Interview with Catherine Cousar
Catherine Cousar holds a master’s degree in global policy studies from the University of Texas and a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Smith College. She currently works for a planning and engineering firm in Texas as a policy analyst and project support specialist. She was the Forage Center’s administrative specialist from 2017 to 2021 and assisted in running the Coastal Promise program in 2018 and 2019. Here, she reflects on her experiences in conversation with the new Forage Center administrative specialist, Kate Fergus.
Q: What initially led you to start working at the Forage Center?
A: Shortly after graduate school, I moved up to Washington D.C. to look for work in public policy. At an alumni event for Smith College, I met Abigail Sleneski, who was a member of the Forage Center’s board of directors at the time. She recommended I meet David J. Smith so he could tell me about the Forage Center. In that first meeting, he mentioned that the Forage Center was looking for an administrative specialist, and I talked him into hiring me part time.
Q: What was your most memorable experience at the Forage Center?
A: Shortly after I began at the Forage Center, they had their annual retreat out at the home of one of the board members. I still remember sitting next to a campfire the first night and listening to all the unique experiences of board members and staff. They had done everything from working for the Red Cross to being a professor, to being a lawyer, to being a nurse. Through my time with the Forage Center, I was always amazed at the wealth of human experience we had to draw on when planning exercises.
Q: How did experiencing the Forage Center’s field exercises as a staff member impact you?
A: It gave me a better understanding of how difficult it is to put humanitarian principles into practice and how important it is to make sure that humanitarian education is more than just abstract concepts. During the first field simulation I helped run, the students agreed to only set up a refugee camp in the north half of the country in the simulation and to allow the local military to both transport aid supplies and guard the refugee camp. This violated all four of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Humanitarian Principles: humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence. The students learned as much from making those mistakes and having to deal with them as the rest of the simulation. I think the greatest value of crisis simulations like the Forage Center provides is that they give future humanitarian workers a chance to make mistakes and learn from them before they go out into the field.
Q: What skills from your experiences with the Forage Center can you use going forward in your career?
A: The greatest skill I gained from my experience at the Forage Center was learning how to learn new skills. The Forage Center is a small organization, and as an administrative specialist, I handled a broad range of tasks from creating promotional material to helping with student enrollment. I often had to learn how to use new software or systems quickly. I learned how to look at things, study tutorials, and be flexible.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: Last year I started with a small planning and engineering firm in Texas that provides services for public infrastructure projects. After spending much of my graduate education learning about international development, it has been fascinating to see what goes into sustaining and growing an established infrastructure system.