Rene Celaya talks about his career and a life-well traveled from teaching English abroad post Harvard to becoming a monitoring evaluation officer for CARE, working in the Republic of Georgia, Honduras, Panama, Mozambique and Jerusalem. He and his family came back to the States where he secured a position as Assistant Dean at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs for two years. After a stint in education, he went back to work for CARE as the Country Director at CARE where he worked for the next 15 years. Rene is currently a leader in international humanitarian and development strategy and practice.
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92 Report – Rene Celaya
Rene Celaya, Will Bachman
Will Bachman 00:01
Hello, and welcome to the 92 report conversations with members of the Harvard and Radcliffe class of 1992. I’m your host will Bachman and I’m here today with Rene Celaya. Rene, welcome to the show.
Rene Celaya 00:15
Good morning. Will, nice to be with you.
Will Bachman 00:17
So Rene, tell me about your journey since Harvard.
Rene Celaya 00:22
Well, since since finishing Harvard, I, my first work assignment was in the summer of 92, I headed to Russia, to Kaliningrad, Russia, as the to start up the the world teach Russia program there. And world teach was one of the was originally a program at Harvard that was started years before that, to to bring volunteer English teachers to different parts of the world. That was my first my first assignment was in Kaliningrad, and then I spent a couple of years there. And then came back to the US for graduate school at Columbia at the School of International Public Affairs. At that time, I also got married to our fellow classmate, Nancy Juan. And then, after graduate school, I went back overseas to the Republic of Georgia working with care, CARE International. And for a fellowship program they had, I was there as a monitoring evaluation officer. And then life took another turn, which was we were about to have children or a child. And we came back to the US and I worked at Columbia for a couple of years, we had two kids in New York. And then as soon as the second one was six months old, we headed back overseas, and back to the Republic of Georgia, in fact, with care, and then continued to work with care for many, many years. From there from Georgia, we went to Honduras, and then Panama, and then Mozambique, and then on Jerusalem, and now in New York. Whoa,
Will Bachman 02:19
okay, that is quite the adventure. So talk me through each one of those assignments. I mean, we only
Rene Celaya 02:28
have a few minutes, right.
Will Bachman 02:30
I mean, that is quite the, the kind of global, you know, interesting locations to have worked. Maybe start with Georgia? What is a monitoring and evaluation officer do and tell me a bit about Georgia? I, I’ll admit some ignorance here. I mean, it’s roughly were familiar kind of roughly on the map, I could probably place it roughly closely. But, you know, it’s like in what Armenia Azerbaijan, like kind of south of Russia, sort of, but I, I would admit that I am not super familiar with, you know, it was in the news a few years ago, but you know, help tell me a little bit about the country and kind of what you’re doing there.
Rene Celaya 03:12
The Republic of Georgia was, of course, one of the former Soviet republics. At the time of finishing college, we were all living through the, the end of the Cold War and a unipolar world. And, and this republics, many of the republics of the former Soviet Union were going through significant socio economic collapse. And the work that I was doing there was to support the the social economic issues of communities in Georgia, and through this organization, CARE International, is humanitarian organization that works all over the world. And my role was, so my background, my undergraduate studies at Harvard, were Russian and Soviet studies. So at that point, we joked that we were going to be moved to the Classics Department, dead Languages and Civilizations. But lo and behold, you know, 30 years later, guess what? Very remains quite relevant, of course. But anyway, back to Georgia. It’s a it’s a wonderful country. It’s beautiful and fascinating, and the birthplace of Stalin, all of those things all mixed up into one. And my role was to set up some monitoring evaluation data collection processes for the different projects that we were implementing, including some economic development, some civil civil society, strengthening projects. That was the role
Will Bachman 05:00
and talk to me about the economic development. There’s, there’s some books out there about, you know, kind of criticizing international development about you know, that I’m sure you’re deeply familiar with the literature and arguments on both sides and stuff, you know, saying, Oh, it actually at the end of the day elite charade to the elites or whatever. What were you doing there? Tell me about the impact how to structure these programs, help you familiarize myself with familiar with what,
Rene Celaya 05:29
what your dirty? Yeah. And to your point about, you know, what is the role of International Development, both social, economic, political, cultural, I think there are a lot of interesting and arguments around what that is and how to be a constructive contributor to that, as organizations as countries. The the work that care has done or did there at that point, was focused on civil society strengthening. And as I mentioned, some economic development. The included small business training for individuals who are interested in research and figuring out this new economic reality, which is no longer a socialist centralist controlled economy, but rather a unfortunately, or unfortunately, an open market economy. And how to understand it how to be a successful participant in that both as a as an individual as a small business, and that the kinds of it was basically business planning, business, business plan development, financial strategies, things like that.
