Setting a Trajectory for Impact
For Kristen Lee, applying to Global Citizen Year was an early step towards forging an authentic, meaningful path.
Kristen grew up in North Carolina in an area with a renowned university and high-performing public schools. She grew up in an environment with pressures to succeed academically, and attend a competitive college. Kristen often felt like she was “checking off boxes” that were determined by other people.
When Kristen heard about Global Citizen Year, she had a moment of realization: “I can make my own choices about my life. I started being honest with myself about what I’m actually curious about and distinguishing what is externally motivated by other people and what actually resonates with me.”
As her high school graduation approached in 2014, Kristen applied to Global Citizen Year and was accepted as a Fellow. During her time in Brazil she apprenticed with a youth education program and an urban garden in Curitiba, Paraná in the south of Brazil. She took Portuguese classes and lived with a host family of two parents and their two young children — a family she loves dearly and recently went back to visit.
“It was eye-opening to be in such a starkly different environment,” Kristen said. “I realized how narrow my experience thus far had been. To meet people with such different lives and form incredibly close relationships – it sounds trivial, but it was pretty revolutionary at the time for me.”
Living in Brazil illuminated how much more complex and varied the world was than Kristen’s own specific slice of experiences. She was exposed to different ways of living, and for the first time in her life, she felt intrinsically motivated to deepen her curiosity and impact.
Kristen Lee reconnecting with her host family during a 2022 return trip to Brazil.
After her Fellowship, Kristen returned to the United States and attended college at UNC Chapel Hill. She created her own interdisciplinary studies major designed around food systems and urban planning — a choice she says grew directly out of her time in Brazil. Her studies were largely self-directed, which Kristen attributes to the lessons of independence and resourcefulness she learned during her Global Citizen Year.
After a year building relationships across linguistic and cultural lines in Brazil, she found it easy to connect with people and make friends in college. She kept taking Portuguese classes, and she continued broadening her horizons by studying abroad in South Africa and Zambia, and by spending time in China and Taiwan.
After Kristen graduated from college, she interned at the United Nations Development Program in the Crisis Response Unit and then worked for a small startup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
In 2019 Kristen then accepted a position with GiveDirectly. She was immediately compelled by the mission of GiveDirectly: to allow donors to send money directly to people in poverty, with no strings attached. The unconditional cash transfers allow people to use the money however they want to, redistributing resources and agency to the people who need it most.
As Senior Data Manager at GiveDirectly, Kristen leads a team in charge of projects like coordinating payments to people in a large refugee camp in Uganda, and designing a cash transfer technology that is more flexible, efficient, and cost-effective.
“This is my dream job,” Kristen said. “I can’t believe I have the opportunity to work here at my age. When I get to know recipients or read their stories, they really move me. I’m motivated, inspired, and grateful. I feel this is the highest impact thing I could be doing at this time of my life.”
Another aspect of Kristen’s work at GiveDirectly is managing her team and fostering their own growth as leaders in the space. She strives to empower her team to, “become leaders for GiveDirectly in the future and in the international development sector. I want to empower other people to make an impact.” She links her professional trajectory to her Fellowship and the values, relationships and network she developed along the way.
“Global Citizen Year gave me an incredible gift: the knowledge that at any time and place I can pick my head up and look around me at how incredible this planet is. I really believe in the goodness of other people.”