University of Pittsburgh

Proving Ground

Written by Cara J. Hayden


Madhav. Photo by Stephen Voss.

An antiquated Soviet cargo plane lumbers over an imposing mountaintop. Perched on the plate-glass floor of the navigator’s pit, a U.S. aid worker grips his seat cushion and braces himself as the plane dips uncomfortably close to the jagged peaks. There’s only a layer of glass between him and the snow-covered pinnacles below. Even though he’s a seasoned U.S. foreign-aid officer who has faced far worse danger, this flight above Afghanistan’s rugged terrain is nerve-racking. It’s only five months after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, and the passenger, Nitin Madhav, is flying into the same countryside that was recently ruled by the Taliban regime. He’s here to offer the Afghans a different way of life.

As the Ilyushin 76 plane glides away from the summit, Madhav tries to relax. He stretches his legs—one permanently pocked with shrapnel, the other a metal prosthetic—and marvels at the gray-hued land below. It’s as though he could reach through the glass and touch the patchwork terrain. He spots tiny figures of farmers trekking with donkeys and goats. Some of the figures are even tinier: They appear to be children. Behind him in the aircraft’s hold, there’s special cargo just for them.

Madhav, a Pitt graduate, works for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). He’s on this mission as the agency’s program development officer in Afghanistan. In this role, he develops and manages assistance programs for ordinary Afghan citizens caught in the turmoil of a post-9/11 world.

When U.S. presidents talk about the government’s humanitarian-aid responses around the globe, they often refer to efforts coordinated by USAID officers like Madhav. These are the professionals who spend long hours in remote regions, managing complicated logistics and bridging cultural differences. These are the people who help displaced families during times of disaster. These are the ambassadors for all of us who have watched tragic news broadcasts about the Southeast Asian tsunami or the Darfur crisis and felt that, somehow, we should help.

Madhav (A&S ’90, GSPIA ’92, GSPH ’94) has devoted his career to doing exactly that. He has worked with Afghans and other people in need since 1992, initially as an intern with the United Nations and later with the global program Save the Children. He also has served as a humanitarian relief worker with Doctors of the World in genocide-ravaged Rwanda. And, for nearly a decade, he has been a USAID officer, working in some of the world’s most troubled regions.

He’s one of thousands of Pitt alumni who have been educated to lead all kinds of public-service initiatives worldwide—a group of graduates whose numbers have increased dramatically since 1958, when the University established the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA).

In its 50 years of existence, GSPIA has prepared nearly 7,000 students to be public leaders. Alumni have pursued impressive careers in the federal government, including within the Executive Office of the President and the U.S. Office of the Attorney General. They’ve served as congressional leaders and mayors. Thousands have worked abroad, some as ambassadors, government ministers, or United Nations executives. They’ve also served as CEOs, university presidents, and directors of large-scale projects like Madhav’s venture in Afghanistan.

This year, to celebrate its golden anniversary, GSPIA is taking bold steps to expand its training of future world leaders and problem-solvers. The school—in collaboration with other University partners—recently opened the University of Pittsburgh Washington Center, an office at the edge of the Foggy Bottom neighborhood in Washington, D.C. The nation’s capital is a central hub for government and nonprofit organizations, making it a prime location for public affairs professionals.

Every year, GSPIA places nearly half of its new graduates in D.C. jobs. Many students complete internships through the school’s Washington, D.C., Semester Program. And hundreds of GSPIA alumni, including Madhav, live in the D.C. region. So, the school decided to establish a physical presence in the capital.

The Washington Center has a videoconferencing room to enable long-distance classes and job interviews. Next spring, for instance, Daniel J. Fiorino, a distinguished senior manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in D.C., will teach a course to GSPIA students in Pittsburgh through the videoconferencing system. The center also coordinates internships and career services for GSPIA students and serves as a satellite base for Pitt’s School of Law, Office of Student Affairs, and Office of Federal Relations.

Collaborating with other schools and offices is one of GSPIA’s strengths—students are encouraged to combine their GSPIA studies with other disciplines, as Madhav did when he earned a second master’s degree, with a major in community health services, in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health.


Photo by Nitin Madhav

Since its founding 50 years ago, GSPIA has shifted its emphasis to reflect global changes, says the school’s dean,

John T.S. Keeler, a leading scholar of European politics, comparative public policy, and trans-Atlantic relations. At the outset, about two-thirds of students earned degrees in public administration or urban and regional planning, which prepared them for careers on the state and national levels. These days, three-quarters of GSPIA students are focusing their studies on international affairs and are pursuing global-level careers.

“Over time, there has been a very dramatic increase in the numbers of employers who expect our students to possess expertise in international affairs,” says Keeler, who holds master’s and doctoral degrees in political science from Harvard. He became GSPIA’s dean last year. “Our vision is for a school that will nurture and groom the leaders of the future, graduates who will be prepared to lead from a broad-based knowledge of the nations of the world and how they interrelate.”

Repeatedly impressed when becoming acquainted with graduates who’ve gone out to lead in the world—like the late General Roscoe Robinson Jr. (GSPIA ’64), the first African American four-star general in the U.S. Army whose trophies now decorate the dean’s office—Keeler is encouraging alumni to lend their expertise to the school. One of GSPIA’s aims is to ensure that current students know about what’s happening in public and international affairs. Madhav, with his work in Afghanistan and other global hotbeds, is among those notable alumni who work in the thick of today’s political and societal realities. He’s one of many who represent the career possibilities available to GSPIA students.

