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Designing the future

Kaying Vang earned a B.S. in apparel design from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 2007, winning a number of fashion awards during her undergraduate years. This may seem an odd preparation for a master's degree in international development but Vang begs to differ.

"I liked apparel design because it is a practical application of art," she explains. "Development is the practical application of my ideas about making things better in an appropriate way."

Vang, who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and grew up in Wisconsin, has a lot of practical experience, working on literacy programs in St. Paul and Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and serving for two years as a youth development coordinator with the Peace Corps in Guatemala

"In the field you realize that many things need improvement and you make changes along the way," Vang says. "But it isn't very scientific."

Vang enrolled in the University of Minnesota's new Master of Development Practice (MDP) degree to ground her experience in theory and to learn the skills to make her work more effective. The program, which enrolled its first cohort of 16 students this fall, is jointly administered by the Institute and Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change and spans several academic units across the University, including the College of Biological Sciences, the School of Public Health, and several others. Coursework includes training in policy analysis and management; health and education; natural sciences; social sciences, and interdisciplinary research methods.

"I want to be able to analyze situations and then make improvements or eliminate programs that aren't useful," Vang says.

Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins, who spent the 1970s working as an economic planner for an international consulting firm "helping wealthy corporations exploit developing nations," was one of several factors that influenced Vang's decision to pursue graduate school. The tell-all exposé reminded Vang that not all in international development is as it appears on the surface.

"A dam project might be promoted as an economic boon to an area but it might come at a huge environmental cost," she says. "I want to be able to interpret the data myself and evaluate the options, not be taken advantage of."

The first semester of the two-year program has just begun but Vang is enjoying her courses in development theory and the ecology of agricultural systems, the latter because it is a new area of study for her.

"I think I will really have the opportunity to grow here," she says. "There are such a large variety of options that I can branch out and find new interests."

Despite Vang's lack of formal training in program evaluation, Vang is quick to size up her fellow MDP classmates: "They are amazing! Most speak several languages and have visited many countries."

Professor Ragui Assaad, who leads the MDP program, agrees with Vang's assessment.

"The entering class of MDP students is not only impressive academically and diverse along gender and ethnic lines, but also comes with a rich variety of life and work experiences in just about every major world region. Kaying Vang typifies this combination of excellence, diverse life experience, and a strong personal commitment to make the world a better place."

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