Will Bachman 06:49
How did that work? That program was sort of an open call everything about starting a business, we have some classes, or was it like application only? Or what kind of businesses were you looking at? Just get on? Consultants, I’m really curious to hear about the details.
Rene Celaya 07:06
So at that point, the the, the whole Soviet economic system had collapsed. So there were as you can probably imagine, there were factories that created that were one step in a very complex socialist production chain, that were no longer connected to the other steps in that production chain. And there were so there were local capacities, but not no connections to others. And the economy in Georgia, Georgia is a very lush, country. And so they always have always had a significant agricultural production capacity. And again, some of that was very limited to certain steps in an agricultural product. Chain. And so there were skill sets, and of course, a very highly educated population. There were a lot of engineers and specialists, but not necessarily those with knowledge about how micro economics works. And so for the classes, so the one of the programs that we had included, yes, open calls to, you know, someone is interested in and on how to start a business, the different pathways that the trainees could take included, you know, are you interested in agricultural business or in a small production business? And then, so there were general generic general course, courses that individuals could join about what is a business and then different tracks that you could follow? If depending on your specific, you know, business interest? And then that was, and that was 30 years ago?
Will Bachman 08:59
Yeah. And then you were an evaluation officer. Right. So how did you evaluate these programs? Now, there’s a lot of stuff around, you know, kind of a b testing and so forth. And I think social sciences, I’m not super familiar with it, but doing these controlled experiments as a, as an evaluation officer, did you run like different ways of doing it and see, okay, you, you had 100 graduates and undergraduates, your graduates did better started more business, talk to talk me through that.
Rene Celaya 09:29
So it was a lot of of very targeted monitoring and evaluation according to what the program itself had predicted, and had expected so you know, how many individuals businesses were active? Six months later, we’re making a profit, you know, so there were different very high level indicators of education of economic achievement for this All business that we were monitoring in six months, 12 months, 18 months after training. And you know, how many were able to secure financing loans or investment and, you know, different types of the business indicators at that time?
Will Bachman 10:17
I suppose people Yeah. Or maybe actually, I shouldn’t suppose I’ll ask, you know, in our world, some simple concepts like price, it’s just almost sea water we swim in, you don’t even think that you’d have to be taught that. But you know, what we’re, we’re there’s some concepts that were just so new to people that you really had to walk them through, like, hey, the way that we work now is not sort of central planning, but we’re going to have prices and you have to pay, you know, pay for things and set the price and figure out what that
Rene Celaya 10:45
should be. Yes, exactly. And it was fascinating at that time to it were basic, some of these courses were basic economic courses about what is supply and demand. And so it was, it was quite a challenge for for the program to develop, you know, what level of knowledge was already exist existed within the the participants? And then what how, what additional information and technical knowledge did they require? And, and yes, a lot of the basic what we consider, you know, basic capitalist concepts were of course, not common knowledge for them.
Will Bachman 11:30
And what’s the strike? Tell me a little bit more about care as an organization? What was the structure there in Georgia? Were you the only one or was there a whole, you know, kind of team or office of people working on various things.
Rene Celaya 11:44
Care is a is a global organization, it actually has an fascinating history of its own. It began as the cooperative for assistance and relief to Europe as part of the recovery after World War Two, Marshall Plan kinds of support to Eastern to Europe in general. And since then, it evolved not only to support Europe, but also of families and communities in need around the world. So at this point, it reaches over 100 countries. It has different structures in different countries. But at that point in Georgia, there was a a regional office in Tbilisi, and it covered Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the Republic of Georgia. And my work was to cover all three countries in the work we were doing across those three countries. And
Will Bachman 12:43
so talk me through like your next assignment, I think you said you went to Honduras next? How does that work with with care do they kind of put you in a, you know, you sort of get an assignment almost like with the Foreign Service, or the military or something where you’re stationed somewhere for a number of years, and then you rotate to different geography.
