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Cap, gown, degree -- the world awaits you

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I arrived back in Winnipeg last week. All around me were the typical rites of spring -- flowers blooming, mosquitoes humming and graduates. Graduates everywhere.

It was not long ago, I was myself a new university graduate, entering the world and the job market.

My career choices -- my reality -- are quite different from other peoples', but I think I have some experience to share with those now plotting their futures.

Working in war zones and negotiating with everyone carrying an AK-47 (still the weapon of choice in most active conflicts) is not where I saw myself 10 years ago.

I had a normal childhood in St. Vital, going to schools in the area and even working in the centre of it all: St. Vital Centre. I went to university because that's what you do after high school. In my fourth year of engineering, I realized I never thought about what is going to come after. I knew getting a job and settling down seemed to be expected, but that didn't sit right with me.

That's when I saw an article about Engineers Without Borders, who were just starting up. Here was a group of engineers who didn't want to build big-box stores and saw greater challenges in the world. I was sold.

The experience of working with the humanitarian aid organization led to speaking engagements at events in Winnipeg, and I crossed paths with a local physician who worked with Doctors Without Borders. When I learned that they needed engineers, my future instantly became clearer.

In the last decade, my engineering degree has taken me around the world. For the last three years I have been working for Doctors Without Borders, commonly know by its French acronym, MSF. (Engineers Without Borders and Doctors Without Borders are separate organizations with very different programs -- development vs. emergency relief).

Starting off in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was amazed to see the sheer number of different armed groups operating. After settling in to my official duties, supervising construction, transport and power supply, I learned that you do whatever job is necessary. Negotiating with local authorities, armed men in uniform (as they're referred to) and the local population quickly enhances your soft skills: leadership, management, and of course, negotiation.

The work of MSF in regions like this allows me to experience things I never thought possible.

Although I encourage anyone with a sense of adventure and a desire to make real change to do this work, the goal is always the beneficiaries.

The strength and courage of the people MSF treats are unbelievable. As a non-medical, it is still amazing to see first mission doctors arrive, dumbfounded by women walking immediately after a Caesarian section, or the resilience of people living with HIV. This is the reason we do what we do.

As much as I love my job, I could not do it without seeing the end result. All people have the right to proper medical care, regardless of where they happen to be born. Especially when they are caught in the conflicts around them.

Having returned this week from the Central African Republic, a country overthrown in March after a terrible civil war, I understand the fear and worry my friends and family felt for me. As hard as it is to tell them, it is nothing compared to the fear I've seen in the local people. I felt quite safe in comparison.

This line of work is not for everyone, but I believe it is for more people than realize it. For anyone unsure of what's next for them, it is a job that will never match financial reason, but at the same time, will top most other prospects on job satisfaction. It exceeds anything imaginable.

With a profession, medical, technical or other, this can be the most amazing career in the world. For anyone looking for something different, look into the humanitarian world. It can change your world. And theirs.

Todd Phillips, 32, recently spent nine months on his third mission with M©decins Sans Fronti®res in Central African Republic, where he co-ordinated the security and operations for an international team providing medical care in a town of about 30,000 in the southern part of the country.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2013 A17

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