Drawn to help out in the world's hotspots
When terrorists turned Americans' world upside down last September, and the United States launched its war on terrorism, James Weatherill knew right where he wanted to be: Afghanistan.
He was so ready to go, in fact, he almost left Columbia University, where he was in the middle of getting a master's degree in international relations, to take on an emergency relief job in the wake of US bombings of Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Ultimately, Mr. Weatherill decided to finish the last months of his degree program and finally made it to Afghanistan last month, where he is on a six-week assignment in his new job as a food-aid officer with Food for Peace, a program run by USAID, a government agency.
"I read everything I could on Afghanistan [after the attacks]. I was really focused on it," he says. "It was out of concern about whether we were doing the right thing. We were fighting a war there because of what happened on Sept. 11. It really caused me to want to do something that was positive.
"There were so many negative things coming out of the war, and so many repercussions," he says. "But there were so many opportunities to make things right as well."
Although he was in school at the time of the attacks, Weatherill had already had years of experience in trying to "make things right." After a brief post-college stint at an investment bank on Wall Street (where "you pretty much just worked for the paycheck"), he turned to his lifelong love of overseas travel and took on a Peace Corps assignment in Albania, working as an agri-forester with local farmers.
What followed was five years in the Balkans, spent working with both government and nonprofit relief agencies including time in hot spots such as Kosovo and Macedonia. In March 2000, Weatherill returned to the US to get his master's degree, looking to understand more about the theories behind international relief work.
"I wanted to get more of a context for where all of this work fits in," he says.
Degree in hand, he's back where he wants to be: in the middle of one of the most urgent relief missions in the world.
On his current assignment, he's helping to make sure the "pipelines" for delivery of food are functioning smoothly and that food is reaching those who need it.
Although this assignment is a temporary one, Weatherill is hoping to return. He's not unmindful of the potential dangers of working in a place like Afghanistan, he says, but he's not put off by them, either.
"There is a little bit of fear," he admits. "There's a fear of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the reward you get from doing this kind of work, making a difference, having an impact on people's lives, really outweighs the fear."