Jay Nash ’73 pursued his intellectual passions with a higher purpose. His commitment to the Democratic Republic of Congo encourages us all to contribute to meaningful change in the humanitarian efforts and social impact field.
Alumni Spotlight: Jay Nash ’73

Glee Club to the Peace Corps

Nash first discovered his passion for social justice during a summer trip to Africa in 1972. Hosted by the Amherst College Glee Club, the trip allowed him to gain exposure to various areas in the region that lacked equal educational opportunities.

This expedition changed the trajectory of Nash’s future career. While he originally planned to become a teacher after graduating from Amherst, “the Glee Club tour made [him] think that [he] would rather do that in Africa, contributing to African development, than in the United States.”

Upon returning to Amherst for his senior year, Nash “plunged into African Studies,” even doing his English department thesis on an African writer and taking courses in French and Swahili.

Following his studies at Amherst College, he joined the Peace Corps, serving in the city of Bukavu — where both French and Swahili are spoken — in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then called Zaire).

From 1973 to 1978, Nash taught English and Music as the Peace Corps’ Regional Representative for Kivu Province. There, Nash found that the “Peace Corps experience gave [him] an enhanced interest in African development.”

Nash’s service-driven mindset would promote him to work for an American construction company in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he “developed an interest in two additional African languages.”

His interest and knack for languages made studying Linguistics at the University of Illinois a natural choice. After securing a master’s degree in Linguistics, Nash earned a Fulbright scholarship to travel again to the Democratic Republic of Congo, “this time to analyze the Ruwund language of the southern part of the country from the perspective of the use of tones.”

Transitioning Careers During Civil Wars

Living in a village near the border of Angola, Nash described how an event related to the Angolan civil war sent several hundred refugees from other countries residing in Angola into the village where he was living. Nash recalled how afterward, “the International Committee of the Red Cross came to town to deliver relief supplies while plans were made for the refugees to return to their home countries. I volunteered to participate in the relief effort and was put in charge of the kitchen. I thought at the time that relief work was something that I would like to do in the future. After returning to the U.S. and completing my doctoral dissertation, I applied to Catholic Relief Services (CRS) for a job running a nutrition program in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic Congo’s capital, and was accepted. I continued working for CRS in Angola and the Dominican Republic after my stint in Kinshasa but was invited in 1997 to apply for a job with USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. My application was accepted.”

When his application was accepted, Nash found himself fixing bridges and electrical grid transforms that had broken over many years of dictatorship. Nash’s mission with OTI was to nurture the political transition from a centralized dictatorship to a more federally-organized administrative structure so the population would remain optimistic about the change in government.

The effort became irrelevant when in August 1998, the country entered into a civil war.

Returning to Humanitarian Efforts

While Nash’s work at OTI was neither humanitarian nor related to the social justice field, it wasn’t long before his work again aligned with outreach initiatives in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He applied successfully to the USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), the branch of USAID that deals with humanitarian disasters worldwide. He was sent back to the Democratic Republic of Congo to manage the U.S. government’s humanitarian efforts in response to the war in the country. “USAID had granted millions of dollars to relief actors such as Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, and Catholic Relief Services, and my job was to monitor the various projects and the humanitarian context in DR Congo. The projects included primarily the delivery of relief supplies such as blankets and shelter-building materials, as well as medical attention to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) — people who, due to the civil war, had fled their homes and villages but not left the country. Although I headed only [a] two-person team for many years, OFDA in 2020 merged with USAID’s Office of Food for Peace to form the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA), and my team, by mid-2021 had reached a total of nine program staff. Conflict continues to this day in the Democratic Republic of Congo, though it is manifested in smaller regional conflicts rather than one single war. When I left the Democratic Republic of Congo to retire in November of 2021, the United Nations Office for the Coordination [of] Humanitarian Affairs was still reporting over 5 million IDPs in the country. The result of the efforts of the humanitarian community over the past twenty years has been the saving of countless thousands of lives and the lessening of widespread suffering.”

Advice for Students

Upon reflecting on his career journey in the humanitarian and social justice field, Nash stressed the need to take advantage of time-sensitive opportunities and the ability to pursue a multitude of opportunities after engaging in humanitarian efforts overseas. “My advice to anyone who has an interest in social justice, including especially those who would be interested in doing humanitarian work, is to join Peace Corps or some other organization which places a person in a developing world environment overseas right after college — before getting started on something, such as employment or graduate school — so as to experience a widening of one’s perspective at an early decision-making stage of one’s life. This natural break only occurs once. It’s much harder to do at a later stage. The opportunities for employment or graduate school will still be around after the stint overseas to a large extent and may even be enhanced by having this international experience on the resume. If one’s life goals change as a result of the experience, one will have gained the overseas experience necessary for entry into the humanitarian job market.”

To find out what humanitarian organizations are recruiting at Amherst, visit Handshake.

By Brianne LaBare
Brianne LaBare Peer Career Advisor