A 2010 graduate skips the mundane.

Marnie Valdivia (second from left) alongside her Afghan colleagues.

Spending a day in Marnie Valdivia’s shoes isn’t for the faint of heart. She likes pushing the limits—there aren’t many places she won’t go. The comparative religions major just returned from Afghanistan, and talked with Drew Today’s Ted Johnsen about that experience and where she’s going in the future.


Why were you in Kabul?
I work for AECOM, a contractor of the U. S. Agency for International Development. I went out to support the Stability in Key Areas–East program. Basically I developed a cohesive GIS strategy for the project and offered some training in the team’s new GIS software. It was a three-week trip.

When you weren’t working, what did you do? Could you go out and explore?
There is a list of approved venues to visit, but most are just restaurants and bars. I spent a few nights out with colleagues and a Friday afternoon on a hilltop overlooking Kabul. Otherwise movements are usually accompanied by security so exploring is somewhat off limits.

Was there any class or professor at Drew that prepared you to go to
Afghanistan?
The DIS to Egypt and language program in Morocco prepared me for travel to developing areas. All of my coursework was focused on the Arab world and I would like to think that the theories I learned could be applied to most countries in the world.

You were in Cairo during the revolution in 2011. What got you interested in that part of the world?
My interest began when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996. That sparked the interest in Islam from a gender perspective, but the post-9/11 era led me to study Arabic and Islam in the Arab Middle East.

Do you have a bucket list of war-torn regions that you want to visit?
Haha! Syria and Gaza are definitely on the list, based on academic interest. I wouldn’t mind seeing the Nubian pyramids in Sudan, and would actually love to rent a car and drive through the Balkans.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
On a long-term field assignment, either in Afghanistan or back in the Arab world, in a technical capacity with GIS or water-resources management. I wouldn’t mind managing a water project either.

When are you going back to Afghanistan?
Next week, actually. When I got back last week I was given a promotion and an opportunity to work on a newly awarded irrigation- and watershed-management program based in Kabul. I’ll be going out for 12 weeks to start up the project, then come back to D.C. to manage it from the home office.

So if I want a promotion, I should go to Afghanistan??
You could bring DrewTube to Afghanistan.

We’ll get on that…  What restaurant would you recommend?
Gandamack Lodge, hands down. Google it. It has a really interesting history and the crowd there never ceases to entertain. The pizza is pretty good, too.