We had the good fortune of connecting with Shweta Dewan and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Shweta, what habits do you feel helped you succeed?
Success is a relative term. Had I not been blessed with loving and able parents, a childhood in Zambia, the ability to travel to multiple countries and exposure to such an international community at a young age, I may not have had the confidence to travel thousands of miles away to the US at 16 years of age to pursue higher education, the passion to work in the humanitarian field and obtain 2 masters by the time I was 25, nor the nerve to stop a comfortable life in order to backpack around the world for 1.5 years when I turned 30. Being fortunate enough to have a stable foundation, with regard to family, friends, educational background, and professional exposure, I have been able to focus my energy towards efforts that have enabled – what I perceive as – my growth and development. In my opinion, that energy needs to touch each part of your life, whether that be pushing your fears to try something new, or keeping your hands busy. Personally, I have been lucky to find time to explore my creative avenues through weaving, crochet, wheel pottery and scuba diving, all of which keep me curious and keen to learn. Superimposed on this foundation have been skills and characteristics that enabled professional progress: the persistence and work ethic to give each task my full effort, whether a chore or a hobby; the empathy, concern and generosity we were taught at a young age helped me devote my work to serving those in need; the hope to consistently and progressively better myself to make a difference in my environment. There is always room for improvement, and there will undoubtedly be new avenues where hard work, patience and self-reflection will be needed in order to continue having, what I uniquely define as, success.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My areas of professional interest were initially focused on issues of child protection, gender-based violence, women’s empowerment, capacity building and microfinance initiatives, especially with regard to impoverished communities. Earlier in my professional career, I worked with several non-profit agencies, on community service projects that supported vulnerable populations within Zambia, and later in Austin, during my Bachelors. Between my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I had the opportunity to work with the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in my hometown, Lusaka, Zambia. The latter was where I was first introduced to the world of refugee resettlement, and the needs of asylum seekers as well as unaccompanied minors. During this time, I supported the resettlement process by carrying out preliminary interviews with refugee resettlement candidates, primarily from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I also learnt much about sponsored program management, which would begin the creation of a much-needed foundation for project management. Though a tenuous connection, I could relate to the feeling of a blurred identity, and wanted to learn more about displacement and the opportunities available to these individuals and their families. Little did I know that a seed was planted. During my time in Lusaka, I applied for, and accepted, the opportunity to study Economic and Political Development at Columbia University. My experience with refugees, really motivated me to concurrently pursue a second Master of Public Health, focused on Forced Migration & Health. I went on to gain experience in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Uganda and New York, in sustainable capacity building projects, such as women-focused weaving initiatives, child protection information systems and data analysis. I began working in the field of international sponsored projects, program management, and resilience in Sub-saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, based at Tulane University in New Orleans. My aim was to stay connected to the international community, but to combine aspects of prior interest: displacement, protection, and creative aspects of capacity building. Moving back to Texas provided an opportunity to once again explore issues of forced migration, Houston being the largest recipient of resettled candidates in the country. My current role with Refugee Services of Texas (RST) is enabling me to learn more about a fraction of the refugees worldwide who make it to the other side, and are a part of the 1% of candidates who actually overcome all the hurdles to finally get resettled to a new country, the United States is just one of these. The process can take several years as it is such a rigorous process, and within the first 90 days of being here, a refugee needs to be able to show self-sufficiency. It has taken many of us longer than 90 days to do that, not considering language barriers, trauma, culture-shock, and isolation. Working with the RST Development department is a new challenge, to build external relationships, find new and innovative ways to collaborate with community partners and hope that the foundation we help create for incoming families is beneficial, and contributes to their success in their new home. Has it all been challenging thus far? Yes and no. There have definitely been times where the direction in which I am headed has been unclear, but I am proud of how far I have come, and look forward to new and exciting avenues to hone my interests, both professional and personal. A couple of reminders that I carry with me, are to try and communicate as clearly as possible and to always be grateful.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
The longer I live in Houston, the more I realize that Houston has a loyal following of people who swear by the diverse range of restaurants and opportunities for new and exciting things and places that can be found here. Though still new to Houston, i.e. I’ve physically been in town for a little over a year, I used to visit from Austin when I was completing my Bachelors at UT. There are several places that I still visit now because of nostalgia and comfort from that time. A few of those, that I would be sure to take friends to are Amy’s Ice Cream (originated in Austin, and still my favorite ice-cream joint!), Creamistry (more ice-cream!), Chuy’s (to me, this is the epitome of Tex Mex), London Sizzler (great Indian food), and Torchy’s Tacos. Since my move here, I was only able to explore a couple of months before being away, and before the pandemic hit Texas. Still, I already have a love for the following places, and try to spread the word so more people can come with me: Boil House (the closest to New Orleans crawfish we could find, and close to Buchanan’s Native Plants), Killen’s Barbecue (get there early!), Creamistry, Axelrad Beer Garden (my favorite spot in the city so far), Alings (fusion Indian-Chinese cuisine) and Coltivare Pizza & Garden. My husband, having grown up in Kenya, and I were saddened to discover, and quickly realize, that an East African restaurant close to us had shut down recently. So, we are on the look out for food from home, great fusion places, and unique restaurants where we will become regulars. There are so many more places to try, and hopefully, I will also become a part of that loyal following in this big, big town.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
This journey has been feasible due to the support of my family who has always been by my side, I am who I am because of them. My father, who passed away 4.5 years ago taught me, by example, to work hard, be generous, be passionate, and to know no barriers, regardless of gender and age; my mother who has constantly dedicated her life and energy to others, overcame a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment last year with grace and strength, has taught me to be creative, patient, humble, resilient, and always, always, be productive; my brother has taught me to always be curious; with the support and encouragement of my husband, I am able to devote my time to a field that drives me, that enables me to make a difference and still contribute to the international and diverse community that I have been brought up in, and will always want to contribute my effort to; and my closest friends, who are my constant soundboard through good days and bad, at any time of the day, and who know me well enough to understand my “intricacies” and to leave judgement at the door. Along the way, there have been umpteen others in my tribe, who have molded me, provided a helping hand, a kind word, a much-needed distraction, or lent an ear, all of which I will always be grateful for.
Vivek Barve, Sohaib Ansari, Sarah Kirmani, Indra Dewan