Jennifer Isern, MPA '92
Profile by Reyko Huang, MPA '04
“I was always interested in international development,” says Jennifer Isern, who is a Lead Microfinance Specialist for The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP) in Washington, DC. She chose international development as her field of study upon arrival at the Woodrow Wilson School, right after completing undergraduate studies. While she had worked with a research project through USAID/Costa Rica and the Montana Senate, Jennifer felt the need for more experience and decided to take 15 months off from school to work abroad.
She speaks fondly of her “year-out” experiences, noting that they proved to be pivotal for career development after Princeton. She first worked with USAID in Senegal, where she fostered further interest in development while working on gender analysis of the mission’s agricultural projects, as well as proposing similar analysis for education projects. She then went to Niger to work with CARE, where she helped launch a village-based savings and credit program which has now grown to serve over 70,000 clients nation-wide.
After graduating from WWS, Jennifer went back to work with CARE, this time in Togo. There, she helped initiate five projects on issues ranging from microcredit and NGO capacity building to girls’ education and HIV/AIDS prevention. She then worked as a regional advisor in economic development for CARE before closing a chapter of her life in West Africa and moving back to the U.S. to work with CGAP.
Since she joined CGAP just a year after it was established in 1995, Jennifer has been an active participant in the expansion of the organization. CGAP is a consortium of 29 public and private donor agencies that support microfinance. The group aims to strengthen microfinance institutions by providing technical assistance, advice, funding, and training to the microfinance industry and its donors.
Today, on a day-to-day basis Jennifer does everything from appraise banks, discuss with donor representatives about CGAP projects, train microfinance institutions, advise on donor projects, and talk to central banks about financial regulations, both from her office in Washington and onsite in various countries. “CGAP is helping me round out my experiences,” she says. In addition to her earlier exposure to Costa Rica and West Africa, she has now worked on projects in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia through CGAP. These experiences have helped broaden her vision and deepen her understanding of financial sector issues, she explains. Unsurprisingly, this has also meant spending about 110 to 150 days a year traveling.
But Jennifer is far from wearied. “I truly miss being in the field working with a dedicated team of people to build institutions,” says Jennifer. Her future vision is to go back to work in developing countries, equipped with new skills and knowledge.
“One should be careful about making choices, and I’m still learning to do that,” she says, admitting that balancing family, work and personal interests is a challenge. She encourages Woodrow Wilson School students to “take advantage of opportunities at Princeton, experiment, and get as much practical experience as possible."
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