student Spotlight

February Student Spotlight with Sara Hoenes, MIA ‘20


Master of International Affairs student, Sara Hoenes tells us all about her transition from professional dancer to international affairs student; her Washington Semester experience and subsequent trip to Sierra Leone – and more.

Tell us about your experience with The Washington Semester.
My experience in the Washington Semester has been really wonderful. I was accepted for a Fellowship at Accountability Lab, which is a nonprofit working in several countries on corruption and accountability issues through creative campaigns. The global office is in DC and there are local offices in Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Nepal, Pakistan, and South Africa. The DC office is only 3 people. Because the team is so small, I’ve been given a lot of independence and responsibility.

Accountability Lab is located at the Open Gov Hub, which hosts 44 nonprofits in the same open office with common spaces like a kitchen and event space. All 44 organizations are working on accountability, integrity and open government, so it is easy to network and find out what other interesting projects people are working on. The Hub hosts weekly events on strengthening nonprofit work and bimonthly social events such as movie screenings, socials, holiday parties, and potluck lunches.

I’m at the Hub Monday through Thursday for my Fellowship and on Fridays I have class with Professor Robbins and Professor Jarvis. The semester has covered a wide range of topics in public policy from the constitution to impeachment. It has been a fascinating time to be in Washington.

In addition to work and class, I’ve been able to explore Washington. There are so many great neighborhoods to spend time in and every museum is free. It is much more manageable than New York and I have met a number of interesting new people.

Can you talk a bit about your Fellowship with Accountability Lab in DC and the trip to Sierra Leone they sent you on?
Working at Accountability Lab has been a really great fit for me because I come from a creative background. I have been able to gain new skills and knowledge, but also put my creative talents to use. I have supported the team on creative ventures such as their music competition Voice2Rep in Nigeria and a larger music collaboration for all of Africa with the ONE Campaign. They have also given me a lot of creative freedom to craft country reports, project proposals, and concept notes. I’ve also had the opportunity to create briefs and concept notes for the World Economic Forum, UNDP, and panel discussions on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Perhaps the largest responsibility I was given was to build out and deliver the curriculum for a day and a half teambuilding and accountability training for the EU Delegation in Sierra Leone. The Delegation requested training in the areas of time management, embracing differences, communication, emotional intelligence, self-regulation, unconscious bias, photography for social media, risk and consent, and managing stress. The program was designed to be almost completely interactive, with the goal of having fun and brining the team closer together through a series of games followed by discussions, debriefings and exercises for developing strategies.

I traveled to Freetown in mid-November to meet Luther Jeke from the Accountability Lab iCampus in Liberia. It was quite a unique experience being the only American in the room. I had to call upon my coursework from Global Communications to remember that culturally, I would be in a room of people who communicated and viewed the world much differently than myself and from each other. By the end of the day-and-a-half training, members of the Delegation felt heard by their coworkers, more connected to each other, and equipped with tools to manage time and stress, communicate more effectively, and increase engagement on social media with captivating photos.

All of this might seem far removed from the larger fight against corruption in Sierra Leone, however, the ability to work together, communicate efficiently, resolve conflicts, and manage stress are all part of being accountable- both to ourselves and our teams. And this kind of training will support the Delegation in accelerating their work to fight much bigger issues of graft and corruption in Sierra Leone.

You were a professional dancer – how did you become interested in international affairs and switch to this career path?
My interest in working in international affairs began in 2010, when I was asked to be a cultural ambassador for a dance project in Cape Town, South Africa. The project involved collaborating with South African dancers from Ikapa Dance Theatre on a piece about peace and reconciliation. I also had the opportunity to teach dance to children in the townships of Gugulethu, Nyanga, and Khayelitsha. This experience shaped a new world view for me. I found the children happy and eager to learn. They made such an impact on me that upon returning to New York, I co-founded a Community Engagement Program between Steps On Broadway and The Hudson Guild Children’s Center. For eight years we have provided creative movement dance classes to low-income early childhood education students in New York City at three head-start funded daycare centers. When I met someone who worked in global brand positioning at UNICEF in 2016, I knew that I could create a second career out of my passion for supporting and protecting vulnerable children.

What is your favorite class so far and why?
This summer, I had the opportunity to study abroad at Science Po in Paris. It was an experience I will never forget. I took a course in Human Rights and Global Development, which was taught seminar style by three professors. The primary professor was Jeremy Perelman, an international human rights lawyer whose work focused on alleviating poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. I found Professor Perelman extremely knowledgeable and engaging. My classmates were from diverse backgrounds and learning institutions from all over the world.

Seminar style class meant that the majority of the class was spent discussing readings. Professor Perelman asked thought provoking questions and encouraged all the students to share our thoughts and opinions. We quite often took part in heated debates. The bulk of class discussions revolved around international institutions being controlled primarily by the US and other developed nations, the impact it has on the developing world, what is good development versus bad development, and how to implement sustainable change in developing countries. My favorite day was when we were given a case study on a human rights case in Ghana and had to work in groups to come up with an advocacy plan.