Works and Days

Jungle Reedie: Robin Fink, 2009, pursues her dream career in the Ecuadorian jungle

Robin Fink, Class of '09, lives and works in Ecuador where she does her self-proclaimed “dream job.”  Involvement with the Ecuador Service Project her freshman year sparked a lifelong passion and career path. Throughout her time at Reed and beyond, her dedication to service and her drive to take advantage of every available resource earned her multiple awards, grants, and scholarships.

Tell me a bit about yourself, and what you are doing now:

I graduated in 2009, so I’ve now been out as long as I was in Reed. Which is totally trippy, really mind-blowing. I’ve lived in Ecuador for the past 4 years. I currently work at organization called Fundación Pachamama, in Quito. We have a sister organization in San Francisco, the Pachamama Alliance. Our focus here is more on the ground, since we’re actually located in Ecuador. We promote alternative forms of development that don’t depend on the extraction of non-renewable resources, and support alternative, sustainable ways of living that are also spiritually fulfilling. I’m working with a program called Jungle Mamas,  a maternal and infant health program. It’s intercultural, so we’re working with indigenous nations of people in the Amazon. Actually, we’re working with the Achuar people, which is interesting because Reed had an Anthropology class while I was there called “Nature, Culture, and Environmentalism” and we read a lot about Achuar people… and now I’m working with them!

How did you get where you are today?

When I was at Reed, I worked with the Ecuador Service Project. I saw a flyer in the stall of the north reference library bathroom for a meeting about the program, and that’s how it all began. One trip between my first and second year turned into devoting my entire Reed career to the Ecuador Service Program. I was really trying to make my Reed education in the ivory tower applicable and useful on the ground. I wasn’t particularly enthused the first year at Reed, I even considered transferring. Then I went to Ecuador and realized I really could apply my anthropology education on the ground. Anne Lorimer encouraged me to use my experience in the community as a launch point for thought and inquiry in my anthropology classes. She put me in touch with Jon Bialecki, who focused on the anthropology of Christianity, which catalyzed my whole interest in making what I was learning in class work on the ground. 

Those professors really encouraged me to apply what I was learning in class at the local level, and I became kind of obsessed with getting involved, with making a difference and trying to create the opportunity for other Reedies to have an eye-opening experience like I did in Ecuador.

I started as a volunteer intern/translator with the program, a sort of doer-of-everything. We have an expansive international network of people we work with, and often we have meetings with people who speak only English or only Spanish, so I did a lot of translating in the beginning. I definitely used my Reed anthropology education to carry the program forward.

How did you turn your goals into realities? What at Reed supported you in achieving your goals?

I was at Reed on financial aid, and without the financial support I received from the school I wouldn’t have been able to travel. At Reed, there are so many opportunities to get funding to have travel experiences. There’s Senate, there’s the amazing financial aid, and there are grants and scholarships. I got a McGill Lawrence Internship award. I’d had conversation with Julie Kern Smith where I asked, “How can I take this (Ecuador Service Project) further?” I applied for the grant and got $2000, which was funding to keep doing what I love to do: continuing with the service project and volunteering with family planning clinic in Ecuador.

I realized as long as I’m passionate about learning and going and doing something, Reed was really there to support me in doing that. Career services (now The Center for Life Beyond Reed) and my professors really encouraged me to go out there and apply myself. There are so many resources available you can put towards something great. I got another grant, the Davis Project for Peace grant, for a gardening project. For me it was crazy, I was writing these grants and actually getting them. I had this real sense of solidarity and support from Reed. I was very excited about the experiences I was having, which would end up feeding into my thesis (an ethnography on how conversion to evangelical Christianity has changed how people think about health and illness). I remember thinking “Wow, Reed has opened up all these doors for me and I want to do that for other people.” I helped other friends write their own grants, and I got to be there for them and say, “This is what a successful grant looks like, you can do it!” I was able to help other Reedies through the Watson grants and the Davis grants, because I had people to help me, hold me. Career services and alumni helped me, and now it’s really a pay it forward process.

I really felt empowered by the resources that exist at Reed. Sometimes it feels as though it is a place where you always have to be in the library, and do nothing but study. It feels very insular. But there are abundant resources and people who want to help you realize what you’re passionate about. They opened so many doors for me. Through the service project and the relationships I formed, I was able to manifest my own dream job—which is crazy. I knew I wanted to do work with women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, and with indigenous people in Ecuador. I remember sending in abstract of my thesis and resume to Pachamama’s, and was told, “We have this program, Jungle Mamas, do you want to take control of it?” Now I’m the program director, and I’m writing grants and getting lots of funding. I consider myself fulfilled. For the time being.

It would not have been possible, at all, without Reed. Not just the degree, but having Reed make all this possible. Reed didn’t just shape me as an academic, a hard worker, and a critical thinker; It also gave me skills in working at nonprofit, and toward building my career. So many people think the story has to be, “I went to a liberal arts college, I went to Reed, now I’m living in a box and have no job.” But you can really be set up with so many skills and opportunities at Reed.

How do you think Reedies can be successful during their time at Reed, and beyond?

I think the general concept in mainstream thought is that success is having a stable job and getting paid well and having a more-than-decent salary and getting good grades and, you know, being good, above average. And I feel that the concept of success at Reed rubs me the wrong way, that success is a word that’s so weighed down by these conceptions, and we have this trajectory of undergraduate degree to graduate degree, to family, to kids, to… what? Success, for me was more along the lines of: I’m totally addicted to coffee, I have to stay up late, my life is so hard. Because in the moment you’re thinking, “This is torture, this is not beneficial to my well-being… but at the same time those experiences are so wonderful and they contribute to who you are. A lot of Reedies have come down to Ecuador and we have these connections, we talk in ways only Reedies could understand. Stim table, Renn Fayre, midnight trips to Homer’s Hut… it’s these little moments that establish a culture of what it means to be a Reedie, and that I feel that those moments contributed to a sense of well being. My success at Reed is not measure by grades, grants, or the cool stuff I did— success is more about well being, learning how to balance life, how to juggle it, how not be too extreme with studying. I learned how to take care of myself, and if you can get a good grasp of what self-care is in college it will really contribute to life after college. It’s really hard! There were times I just couldn’t deal and I’d end up in tears after conference, but that’s life, that’s Reed life.

