Rwanda and eastern DRC doing field research.
Upon finishing her degree, she accepted an internship with then-Senator Sam Brownback's office serving on his Human Rights Caucus (they'd heard about her research) before going to work for an NGO in an area so remote in the DRC it could only be reached by plane. In 2007, Fleming returned to the U.S. to work more on the policy angle of humanitarian affairs.
Although it's a change of pace to do her work from an office, she's discovered the value in policymaking and advising.
"There's a self-service in helping others, and it is a little more difficult to get that kind of positive feedback when you're at a desk in Washington," she said. "But policies do affect how we work in the field, so it is important they're driven by the right data and information for them to make that positive impact in the field."
Although at times her life today can feel so far away from her start in Kansas, Fleming said she'll never forget the preparation she received from PSU.
"My professors, friends and colleagues at Pitt State really pushed me, more so than anywhere else," she said. "Some of them realized things about me that I had not realized yet, like my interest in global health and intercultural communication; those communication barriers that must be overcome outside the verbal context. I'm extremely proud that I'm a product of PSU."