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In Love, Will Travel

As a couple, Alex Peterson and Jennifer McCard are making careers out of service to the U.S. and the environment, around the world.

By Michelle Salzman
April 24, 2011

Jennifer McCard (B.A., environmental studies, '06) is a deputy operating officer for Manna Energy Limited in Kigali, Rwanda. Alex Peterson (B.A., international relations, '05) is an information management specialist for the U.S. Foreign Service in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by Jill Peterson.

Jennifer McCard (B.A., environmental studies, '06) is a deputy operating officer for Manna Energy Limited in Kigali, Rwanda. Alex Peterson (B.A., international relations, '05) is an information management specialist for the U.S. Foreign Service in Kigali, Rwanda. Photo by Jill Peterson.

Jennifer McCard and Alex Peterson’s white stucco house is built into a red-earthen hillside. In the front yard, a swimming pool filled in with soil functions as a garden where they grow carrots, peas and herbs.

Oftentimes smoke wafts over from the convent next door when the nuns make their cooking fires. A dirt road on the side of their house connects to a cobblestone street that leads to their favorite pizza parlor.

The husband and wife have made their home in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, for nearly two years. A city of rolling hills and valleys, Kigali, the site of a genocide in 1994, has rebounded into a buzzing urban hub mixing modern developments with traditional features.

“The city itself has a lot of contrasts,” McCard said. “There are really beautiful high-rise buildings, and there are also people living relatively close by in mud houses.”

Originally from the small fishing town of Soldotna, Alaska, the couple moved to Kigali when Peterson accepted a position with the United States Foreign Service.

The two attended USC Dornsife as undergraduates — Peterson studied international relations with a minor in business, and McCard majored in environmental studies with a minor in international relations. After graduating, they returned to Soldotna, where they had been high-school sweethearts, and settled into careers that mirrored their interests.

Peterson worked in information technology for a local school district and McCard was a water quality specialist protecting salmon habitats for the Kenai Watershed Forum, a nonprofit research and restoration organization in the Kenai Peninsula. The two enjoyed international travel and had toyed with the idea of living overseas.

“I knew about the foreign service, majoring in international relations,” Peterson recounted. “I sent Jenn the job opening and I said, ‘I think I’m qualified for this, do you think I should apply for it?’ She said, ‘Go for it.’”

In addition to preparing for the leap from Alaska to Africa, other monumental life changes were taking place, and very quickly. Just before Peterson left to attend foreign service training in Washington, D.C., the two became engaged.

“Alex was able to squeeze in a day over Labor Day weekend for us to get married, and by the end of the month we were in Rwanda,” McCard said.

At the embassy in Kigali, Peterson’s primary role is to support communications and information technology. As an information management specialist, he’s part of a team responsible for working with users of the embassy’s information technology services, maintaining telephone and radio systems, and managing mail operations.

Peterson also assists the economics officer on the embassy’s telecommunications portfolio researching current IT advances in the country and reporting them back to Washington, which has inspired his career goal of becoming a foreign-service officer.

“I already have a foundation of knowledge in international relations and business. That’s something that’s value-added to the mission,” Peterson said of his studies in USC Dornsife.

McCard continues to pursue a career in environmental work as deputy operating officer of Manna Energy Limited.

Manna is an international business that develops sustainable technologies to improve environmental and public health conditions for impoverished communities around the world. In Rwanda, its main ventures include a scalable drinking water treatment system, bio-gas latrines and high-efficiency cook stoves.

Working from home, McCard liaises between Manna’s staff in Rwanda and the managerial staff in the U.S. As she checks in on the daily progress of projects and finances, she can see the traffic chugging into downtown Kigali from her living room window.

“I chose my major and minor in USC Dornsife with the hope of someday working on international environmental issues,” McCard said. With Manna, her work not only addresses environmental concerns but also addresses health and development challenges.

This summer, Peterson’s position at the U.S. Embassy in Kigali will reach its two-year mark — the duration of a typical assignment for a foreign service worker in Africa.

The next stop for Peterson and McCard?

“Brasilia, Brazil, in October,” Peterson said. The couple is preparing for Peterson’s next assignment with online language courses in Portuguese. 

Peterson admitted that there are many challenges that arise from an international career, like the distance from family — both McCard and Peterson are only children — and acclimating to new cultures. Still, they believe they are well prepared for the change.

“Attending USC and living in Los Angeles after growing up in a small town in Alaska was a culture shock,” McCard said. “Knowing I could conquer that gave me the confidence to choose to live in Rwanda.”

Peterson agrees. Exposure to the multicultural fabric of L.A. and the university helped prepare him for a global career.

“We’ve been really happy in Kigali,” he said. “We hope that Brasilia continues us on that path.”

Now, onward to the next adventure.

 

Read more articles from USC Dornsife Magazine's Spring/Summer 2011 issue