A Penn State World Campus grad is part of the organization that won the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Brenda Behan serves as United Nation's World Food Programme deputy regional director for East Africa. She graduated in 2018 with a Master of Professional Studies in Community and Economic Development.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the World Food Programme the prize in October 2020 for "its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas, and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict." The World Food Programme is the world's largest humanitarian agency, assisting 100 million people in 88 countries.
“We were really surprised and honored by the Nobel Peace Prize,” said Behan, who has held multiple roles in the organization during her 18-year career.
The organization also supports school health and nutrition programs, connects farmers to markets, and helps communities improve long-term food security and resilience to climate change.
Before joining the World Food Programme, Behan completed undergraduate studies in engineering at the Florida Institute of Technology. She worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before becoming a civil and environmental engineer for the U.S. Navy.
In her work for the Navy, she focused primarily on naval facilities worldwide and specialized in ocean engineering. She eventually shifted into environmental remediation and worked on superfund sites around Washington, D.C. Her next move took her to Italy, where she worked on environmental and civil engineering projects on military bases in the Mediterranean region.
Behan applied for a job at the World Food Programme on a whim.
"I'd always been fascinated by the United Nations,” she said. “My parents were teachers in the international school system, so I grew up in Samoa and Germany. The international aspects of the United Nations’ work attracted me, but I didn’t know much about it.”
Behan’s first role was as chief of infrastructure and facilities management in Rome. In 2014, she moved to the Nairobi regional office as the senior regional engineering officer for East and Central Africa. At this point, she decided to resume her studies toward her community and economic development degree, which she had started while working in Washington, D.C.
“Back then, I looked at this Penn State program and thought it was pretty interesting — I even took one course,” she said. “Twenty years later, when I was ready to go back to school, I remembered how good my experience was with World Campus even before there was such a range of online communications tools for distance learning.”
It took Behan three years to complete the degree, but she said she is happy she stuck with it.
“It’s an incredible program,” she said. “It is interesting, well-structured, and well done. The online program enabled me to do my class work in a different time zone on a different continent, yet also feel like I wasn’t completely isolated and that I could still interact with my classmates and professors.”
Behan chose the program because it helped enhance her understanding of issues related to humanitarian work.
“There’s emergency portfolio work where you’re working with refugees and situations in which people are in desperate need after a climatic shock such as a flood or drought,” she said, adding that the agency delivered 4.2 million metric tons of food in 2019.
She also noted that the World Food Programme creates stabilizing conditions for peace and focuses on long-term systemic issues to create conditions to help people become self-reliant.
“Combined with my curiosity about the larger scheme of WFP’s work, this degree opened my mind to other career possibilities after years of focusing on engineering,” she said.
After completing her degree, Behan became the agency’s senior deputy country director in Kenya.
“During the application process, I brought to bear a lot of what I learned from my master’s,” she said. “I sold myself based on having this technical background and the knowledge in the economic and community development aspects.”
Behan moved to her current role as the deputy regional director in the regional office where she started in Nairobi, but at a more senior level. The communities she works with face many challenges, mainly caused by conflict but compounded by climate change and, more recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have about 4% of the global population but about 20% of the food insecurity,” Behan said. “The situations are difficult, but there are also enormous opportunities and progress being made.
"That’s exciting to see and be a part of.”
Find out more about the Master of Professional Studies in Community and Economic Development program and how its curriculum covers how to positively influence communities' quality of life.