Rene Celaya 13:04
So um, I had had that, that interlude of coming back to New York Between my first assignment with care in Georgia, and my second one, where I was working at when I was in graduate school, sorry, at Columbia. And then, so the next assignment with care, however, was in Honduras. And that was a regional posting. And so the way it’s worked is, positions come up, and you’re able to apply depending on how long you’ve been in your current role. And different roles have different, I would say, spans of expectation and monitoring valuation officer, it’s reasonable enough that you’re there to three years, and so then you’re eligible to apply for other positions internally. Different positions have different timelines. And so I applied, and that’s how I continued to be fortunate enough to continue to be selected with care for different roles. But the next one was a Deputy Regional Director for Latin American Caribbean. And I was based in Honduras for five years, working primarily on into integrating some of the work across the countries where care operates or operated at that time, in Central America.
Will Bachman 14:23
Amazing. So tell me about some of the initiatives that you worked on. In Honduras.
Rene Celaya 14:28
In that position, it was to identify common technical areas that were being implemented in those in the four countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. And, and to, to share, practice and learning across those both in technical terms in terms of operational contexts, lessons learned that kind of thing and in operational issues, too, in terms of how they were made. managing finances and how they were structured and how they manage procurement. So it was organization wide, look at how best to learn from the different work across those four countries and to identify good practice that would then inform, you know, whether some things were more integrated or less integrated across those different organizational work strengths.
Will Bachman 15:28
And with a focus in terms of the kind of nationality of the people you’re working with, is it primarily local nationals, or is it like a just an international crowd? Kind of, oh, mostly
Rene Celaya 15:46
locals. That was, across all of the work that care and other organizations similar to care? Do? Yeah, so that was my time and care in many different countries.
Will Bachman 15:58
And in terms of, then, kind of getting to know the culture if, you know, if it’s working with with kind of folks from Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua? What did it take? Tell me any learnings that you had of, you know, coming from Georgia, and that white culture to to Central America? What was different? Or what did you have to learn about kind of just how things work in that culture? And, you know, beyond just the language, but you know, in terms of just, you know, interacting with people getting things done?
Rene Celaya 16:36
Yeah. Well, each country, you know, has its own cultural approaches, but a lot of common priorities about, you know, how, what is priority about family about doing well about achieving and success. And so, the practical stuff. It does change, but the the core of the work doesn’t, in terms of the core, the priorities don’t. And so, you know, just adapting and being willing to learn different ways of doing things as you as you transition, and as you understand how different work happens.
Will Bachman 17:12
What was it was like, with your family? I imagine, well, the family
Rene Celaya 17:16
work, I mean, the other family came along, and we saw the children experienced different countries as they grew up, and understood that there’s no one way to do things. There’s no one way to understand the world. And, and it was challenging at some points and wonderful and others. And yeah, so now, they’re grown and off working at university and going to university.
Will Bachman 17:45
And, you know, what kind of schools typically were they in? You know, when you’re not there
Rene Celaya 17:51
usually an American international schools?
Will Bachman 17:54
Yeah. There must have been, and how was, so I guess they would probably be picking up some of the local language, but going to school, mainly in English, then?
Rene Celaya 18:05
Yep, a bit. So they speak Spanish, mostly because of me. I’m from Mexico. And at home, we spoke a little bit of Spanish, mostly English, but they certainly and the time we lived in Central America, they certainly picked up some Spanish, but moving country to country, they learned a little bit of other languages, but not enough to say they actually speak.
Will Bachman 18:27
Okay, so Russia, Georgia was a long time ago then for them. Yeah. Go ahead.
Rene Celaya 18:34
No, sorry. So I think I think the the might lead in my current role for last, which was beyond care, then I’m now working at Sesame Workshop at leading one of our international programs called Document Simpson.