What did you find helpful in managing the workload and pressures of Reed?

I look back at my experience, and there were definitely ups and downs. I remember that feeling of being overwhelmed by work, and there was period where I felt I more so than others was over-conscious of grades. I was really pushing forward, I was pre-med, and I had an expectation I was going to be a particular type of person. I really kind of struggled for a period of time. We have concept of “Okay, I did the work, but there’s so much better I could be,” and feeling like it’s not good enough, you’re not good enough. I took the academic life very personally.

I took a lot of classes at Reed that put me out of my comfort zone for the pre-med track, such as Chemistry and O-Chem. It was difficult at times to balance that lab workload with the heavy reading load of anthropology. I definitely utilized tutors, and I had study sessions. Everyone would work together, and some upperclassmen who were majors in the subject would be there to help us out. That peer-to-peer resource was very helpful.

And Prexy! That was a big resource for me. Sometimes when I was thesising, I’d go to Prexy, grab my saxophone and play for a while. Or I’d plunk around on a piano for hours. It was open all night with my swipe, and it was perfect. Exactly what I needed, a chance to escape and get some space.

I think that ultimately I was able to balance academic life in a way that more or less kept me feeling sane. I involved myself with music. I played jazz and had a band. It was really important for me to set time aside for things really valuable to me, having that outlet to use the other part of my brain, in addition to  having something that I was working toward with the Ecuador Service Project. I was fundraising, working with the community, and with each month that passed I was able to think, “I’m that much closer to summer when I get to go to Ecuador, when I get to go do this project, and I’m really excited.”

Something I really love—and this may not be completely relevant—is the Reed Canyon. It’s a really important place for me. It was a place I went with friends to talk about important ideas, to get a space away from the library. I think it’s important to have those places in nature where you can process your thoughts.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for Reedies in the pursuit of their goals?

I felt challenged by the conflict I felt between being anthropology student who was also looking to engage with activism, and for a long time I struggled with the issue of feeling paralyzed, with an affliction Reedies suffer from that I call “paralysis from over-analysis.” It’s thinking, “By being involved I’m touching them with my perspective, and if I impose my Western perspective on these people I’m doing them harm and thus I shouldn’t act.” I think Reedies tend to overanalyze and overthink to the point that they feel they cannot act on anything.

I went from the Socratic Reedie method of education to study in Ecuador, where the teacher has all the power and students copy everything. It’s a very reguritory style. It was challenging for me initially to grow accustomed to the college, and to my peers. I had this moment where I realized, wait—the real world doesn’t work in the conference style. I had to learn that the way I would conduct myself in a Reed conference would be inappropriate or rejected in a different cultural setting.

Reed sculpts us to think in a particular way. Not that we’re all machines, but I feel the way we approach issues, the critical thinking and analysis we employ, is very characteristic of Reed. A lot of people become accustomed to thinking that way and it can cause friction in a different setting. At Reed, we’ve gotten used to talking and asking questions of authority, and that’s not necessarily the norm for young people entering the workforce, as interns or other entry-level positions. But I think it can also work to your advantage. If you’re super aware of the privilege of the education you’ve had, you can really use the method to your benefit. For me, it’s been really helpful in leading workshops and public speaking.

How do you think Reed equips students well for achievement?

I think Reed really equips students well for grant writing. The constant writing we do in school, the whole process in place of really writing a lot, and getting graded harshly, and engaging in intense dialogue with professors helps you express yourself in a way that is articulate and concise, which is really helpful for grant writing. I think I’ve written eight grants in the last two years, and have been rejected for one. I often struck with wondering how it’s all happening—and I think it had to do with writing a thesis, with learning to express myself articulately, and getting help from career services (Center for Life Beyond Reed) with writing grants. The writing at Reed is excellent practice for the really big stuff.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently while at Reed?

I would definitely taken more advantage of Gray Fund trips. I never went to the ski cabin. I never went on the trips. I participated in activities, but never went on trips. I went off campus with friends, and we did stuff, but I look back and really wish Id taken more opportunities to be a part of Gray Fund, to have participated in more free events. That is definitely something I wish I did differently.

I also remember freshman year being way too studious. I took it a little too seriously. I think I might have relaxed a bit more freshman year, maybe sophomore year as well. But I don’t think I would have done much differently. I made a big effort to do the creative things, along with the academic. I guess I could have devoted a little more time to Greenboard, to student activism on campus.

Any advice for current Reed students?

When you’re in the thick of it at Reed, you say, “This is not healthy, and this is so intense, what am I doing to myself?” But Reed really is special. It provides unique experiences that we need to be grateful for. In the long scheme of things, try to be grateful for this wonderful space that exists. Go to the gym, go on the Gray Fund trips, take advantage of it! There’s just an abundance of resources! Use career services, use it! There are so many people who want to support you. Even if you’re having a difficult time, there are counselors who are wonderful. Take advantage of the funding available, start an organization! And if you’re really passionate about something apply for a grant—there are people who will help you make it happen. Reed wants you to be able to have these experiences.

Do it. Don’t be afraid; just do it.

Tags: ecuador service project, davis project for peace, mcgill lawrence, ecuador, junglemama‘s, panchamama, grants, grant writing, environment, sustainability