Working the Field in South Sudan: Alumnus Joseph Astrella

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Born in Toronto, Canada, Joseph Astrella graduated from JCU in 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. After graduation, Joe began working at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, currently as an Operating Officer in South Sudan. Thanks to an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Kent, Joe is able to practice his passion at ground-level. 

How’s life after graduation?
After graduation, I had mixed emotions. I was ecstatic to have finally completed my undergraduate studies, but on the other hand, it was difficult to accept the end of an era. I was lucky, I immediately started at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as an intern and not long thereafter I became a consultant. The experience afforded me a lot of useful knowledge about life along the way. Although it served me well, I began to stagnate by staying in Rome, holding on to the comfort of my JCU days. So, I decided to pursue other things that I knew would push me forward. For instance, my interests started moving more towards foreign policy and international security rather than communications, so I decided to pursue a master’s in Brussels, which has since opened up a new realm of opportunities.

What brought you to JCU?
As a kid, I had always wanted to visit Italy so that I could experience firsthand the culture and get in touch with my family roots. It seemed every year the trip would get pushed back for one reason or another. So when I was 18 I decided to save up enough money and travel to Italy by myself. This is when I truly fell in love with the country. Fast forward to my second year at college back in Santa Fe, Florida, I became very frustrated with my daily routine and knew that I wanted a change. Remembering back to when I first heard about John Cabot University from a school fair in high school, I decided to take a chance and apply. When I got accepted everything changed for me.

Joseph Astrella

Joseph Astrella

Tell us about your experience working in South Sudan.
After I finished my MA in Brussels, I moved back home to Canada. I then heard about a job opening for fieldwork in South Sudan and applied; you could say my interview went well! South Sudan is unlike anywhere I’ve ever experienced. When driving through Juba (South Sudan’s capital) the first thing you notice is the extreme poverty and lack of infrastructures. The country has been devastated by war and as a result, there is a high crime rate. However, despite years of protracted armed conflict, the locals are very friendly and genuine. They are very curious about you are,  they want to know where you’re from, if you’re married, have children etc., and greetings typically last around ten minutes.

Working here has been very rewarding. In Rome, it was difficult to understand the Organization’s impact from behind a computer screen; you don’t necessarily understand the needs of the people you’re helping. Whereas living here has allowed me to witness FAO’s projects being implemented at ground-level. For instance, I go on field visits and meet directly with the beneficiaries to discuss their experiences. I also liaise with embassies and development agencies. In addition to my contracted role, I am also enthusiastic about the security responsibilities that I have been given for my compound in the event of a crisis.

What’s your ultimate career goal?
I want to stay open to new experiences and make sure that I don’t develop any sort of tunnel-vision. Everything good that has happened to me so far has been completely unexpected. So I hope to keep that momentum going and accept whatever is thrown at me head on. For now, that means staying in South Sudan until the next person or opportunity comes my way and changes my course.

Do you have any advice for graduating students?
My advice would be to slow down. These days it’s common for students to jump right into a graduate program without gaining any practical experience. In reality, you have just completed what a few years ago seemed to be an insurmountable task. The perspective you gain in the initial year after graduation is important, especially in discovering what matters most to you, and more importantly, understanding what you don’t want to do. It’s a competitive world out there, but the right opportunity always comes along if you’re open to it – so I say don’t rush it!