Will Bachman 18:55
That’s an amazing Sesame Workshop. All right, let’s talk to tell me about that. So like,
Rene Celaya 19:00
so I’ve, after all of that work internationally. I, I was continued always in my work. I was looking at what you know, what are the new and interesting things going on in the world and of humanitarian development. And so, the Sesame Workshop, partnered with another humanitarian organization called the International Rescue Committee, the IRC to kind of propose a way to bring educational resources, including sesame content to families displaced in the Syrian response region, the country surrounding Syria and Syria itself as well. And so we those two organizations piloted and experience in Jordan, where they tested some of the sesame content. And then we applied those two organizations before I joined so applied for it A large opportunity that emerged, which was the MacArthur Foundation’s 100, and change competition. And through that, they won $100 million grant to implement this work in the countries of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. And as soon as I learned is following the competition, because it was a fascinating way to, to fund humanitarian work. And as soon as they won, I was cheering for them. And then as soon as they won, I quickly submitted my CV and cover letter. And a few months later, fortunately, I was selected to lead the program.
Will Bachman 20:38
Wow, that’s amazing. Tell me about us. Walk me through in a little bit detail, what is the program.
Rene Celaya 20:44
So the program it integrates the work that international rescue committee’s provides the services they provide to families in person. And of course, since COVID, more remotely by so those includes early childhood centers that provide like basic types of preschool experiences for children. They run trainings for caregivers for parents who have our early learning about early childhood development. And, and then they also provide information to families at health centers, for example, about the needs of the learning needs of kids in the early years, when their brains are particularly growing. And you know, it’s important to hit that time period to create the best opportunities for children in long term. So that’s what IRC does. They also work with national partners, including ministries, to integrate some of these practices into national services, including, like, what ministries of education or ministries of health provide to their broader their broader populations. And the that’s what the International Rescue Committee does. That’s it me creates the educational content that is integrated into those services. So a caregiver would, you know, be in a, in a learning environment, say, you know, oh, if your child is needing to understand how to manage their emotions, you know, here is a video that helps them do that. We also have some video content that we’ve created for other cognitive skills like reading and writing. And the, through this program, sesame was has been able to create a new show for the region for the Middle East. So there’s a brand new Sesame Street Tech Show in in the Middle East.
Will Bachman 22:53
And so instead of the traditional Brooklyn, brownstones and so forth, what’s the setting of the show? Yes, it’s
Rene Celaya 23:00
created with a lot of local artists and local production company based in Jordan. And so all of the design all of the the backgrounds the characters themselves, we created three new Muppets for this show specifically Basma Ziyad. And vice versa. And their story in their neighborhood has certainly vary looks very much like a a neighborhood you could find in the Middle East. I I dare not say typical, because there’s no such thing as typical over stereotyping the whole Middle East. But with elements that are more from that region than then Brooklyn. Okay.
Will Bachman 23:45
And that is so cool. And then does the show also have some of the the sesame characters that we know and love like the Big Bird? Yeah, Cookie Monster. So?
Rene Celaya 23:52
Yes, so the three the the characters of sesame characters, the global characters that are part of this show in the Middle East, are Elmo and Cookie and Grover.
Will Bachman 24:05
Fantastic. And so their names,
Rene Celaya 24:09
of course, are a little bit different. Cookies name is cocky. And Grover’s name is Garth Gould, and almost Elmo,
Will Bachman 24:17
Elmo is Elmo everywhere. So the you’re creating this content on some of the stuff that I remember from when I was a kid about how to manage your own emotions and so forth. And then is it also like some, some, some kind of reading stuff that you’d get on Sesame Street to show like, walking through letters and
Rene Celaya 24:39
so on. So it was a fascinating process that I mean, I’ve just been so impressed with how sesame works. You know, I came to this organization just a few years ago. Not fully understanding how they work. I knew some of their work, but I didn’t understand this. The span or depth of their work. It says To me, started in 1969, in the US, so over 50 years ago, but soon, in three years, they were already working in international contexts. And it for example, in the Middle East, they actually had a show since 1979. And so the way they they create the content is based very much on, first of all research, what are its What do kids need, and then the technical expertise of educators about, you know, what to focus on in the storytelling, and then the production colleagues who make that story come to life for kids. So it’s through that process, and at the time of the development of this program for that geography, a lot of the local advisors, educators, psychologists, all of those that we consulted, said, you know, the primary focus right now should really be for social emotional learning. And yes, of course, kids need to learn ABCs and one, two threes. But the, you know, the the real core is the social emotional learning that kids need really need to learn to develop. So our first season so the whole show us focuses on that, but not exclusively. So the there’s another story with Bosma, who is an almost six year old girl character, purple Muppet who is very dynamic and energetic. And she’s a do First ask questions, Lady later kind of person. And Josh was more of the planner. He likes to know what’s happening before he jumps in. And Mizzou says the goat, the neighborhood goat, of course, we all have the neighborhood goat growing up, and who just kind of follows them around and does fun things to disrupt whatever’s going on. And so the core of the program uses these characters to help tell stories to children about what is an emotion? What Oh, how do you understand your emotions? And how do you manage them. And so that is the core of the narrative stories that are part of the, the episodes.