When Madhav began his freshman year at Pitt, commuting to classes by bus from his family’s home in Penn Hills, Pa., he thought he would become a doctor as a way to help people. Then he took a political science elective. Studying the push-and-pull nature of governments fascinated him. He thought about all the ordinary citizens who get in the middle of political upheavals and how governments could affect people’s lives for better or worse. After class, he discussed his thoughts with Ellen Dorsey, a Pitt teaching assistant who was pursuing her doctoral degree in political science.

“We spent many, many hours in my office talking about world events and social-justice movements,” recalls Dorsey (A&S ’84, ’88G, ’92G), who’s now executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, an environmental and human rights foundation commemorating Henry A. Wallace, who served as U.S. vice president during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s third term.

Madhav changed his major to political science and broadened his studies of international issues, especially those in Central Asia. He signed up for Persian language classes, even though he already spoke three Indian languages at home with his parents, who emigrated from India years earlier. He knew that, to understand the politics of Central Asia, it would help to know a local language.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in 1990, Madhav enrolled in GSPIA with Dorsey’s encouragement to learn how to engage in political and humanitarian issues. He focused his studies on economic development and, says Madhav, he maintained a necessary innocence and idealism about the world. Even then, he had traveled extensively (once losing his shoes in quicksand on a hike in Guyana over spring break)—but that was before he faced the perilous side of political and social unrest, before he was held at gunpoint with his life on the line.

In the Afghan city of Herat, Madhav debarks from his glass-floor seat in the Soviet cargo plane. He limps slightly on his prosthesis as he walks toward men who have come to find out why he’s here, in a country where it’s common for planes to land unexpectedly. Madhav speaks to them in Dari, a Persian dialect, and explains that he has brought some important cargo from the U.S. government.

Several hours later, he meets over tea with a local official from the Ministry of Education. Madhav explains that he has traveled here to organize a Back-to-School Day campaign for the region’s children. They both know that Afghanistan’s educational system crumbled under the Taliban regime; it’s time to get boys and girls into school again.

The tea meeting took place in February 2002, three months after the U.S. military forced the Taliban out of the Afghan government. “There was this massive thrust to try and show the Afghan people that things were going to be normal again now that the Taliban were gone and that the Western world was going to stand by the Afghan people and help them rebuild,” Madhav says, adding that educating children and giving them options other than the Taliban way of life were essential to the mission.

To help the Herat official reopen local schools, Madhav offered new textbooks—that was the cargo he accompanied on the plane. His USAID team had learned that teachers either didn’t have any textbooks, or the available books focused inappropriately on war. “Most of these textbooks had been written during the 23 years of the jihad with the Soviets,” Madhav says. “Math problems would literally have things like: If I shoot a gun and there’s a Russian soldier running at 10 miles an hour, and the bullet is traveling at 50 miles an hour, how long will it take to kill the Russian soldier?”

So Madhav and his USAID team worked with Afghans to write new books in both the Dari and Pashto languages for all grade levels, on subjects ranging from algebra to geography. Then, because the language scripts are difficult to replicate in digital fonts, they hired several hundred people to use calligraphy to produce the textbooks. Madhav’s next challenge was to get the custom-made textbooks into the hands of children and teachers throughout Afghanistan.

Between sips of tea, Madhav and the Herat official discussed how workers with pickup trucks or donkeys would distribute the books across the provinces of Western Afghanistan in time for the start of school, only three weeks away. Then, over the course of several days, Madhav and many others distributed millions of the books throughout the country.

Beyond having the immediate satisfaction of helping so many children, Madhav was especially grateful to be part of the project because, five years earlier, he didn’t know whether he’d ever work abroad again. In 1997, he had just settled into a new job with Doctors of the World in Rwanda when rebel gunmen took him and four teammates hostage. Madhav was there to organize public health campaigns for the influx of citizens who were returning to the country after it had been torn apart by genocide. The gunmen broke into the home where Madhav was working with a doctor, a nurse, and an administrator, all from Spain. The militia held the aid workers at gunpoint for several hours, then inexplicably opened fire. Madhav was the only one who survived. He survived with only one leg.

After having an amputation in Rwanda, Madhav flew back to Pittsburgh, where he recovered at his parents’ home. He worried about whether he could continue with international aid work but decided to give it a try, he says, because of the “tremendous value” it has for large populations of people. For Madhav, the positive results of his work outweighed the personal sacrifices.

By 1999, he had returned to his townhouse in Washington, D.C., and was working in USAID’s federal headquarters. That same year, he received a Volunteer Service Award from GSPIA for his outstanding work in international aid and development.

When Madhav thinks back to that tea meeting in 2002, he recalls sharing the newly penned textbooks with the Afghan official. He knew he had done the right thing by continuing his overseas aid work, despite the dangers.

“We were doing seriously important work,” he says. “It was about getting three-and-a-half million girls and boys back into school. And that was incredibly uplifting to me because it was something I truly believed in—to give them the basic steps toward a quality education.”

After the project’s completion, President George W. Bush honored Madhav and a colleague at a White House ceremony. Working on the Afghan school campaign remains one of the proudest career accomplishments to date for the Pitt graduate.

His work is far from over, though.Americans who followed this year’s presidential campaign know that the Taliban are still a threat and have been gaining power in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These days, Madhav is working on programs in Pakistan.“We’re going to tribal areas along the Afghan border, where the Taliban and other undesirables are hanging out,” he says. “We’re trying to provide education, health, and economic opportunities such that people see a different option than throwing their lot in with the Taliban.”

That may mean opening schools or clinics, distributing more textbooks or medical aid, and flying over the mountains in outdated cargo planes. Whatever the task, Madhav is willing. “I’m open to the adventure,” he says. The world, it seems, is within his reach.