An Interview with Kyle Charles '08
"The first grant I ever won was from this course [Action Research Seminar]. I was teamed up with a crisis center in downtown Bloomington and I wrote a $500 grant to help replace their phone systems for their suicide number.
When I went to Kazakhstan I was able to use that knowledge in an international context to help the NGOs I was working with. Basically build their plans, implement new projects and come up with new ideas."
The grants that your organization writes—what do they cover?
I can talk about the ones that we've done in the past. For example, disaster relief. If you remember the tsunamis that hit India, we would help rebuild houses. We've done some work with Katrina, helping with disaster response and food relief programs in Africa.
Our largest funder is USAID. Some of those grants range from $100,000 to over $100 million dollars.
There's an urgency in a conflict region, or a conflict situation. But political systems can take time to evolve. Can you give your thoughts on what may be two different timeframes?
Some projects and proposals that we write that take months, sometimes half a year. But if there's something that's gone very wrong—people didn't have food, didn't have shelter — it tends to be that we can apply for funding very fast. Some governmental agencies, like the United Nations Development Program, are very good at getting those off quickly.
They don't joke around when they say it's the toughest job you'll ever love. I was stationed in Kazakhstan for two years as an NGO development volunteer.
Then I came back and moved out to Washington, D.C., I worked for the National Endowment for the Humanities, putting together events held at the White House and the Kennedy Center. Now I'm an assistant grant writer.
You’ve always had strong emphasis on writing and language. How did you develop those skills in your coursework?
I was a political science major so I had to write a lot for my courses. I remember having 10- or 12-page papers due every week. And for my senior seminar, I wrote about 50 pages alone on the European Union and what I thought would happen to it in the future.
I know how to speak Russian, Kazakh, and a little bit of German. German I studied in school but I found it very useful when I went to Kazakhstan, because I didn’t speak any Russian at the time but the person who taught me Russian didn't speak any English. We used German as a common language until I spoke enough Russian to be understood.
Your study abroad was in Germany?
I studied in Freiburg im Breisgau, in the southwest corner of Germany. There is a European Union Program and you would travel to about 13-15 countries talking to officials, local people, municipal governments asking questions like: how do you feel about the European Union today? How did you feel about it in the past? What do you think about it for the future? I put a lot of the data I collected from that it into my senior seminar.
“I feel like very few schools allow you to kind of pursue all of those different things that you like to do so aggressively. And that was the reason why I picked Illinois Wesleyan over some of the other schools.”
How did you choose to major in political science?
I've always liked political systems. When people think about political science they think that you're going to run for office, but I really just enjoy looking at the systems of government and how they were set up. How they work. Do they work? How can they work better?
I knew what I wanted to do before I went to Wesleyan, but I didn't know how to do it or what it was even called. My advisor came to me and said, “We have a comparative politics program. You can focus on different countries instead of just the U.S.” And that was what I wanted to do.
Was there any particular class that stays with you today?
There was an upper-level class called Action Research Seminar and it was a cross-listed political science and sociology course.
The course focused on getting into the Bloomington rural community, working with several non-profits and helping them build their capacity.
I remember going to my advisor, “Can I do this? I’m a young person, this is my first upper-level course.” And he said, “You'll be fine.” He pushed me to do it, he said, because it would be good for me. And it’s true, that is one of the best courses that I've ever taken there.
We learned how to introduce ourselves to different organizations, how to make a strategic plan for them, how to write grants. The first grant I ever won was from this course. I was teamed up with a crisis center in downtown Bloomington and I wrote a $500 grant to help replace their phone systems for their suicide number.
When I went to Kazakhstan I found I was able to use that knowledge in an international context to help the NGOs I was working with. Basically build their plans, implement new projects and come up with new ideas.
What did you do outside of studies at Illinois Wesleyan?
I wasn’t a music major, but for four years I played in the top jazz band. We did a study abroad to Italy and played for a month. During school, my saxophone was a good way to earn money on the side. We formed a small combo out of the jazz band and played at weddings and things like that.
I also joined a fraternity and found that a very fun time. And I was a resident hall assistant. I spent three years in a freshmen dorm, helping first-year students to navigate college.
I also loved playing soccer. I never played on the school team, but there were lots of intramural clubs and I recall playing with the international students in the Shirk Center from 8 p.m. until midnight every Friday.
There was a lot to do on campus and a lot to see if you're willing to take a step out there and get out of your comfort zone.
What do you envision for yourself in the next five or 10 years?
It's a cool thing to be writing the proposals, but what I hope to do is go back to the field, as we call it. Leave the U.S. and help with these programs directly on the ground, short-term in another country.
I'd focus on Central Asia, Southeast Asia. Currently, Burma, Myanmar is opening up.
Interviewed at the Global Communities offices in Silver Spring, Maryland.