Will Bachman 27:15
And the feedback that you got was that, you know, social emotional learning is the priority is that due to any specific circumstances in the Middle East with so much kind of international
Rene Celaya 27:29
focus of the work, the, the, the focus was really to support the needs of families affected by conflict and crisis, specifically, displacement from the Syrian conflict. And, and but the way that both advisors and sesame are brilliant at doing is, you know, understanding that that could be a need of a core a core need for a, a vulnerable group of children. But then, in fact, that is a need for all children, and all grownups. In fact, we all need to understand what are what we’re feeling, and how to manage our emotions. And so the way they tell the story, so that was the the core advice from those advice, you know, technical experts. But the way sesame tells the story is just wonderful. So one example, is fear. Fear is a, an emotion that many children affected by, you know, by traumatic events, experience and need to understand what it is and how to manage it. And so, in the storytelling, it is clear sesame’s and raisins are very careful at how they tell a story in a way that connects with children and does not cause further distress. And so the example is, it’s not fear of loud noises, for example, that might cause caused children to relive a traumatic moment. But it is fear in general. And so they made it fear of the dark. And so any and all children could experience fear the dark, and how to manage that fear. And that applies to other fears. And so, that is how, you know, the, the needs of children, a particularly vulnerable set of children are identified, and then the educators and the production colleagues come to figure out how to tell a story to children that will help them achieve that educational outcome through the storytelling.
Will Bachman 29:36
So that must be such a severe experience for those poor kids that have been displaced from Syria. And, you know, I don’t know if they’re living in refugee camps or just displaced from their homes and their relatives. To what extent does the show get like super explicit involve plotlines like that? Or is it more they’ll have a more kind of everyday plotline of a have, you know, a character who’s just like so?
Rene Celaya 30:03
So the advice from psychologists is to be explicit about the the issue fear, but not necessarily about the, what caused that. And so because as I mentioned, you don’t want to trigger bad memories. And so there are these, you know, the storytelling approaches that are broader. And not only that the because the, the target audience is not only children who have experienced displacement, but really all children across all of the regions, even beyond those four countries. So, the show, Glenn Simpson reaches, across 22 countries, we are on a regional broadcast channel. And as of last year, and we’re about to get new numbers, but as of last year, had reached 17 million children across all of the Middle East and North Africa. Wow,
Will Bachman 31:02
that’s amazing. Is there? Is there any kind of one episode that really sticks with you that, you know, any specific storyline that?
Rene Celaya 31:15
Well, to your point, there is one that that hints at, at displacement. And the important thing, again, is that the vocabulary used in the show is the vocabulary of five year olds. So they don’t use the technical terms grownups use like displacement refugee, you know, those, those words that we load with all sorts of meanings. And so one story in particular, one episode is a moment where the Muppet characters and some of the human characters the one of the characters, Bosma, is what we refer to describe that’s from the neighborhood. So best mates from the neighborhood, and Jad is new to the neighborhood. And one of the things she comes in very excited to she happened to find a toy from when she was a baby, of course, these are five year olds, but they’re talking about how, you know, they found something from when she was a baby. And then the other characters also share some of the items that they have, from when they were children, you know, the the grown up character, the human characters, and jawed was from somewhere else, um, says that one of his favorite items that was a drum, one of his favorite toys is when he was a baby. But he had to leave it at home, he couldn’t bring it with him. And, and so that promotes a storyline where Basma is being thoughtful to her friend, John, and then decides to create a new drum for him. And so that is, I think, a particularly important episode that, in fact, has won awards in different competitions in the children’s film festival in Chicago, for example, when the program won the teachers Choice Award. And so that’s the kind of amazing work that our colleagues are that my colleagues here at Sesame are able to create, in a way that reaches children with meaningful stories that they understand.
