Matthew Cohen works tirelessly to improve the quality of life in a place nearly 9,700 miles away from his home state of California. After graduating from UC Davis in 1998 with a degree in wildlife, fish and conservation biology and returning to earn a degree from the UC Davis School of Law in 2005, Cohen joined the United States Agency for International Development as a foreign service attorney posted in Kenya. Cohen talked with The Aggie about his career with USAID and his time at UC Davis.
1. What is USAID, and what is your role within the organization?
Matthew Cohen: We’re the organization of the U.S government that’s responsible for administering assistance overseas. That ranges from everything from disaster relief to long-term development assistance. I’m the regional legal advisor of the East Africa mission and I’m there to handle anything and everything that walks through the door.
2. What got you interested in working with USAID?
MC: I was a Peace Corps volunteer, and when you’re in the Peace Corps, USAID is kind of what you want to be when you grow up. You get to do a similar type of work on a much larger scale, and you get to have nice things like ice cubes and carpet, instead of just a shack with a tin roof. Instead of working with a budget of $1,000 each year, you’re working with substantial amounts of money, so you have the opportunity to do much more.
3. What were the steps you took towards reaching your position today?
MC: USAID almost never hires anybody without a graduate level degree or a doctorate. In terms of attorneys, they really want you to have a minimum of five years experience before you can even apply. When I graduated from law school from UC Davis, I went and worked at a law firm in Los Angeles doing environmental law. I did that for about five years and then applied for the job.
4. How has your time been while stationed in Nairobi, Kenya?
MC: It’s been very rewarding. You can drive 30 minutes to a game park and be right next to lions and giraffes – it’s a pretty cool place to live. We live in a community with US Embassy folks, so we have constant contact with Americans … for good or for bad. We call it “the bubble.” When you get out to the countryside it’s much, much poorer, but beyond that, it’s a very rewarding lifestyle and you can live fairly well.
5. How do you think your time at UC Davis prepared you for your career?
MC: I think one of the things I liked about Davis was that while some places can be more competitive, people at Davis are very smart and ambitious, but they’re also willing to help each other out. There’s a good support network, and that’s kind of like what we do at USAID. We all kind of work in teams and it teaches you to really cooperate and support each other. I think Davis is a great environment for training people like that.
6. What’s the most fulfilling part of your job with USAID?
MC: The most fulfilling part is knowing that you’re helping people. We don’t have an ulterior motive – we want to improve their quality of life, to make sure that people live prosperous lives and to know that the U.S government is helping them in that. I think the most rewarding thing is every day I get to go to work and know that what I’m doing is designed to help people and to improve their life in some manner.
7. What’s some good advice you received as a student at UC Davis?
MC: I had a professor who once told me, “You never know exactly how your life is going to turn out, so always keep your options open.” I think you have to be open and flexible and recognize that life takes you in different directions. I think if you were to ask me or my wife whether we thought we’d be living in Kenya in 13 years, we would have probably laughed, but here we are.
8. What message do you want to send to the UC Davis community?
MC: There are actually a lot of UC Davis alums in USAID. Davis has a strong presence and we have a good reputation worldwide. Appreciate your time at Davis! Have a good time and remember why you came, and what your goal is.
RACHEL RILEY can be reached at email@example.com.