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Jo Rispoli

'03 MAIR
Regional Specialist
International Organization for Migration

Jo Rispoli is a Regional Specialist on Labour Migration/Migration and Development for the International Organization for Migration. He earned his MAIR from Maxwell in 2003 with concentrations in Sub-Saharan Africa and Intercultural Communication and Negotiation, and holds a BA in History from Syracuse University as well. Hailing from New York, Jo has lived and worked in Africa for more than a decade since graduation, and now lives in Pretoria, South Africa.

With 151 member states, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is the principal intergovernmental organization in the field of migration, dedicated to promoting humane and orderly migration for the benefit of all. IOM’s $1.3B budget funds more than 2,700 active programmes as well as 7,800+ staff members serving in more than 470 field offices in more than 100 countries. IOM works in the four broad areas of migration management: migration and development, facilitating migration, regulating migration, and addressing forced migration. Cross-cutting activities include the promotion of international migration law, policy debate and guidance, protection of migrants’ rights, migration health and the gender dimension of migration.

Before taking up his current position in IOM’s Regional Office for East and Southern Africa in Pretoria, South Africa, Jo had a number of significant experiences in the field. He began his work in Ghana back in 2003, where he would participate in missions to rescue children from fishing communities. Jo remembers the rickety fishing boats and bailing out water. He recalls, “I was involved with the entire process: we’d rescue them, take them to the mainland, stay with them at transit camps, and then transport them to the rehabilitation center run by the government. We’d then work on family tracing and assessment exercises to see if we could identify relatives who could take care of them after the rehabilitation process. Sometimes we’d have to find foster families for them. It involved so many exercises to really verify who they said they were. We’d have a reunification ceremony to connect the children back to their communities, and then help with reintegration assistance, providing them with school supplies, uniforms, shoes, etc. - even to the extent where we went to the tailor in the community to get themJo Rispoli uniforms made! We’d even keep up with how they were doing in schools, engage the parents and even help them with income generating activities.” His work involved a lot of follow-up with the people he interacted with. He adds, “We’d also have to check in to make sure the fishermen weren’t continuing to recruit child labor.”

After his exciting – and exhausting – time spent in the field, Jo was promoted and became an international program manager for counter-trafficking efforts. In this position he was able to manage many staff members in Ghana, and also work on programs outside of Ghana. He recalls traveling non-stop to all the locations where he was managing programs, presenting at conferences, attending major meetings, carrying out monitoring missions: important and interesting work, but he does note it involves less direct interaction and engagement with the program beneficiaries.

In September 2011, after having spent nearly nine years in Ghana, Jo moved to South Africa, to work in IOM’s Regional Office. His work covers 25 countries in both East and Southern Africa. He describes his work, “Any staff that need to be trained, or any time government officials need to be trained for one of our projects, I get called – all to do with labor migration. I also review and approve project proposals, and try to bring program officers and managers together to put together regional proposals that might relate to 4 or 5 countries. Importantly, I try to empower folks in the country offices to take the lead, and I just facilitate and provide oversight. It’s strange that now I don’t manage any programs of my own. It’s a very different role, now a much more supportive role.”

Jo enjoys working at IOM because of the size and scale of the organization: “IOM is not really part of the UN, so it’s the best of both worlds - a little bit of everything, both at a big-scale organization with a sizable budget but also involving “on the ground” work. IOM was kind of a calling for me.”

When asked what brought Jo to Africa, he recounts how his experiences both at Syracuse University as an undergraduate student and as a graduate student shaped the path to where he is today. Jo always had an interest in international affairs, studying abroad in Italy and then living and working in Rome as a translator, where he developed a passion for conflict resolution, peace, and humanitarian/development-oriented issues affecting the African continent, before coming to Maxwell. As he became more and more engrossed in current events taking place on the continent, he found himself confronted with a difficult decision—pursue an MAIR at Maxwell or undertake an assignment somewhere in Africa with the Peace Corps. Maxwell won.

As he puts it, it was “the itch to learn more” that helped him make the decision, along with knowing that getting his MAIR would prepare him properly to work in Africa. Jo also was excited for the structure of the program after a gap year in Rome, and previously had a great experience at Syracuse University as an undergraduate. He noted especially his experience with mentors as an undergraduate: “Prof. Laurence Thomas’ teaching was truly inspirational, and he was really a mentor to me in so many ways. He set an example of a truly caring individual who values and respects all his students and constantly goes the extra mile for them. I still often ask myself when faced with difficult and important decisions that may have far-reaching consequences, ‘What would Prof. Thomas do in this situation?”.

Finally, Jo knew the IR program would help him find himself: “Did I want to go into the foreign service? Think tank? UN? Be a diplomat? Work for an NGO? Humanitarian? All these things interested me, and I had no clue what I wanted to do…but when I got to Ghana to do an internship during my time at Maxwell, I then finally knew what I wanted to do.”

When asked what specific experiences from Maxwell helped shape his career, Jo explains how critical the IR program was in acting as an entry point into the world of international organizations. He explains, “It gave me a chance to go to Maxwell’s well-established program in Geneva, to do an internship with IOM. That experience really gave me a foot in the door and opened up my mind, giving me a bigger picture of how these organizations work at the headquarters level. I saw how migration works around the world in a new way – and I appreciated that the work I undertook formed part of a substantive internship where I was able to assess counter-trafficking efforts in the “3P” areas of prevention, protection, and prosecution in 15 European Union member states and the 10 accession countries at the time … so it definitely wasn’t secretarial in nature.”

Jo is still grateful for how Maxwell staff members really went above and beyond in mentoring him and helping him in his studies: “The program coordinator, he really took the time to go through all the forms that I filled out. It wasn’t a formality, he really tried to match my skill sets, preferences and desires for an internship and made a really good match. Though I wanted to go to Africa, IOM offered me a great opportunity, and I am glad Maxwell encouraged me to take it.”

Maxwell’s flexibility is what ultimately got Jo to Africa, and he hasn’t been back stateside to live since 2002. Between taking a number of classes on Africa through other departments at Syracuse University, and then traveling to Ghana at the end of his IR program, he shares, “Maxwell really prepared me very well for my work in Africa, my living conditions, my ability to integrate into the African countries in which I’ve lived. I’m heavily indebted to Maxwell for this.”

Jo’s advice for current students? “Do at least a few internships (and make sure they are substantial, not secretarial) during your time at Maxwell, as well as practicums and additional programming that do not form part of your core curriculum. Go abroad and experience what the world has to offer you!” Jo feels so strongly about this that his organization, IOM, even has a partnership with Maxwell to offer internships in Ghana through a student mobility programme!

He continues, “Engage in a great deal of networking and start reaching out to people and making contacts while you are students – including professors and program directors. Take advantage of all that Maxwell has to offer, including making friends with students from different backgrounds and cultures and taking advantage of career counselling services.”