Jimmy McDonough

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Jimmy McDonough

BA Latin American Studies 2016

Program Analyst for Latin America, Howard G. Buffett Foundation

BA Thesis: "A Delicate Balance: Inter-American Containment and Diplomacy in the Early 1960s"

Q: What do you do as Program Analyst for Latin America at the Howard G. Buffett Foundation?

A: The Howard G. Buffett Foundation is a private family foundation focused on mitigating existing conflict and advancing food security. We do this by funding programs with non-profit partners in Africa, Latin America, and in the US. I support our overall strategy and day-to-day operations in Latin America, where the foundation has existing programs in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Colombia. I supervise a portfolio of existing grants in these countries, research new opportunities that fit within the foundation's interests, and coordinate with other funders in the region to ensure that we are learning from best practices.

Q: How did your Latin American Studies degree prepare you for your work at the Howard G. Buffet Foundation?

A: LACS prepared me in so many ways, more than I can probably say here. I'll start by saying that my thesis on the Latin American reaction to the Cuban Revolution in the 1960s (supervised by Professor Mauricio Tenorio and CLAS BA Preceptor Enrique Dávila) helped me solidify my research and writing skills. This was a highly academic experience that I draw on professionally as I work to research and concisely present findings to my colleagues at the foundation. I also benefited from courses on human rights in Latin America, specifically Human Rights and the Environment (taught by Meghan Morris in spring of 2013) and everything ever taught by Eric Hirsch (I believe both Eric and Meghan were supported by the Ignacio Martín-Baró Prize Lectureship awards). These human rights courses forced me to reflect on development and rights in Latin America—these are issues that I continue to grapple with in my work.

Q: What, if anything, has surprised you about your job as a program analyst at the Howard G. Buffett Foundation?

A: I had no idea that a position like this existed! One of the most interesting parts of my job is learning why different people and organizations have gotten interested in Latin America.

Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

A: I really enjoy getting to interact with our grantees doing brave and innovative work. It is particularly rewarding to see and hear from smallholder farmers (the foundation has a strong focus on smallholder agriculture) about how they have leveraged support from our programs to improve their quality of life.

Q: What about the most challenging aspect?

A: The foundation has deliberately chosen to work within really challenging environments—that makes our work exciting but also daunting. Central America (particularly the Northern Triangle) is resource-poor, scarred by new and historical conflicts, and politically polarized. The hardest part of my job is trying to make recommendations to the foundation's leaders about where the foundation can be most effective. This requires a lot of discipline because the foundation's resources are minuscule compared to the scale of the challenges these countries face.

Q: What skills do you believe are most important for finding a career in your field? What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a similar career path?

A: Research and concise, active writing are the skills that I most draw on in my professional work. Even though I find myself writing more bullet point memos than academic papers, my process for researching and writing remains the same as the one I developed at UChicago. I should also mention that UChicago gave me the opportunity to study at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, where I honed my spoken and written Spanish, both of which I get to use extensively.

It's hard for me to say what is most essential for a field I have been in for less than a year, but I would say that I most appreciate meeting and working with tenacious and curious people with excellent foreign language skills and a sense of humor. In terms of hard skills, I am always impressed by strong writers and comfortable presenters. 

Q: What advice would you give to undergraduate students who are interested in pursuing a BA in Latin America Studies?

A: I would recommend LACS to anyone with an interest in Latin American history, culture, art, business, politics, or languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Creole, or any of the many indigenous languages). I wasn't a strong science or math student but I imagine that LACS would be an interesting complement to a major in the sciences. I appreciated how LACS was incredibly flexible and offered a consistently strong batch of interesting and demanding courses. One bit of advice that I wish I would have taken myself: LACS pairs very well with other disciplines. I think I could have taken more history courses in particular.

I am always happy to talk with folks interested in working in development, non-profits, or advocacy on Latin America. It's a pretty small world of organizations that tend to not hire regularly, making entrance somewhat difficult for recent graduates. I benefited from participating in internships in Washington and in Chile—this creates a group of people who will be on the lookout for job openings for you and can vouch for your skills when asked.