Alumni Spotlight: Ashley Toombs
Name: Ashley Marie Toombs, Center for Faith and Public Life Advisory Board Member
Graduation Year: 2007
Majors: International Studies and Spanish
Minors: Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Describe a memorable or impactful course that you took at Fairfield?
Throughout my four years at Fairfield, I was passionate about many subject areas and was deeply involved in a myriad of extracurricular activities with the student government and what was then called Campus Ministry. Although my natural curiosity has since proven to be a strength, at the time it felt like a vice. I was not confident declaring a major until second semester of my sophomore year when I began to clarify what subjects I was curious about versus those I was moved to dedicate my life to. A huge part of this evolution took place while taking the course, Justice in the Developing World: Nicaragua, which was taught by Dr. Winston Tellis of the Charles F. Dolan Business School and Dr. Dina Franceschi of the Economics Department. It was both an academically and emotionally rigorous experience, as we were challenged each week to read, write, and debate about economics, culture, religion, politics, conflict, and other multifaceted areas.
As a class we spent spring break traveling in Managua, Leon and Granada, Nicaragua — a fascinating and complex country that was still throbbing from the aches and confusion of recent civil war and political upheaval while simultaneously encouraging tourism, expanding the economy and attempting to come to terms with a history that no one wanted repeated, but that could not be ignored. It was my first real experience with poverty — the first time I saw pick pockets, the first time I experienced travel stomach issues, the first time I climbed a volcano and was “eaten alive” by mosquitos and the first time I felt fire burning in my chest and in my mind from sadness, incredulity, and awe as I listened to real-life heroes share their stories of tremendous personal risk fighting for causes they believed in. After the Justice in the Developing World course and the trip to Nicaragua, I have never been the same and have been fortunate and inspired enough to pursue personal and professional opportunities all over the world.
In what ways did this experience change you or cause a transformation in your thinking, values, or career choice?
One of the lessons I began to learn during the Justice course is how seemingly disparate life experiences actually work to inform and influence each other. For example, while I was taking that course, I was also taking my fourth Spanish language class and Introduction to International Studies. When I registered, I had no idea that when taken together these classes would create an intellectual experience akin to the composition of a complex puzzle. Fast-forward ten years to my current role, where I support a portfolio of work that covers a broad swath of environmental, human rights, legal empowerment and educational programmatic areas. Although some people prefer to silo expertise subjects, I find richness in working to understand the complexities of holistic connections.
How did experiential learning transform your classroom experience?
It was just a few weeks after Nicaragua that I decided to be the first Fairfield student to spend a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I left that July, and after spending almost six months completing coursework completely in Spanish and traveling extensively through Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, I returned determined to continue combining my academic and experiential learning, not only in the classroom, but in my future professional goals. I learned that the world is my classroom and there is no better way to learn about it than interacting with it.
Describe what you do now and how you're able to connect that work with your new role as a Center for Faith and Public Life Advisory Board member.
My senior year, I began to think seriously and explore options for living and working internationally. The previous programs in which I had participated were formative experiences and subsequently I applied to a number of service-oriented, international opportunities including Jesuit Volunteer International and the Peace Corps. I was still very open to ideas and looked at postings in health, teaching English and the environment. I’ll never forget the day I received my “packet” from Peace Corps offering me an assignment to serve as a Community-Based Environmental Management Volunteer in Peru. I ended up spending almost four and a half years in Peru, instead of the usual two years, splitting my time between a rural village and Lima, the capital. Those years were exceptionally beautiful, incredibly difficult and exceedingly breathtaking — everyday was an adventure and I spent the majority of my time happily exhausted from the rollercoaster of growth and stimulation, laughing, crying, learning and even eating and sleeping like never before!
In between Peru and my current position as a Program Manager at BRAC USA, I returned to the United States, worked for an extraordinary conservation organization, The Nature Conservancy and received a MPA from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in Environmental Science and Policy.
I am fortunate that in my current role, I am working at what is considered by most measures to be the world’s largest and one of the world’s most effective poverty alleviation and international development organizations. I support a diverse grant making, technical assistance, and fundraising portfolio and am able to travel extensively. I have been tremendously fortunate to make lasting personal and professional relationships with friends and colleagues across the globe. Even though I now consider salary, benefits, and retirement savings when taking on a role (living in New York City for years will do that to you), my number one priority for choosing where I work is still believing in the larger mission and vision. These experiences and values, and the trajectory I’ve taken, would not have been possible without the exceptional opportunities I was given at Fairfield.