Internship puts Ford School student in the right place at the right time

January 7, 2009

As a second-year MPP student at the Ford School, John Schurrer expected to be knee-deep in data when his summer internship with Santa Barbara, California-based nonprofit Direct Relief International (DRI) began in early May. Less than three weeks later, however, John was examining the rubble left by a devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake in China, searching for ways Direct Relief could aid in a massive humanitarian effort.

Proficient in Mandarin, John emerged as DRI's earthquake relief effort's ground leader. As a Peace Corps volunteer, student and visitor John had logged more than 21 months living in China, much of that time in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province and the nearest major city to the earthquake's epicenter. Working with Direct Relief Emergency Response Coordinator Brett Williams, John reestablished contact with a network of acquaintances from his Peace Corps time in the region to identify how best to match Direct Relief's resources with the international relief effort.

"DRI has little presence in China because of how they operate," Schurrer said. "DRI focuses on sending supplies and equipment to organizations that already are in country. Really, DRI had no relationships in China at the time, so that framework wasn't there. Still, as a humanitarian relief organization, DRI wanted to respond but they just didn't have the infrastructure in place."

Most donations were directed to the Chinese Red Cross, but Direct Relief turned to an unexpected resource—a summer intern in the person of John—to lead a fact-finding effort on the ground in Sichuan province.

Andrew Schroeder, Director of Research Analysis at Direct Relief, explained John was selected for the very competitive internship for reasons other than his foreign language skills.

"We understood that John has terrific quantitative skills and that was what we wanted," Andrew, also a Ford School MPP graduate ('08), explained. "We thought his ability to communicate in Chinese was impressive (during the interview process) but not necessary for this internship."

As the organization considered its response to the China earthquake, however, John's language skills and contacts in Chengdu became central to Direct Relief's short-term response plan.

"It was unusual," said Andrew. "It was sort of right person, right place, right time."

On the ground in China, John and Brett Williams sought opportunities to match Direct Relief's resources with specific needs of the recovery effort.

"Ultimately, we found that there was a need for long-term rehabilitation, particularly for women and children," John explained. "DRI has experience providing support for rehabilitation services, especially after the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, so it emerged as a great opportunity for DRI to help in this way."

Now back in Ann Arbor, John recently completed his final semester of coursework at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, graduating in December with a Master of Chinese Studies and an MPP.

Unexpected as it was, John's story demonstrates how Ford School students can have an immediate impact on organizations during summer internships. Looking back at his experience with Direct Relief this summer, John said his role with Direct Relief and his impact within the organization surpassed his expectations. He continues to work with Direct Relief, facilitating communications with contacts in Chengdu.

Despite his interest and experiences in the country, John didn't intend to seek an internship in China because the Beijing Olympics promised to create a hectic environment. The opportunity at Direct Relief appealed to John's interest in using data to guide resource distribution and programmatic decision-making.

"I knew it wouldn't be China-related when I accepted the internship," he explained. "They wanted someone who could use data to show them how to improve the allocation of medical supplies. It's rare for NGOs to look at data in that way, so it was an interesting project to me. (But) the day I started at DRI, the cyclone hit in Myanmar. One week later (May 12, 2008), the earthquake hit in China."

In a way, the turn of events was nothing new for John. After completing an undergraduate degree in Chinese Studies at Ohio State University in 1999, world events kept John close to China and the Chinese people.

China-related jobs were hard to find, John explained, so he found work in Washington, D.C. A few years later, he joined the Peace Corps, hoping to work in Asia.

"I was originally placed in Bangladesh, but just after we arrived, Sept. 11 (attacks on the New York and Washington D.C.) happened and the Peace Corps suspended its operations in Bangladesh. When that happened, I suggested to the Peace Corps that they send me to China, and they did. I spent one year there, then SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) forced the Peace Corps program in China into suspension. I went to Tanzania to finish my Peace Corps commitment. In Tanzania, I actually worked next to a hospital that was staffed by doctors from China, so it was really great that we could communicate with each other in Chinese. The doctors weren't able to speak Swahili but I could, so they appreciated that there was this white guy who could speak Chinese and Swahili. It was a great experience because I got to be around these doctors and the Chinese culture on a tropical island in Africa."

Somehow, China found John again this past summer.