From the ground up: Alum discusses his path from coffee plantation worker to education policy leader

April 12, 2020
OISE alum Carlos Ruano.

Carlos Ruano gives added meaning to the phrase 'from the ground up.' He connects his experiences as a coffee picker in Guatemala to building networks that landed him a senior role at the United Nations' World Food Programme.

Today, Carlos is involved in the development of school feeding programs for 11 million school-age children across Pakistan  –  programs which are vital in improving quality of education and student learning outcomes in the country.

What is your role in the United Nations' World Food Program?

"As the new education expert at the World Food Programme, United Nations Office for Pakistan, I'm developing an operational and conceptual framework to link learning outcomes to school feeding programs for some 11 million school-age children in three Pakistani provinces.

My role requires highly specialized policy crafting experience as well as technical know how in learning delivery systems including the school-related nutritional aspects of learning outcomes."


How did your OISE experiences help lead you there?

"My OISE doctoral research training was essential for this role, which requires the ability to share one’s knowledge and skills with local and international staff who are not always knowledgeable about things like socioeconomic context, regional nutritional geography or local politics. It is absolutely critical to be able to guide and mentor research production teams as well as to summarize complex findings from other areas that might impact our work.

I got my first job in international education when I was a student at OISE. I was encouraged by my supervisor to apply for the  World Bank’s summer internship,  which allowed me to financially support my field research later on.

After that, I went on to work at several major education and  international and domestic affairs  organizations including UNESCO, International Labour Organization and the World Bank Group, before joining the United Nations.

A combination of on-the-job learning, professional certifications, field experience and formal education have been instrumental in landing me where I am today." 

Global connections are critical in your career. What's your "coffee picker" approach to building a professional network?

"In my experience, to build your network of contacts you must decide whether to pursue what I like to call a coffee picker approach, a fisherman’s approach or a spider’s – both on and offline.

I began as a coffee picker living in Guatemala. I  quickly learned the value of choosing different quality seeds for different types of coffee drying equipment. For example, I learned to use fine red grains for temperamental coffee dryers. 

It is the same for building a network: choose people according to career objective, type of job and level of quality  (remember,  coarse  coffee is not always bad!) . In career matters as in coffee, it's your objectives and interests that determine how one ‘picks’ a network. 

In the case of the fisherman’s approach, decide how wide and how deep you wish to cast your net. It depends on what type of job you're interested in and how wide the amount of contacts required to find it. 

For the spider’s approach, it is necessary to have patience as we are assuming that interested contacts may come our way. We have to find creative ways to invite them into our professional web. Often introverted personalities are good at this approach, which requires sensitivity, attention to detail and excellent knowledge of the potential places where we’d like to work.

We can combine different styles of network building but only sometimes will a job prospect materialize when we want it to. The key is to persevere and not allow initial setbacks to become your defining lens for pursuing career leads." 

With an EdD degree, you've also built networks through universities. Can you talk about this?

"I have been a visiting professor in universities in the US, Mexico, Colombia and the Netherlands. 

I find most universities welcome a mixture of so-called real-world experience with published research and the ability to deliver seminars or intensive practicums.

Generally, as a visiting professor, I work with graduate students with a clear career focus and prepare my teaching materials accordingly. We explore the actual impacts and direct consequences of the assumptions (be they implicit or explicit) guiding our work on real people with real concerns. This is a place where future partnerships and collaborations are made." 

For a career in global education and policy, what are the necessary skills and what should be expected?

"Several factors can help you in constructing a successful career in this field.

Learn to wear and change hats as the situation warrants. In some cases, you’ll be managing research production to certain specifications or the stages leading to the rollout of a program.  Other times, you’ll be brought onboard to redefine a large scope of work, both yours and that of others. Sometimes, you are the project manager. Expect everything to land on your shoulders and stay there.  People will look up to you for big picture guidance. 

For all these roles, you must be ready to connect the dots, from modeling to scaling to monitoring and evaluating. You need to keep one foot firmly planted in the organizations’ goals and the other in your day to day activities.

At the end of the day, it is how we support our partners' priorities, their goals and their capacity to achieve them, which determines how successful we have been."

How has your degree from OISE shaped this work? What advice do you have for future students looking to start doctoral studies? 

"My career has had components related to regular academic work and also non-academic work. Both I was able to develop at OISE and are continually relevant in my field. 

After taking an MSc degree, I had the option to stay in the US and pursue a fully funded PhD in the University of Georgia. However, OISE’s faculty and Toronto’s critical mass of institutions for research and career advice tipped the scales.

In my experience, potential employers have always understood that OISE produces border-crossing, barrier-breaking types of scholar-practitioners. So attending OISE is a decision I have never regretted.

I recommend to all who are starting their doctoral journey, or those who are soon to graduate, to consider combining different types of roles and activities—within North America and overseas—for a rewarding and successful career.  The result for me has been an amazing collection of life experiences in four continents worldwide! 

An EdD degree from OISE is a powerful calling card and one that needs to be used wisely. Before you begin, take some time to reflect on what inspires you. About your place in the world. About what you wish to do with the time you're given. Take a deep breath, reach up and exhale your future."


"Be the change within that I want to see without"

Want to learn more about Carlos' career insights? Have questions about pursuing doctoral studies? OISE alumni and students can connect with Carlos on LinkedIn.

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