Will Bachman 33:29
Yeah, I mean, that is, you know, almost makes me want to cry right here that’s like, you can imagine how that applies to just anybody moving from one town to another and deadly stuff behind but how someone has had that experience, it could really speak to,
Rene Celaya 33:43
exactly. And so that’s how they take the that, that very, you know, that very specific issue, or let’s say need from that sub vulnerable population of kids who have experienced displacement, but broaden the concept so that we can all connect to that story and understand, you know, what a displaced individual the child has experienced, that connects with us as adults, even from we’re not from that region, but connects with other children in depending on their experience, as you say, you know, some, some of them might have moved, and some of them didn’t. But if you didn’t, then you can appreciate how someone who has moved maybe left something behind.
Will Bachman 34:26
You mentioned that sesame has, like so much experience just developing and testing content and so forth. And you also have this experience as an evaluation officer. Tell me to what degree dues is the program doing kind of a b testing or testing of different storylines or different episodes or characters to kind of see how the audience responds and then tweak it.
Rene Celaya 34:52
So this is another thing that I’m very impressed by sesame and one of the reasons why I was so excited to join In the team, since the beginning, sesame was has been very committed to research to understand, you know, to very testing with children to testing with adults, the content, the storylines, and that continues to all the work that sesame does, including the creation of this work for the Middle East. So there were, you know, needs assessments at the beginning, we then there’s what was referred to as you know, formative testing, they do storyboards that they then present to children and caregivers and ask about, you know, did you understand the story? Did you like it that you not? And that’s in the formative stage, and then in after each episode in our program, we do we do summative assessments as well. performance evaluations, we call them so that we can see. And we test, you know, with families and children, number of the episodes and say, you know, what was the message that you understood what happened? What did happen? And so that the results of that episodes are that sorry, that seasons testing, then inform the creation of the next one, and the next one and the next one. So it’s a continuous learning process. Sesame is very committed to, to learning itself, not just helping others learn but learning itself, and how the content is reaching children in what ways and to always improving.
Will Bachman 36:37
What’s an example of some finding from that process that surprised you? Where people just totally didn’t get a character or myth? People totally missed the message that was intended for an episode or something that resulted in in earnings change. Can you give me examples of anything that surprised you from all that testing?
Rene Celaya 36:59
Let’s see. Some of the more I guess, the more surprising moments were, when there were things that we didn’t even expect about children’s perception of the characters. And whether they, you know, they’re there, whether they liked their colors, they liked their voices. You know, there was a lot of testing along the way around that, but then it surprise you and they say, Oh, I didn’t like this, you know, this voice or that was very loud, or, you know, sometimes they just didn’t understand a message, or they understood it in a way that was unexpected. So it’s been fascinating to be a part of that process, and to learn about how, how kids and caregivers respond.
Will Bachman 37:49
This sounds absolutely amazing. What a incredible opportunity to be part of that program. Let’s, let’s talk a little bit about this segment of the show where we ask you what courses are professors, if any, that you had at Harvard, have continued to resonate with you and affect you in some way.
Rene Celaya 38:13
Um, he went there, I think a number of courses, I don’t remember, professors names, unfortunately. But I started at Harvard as a chemistry major. And so my first chemistry course was in formative in that I realized that didn’t want to study chemistry.
Will Bachman 38:32
I lasted about one week and some bio Chem course. Alright.
Rene Celaya 38:37
And then I switched over very naturally, of course, from chemistry, where else would you go, but Russian and Soviet studies. I had started taking Russia. And so I think there was a little bit of me that knew that I needed something different. And so I had even first semester, first year, I was studying Russian. And that really attracted me. So I switched to Russian Soviet studies. And within that, of course, that I took on political economy and the interrelated and dynamic engagement between politics or governance, and economy. I think that was particularly fascinating, as I was understanding the, you know, the Soviet and post Soviet context, as an end reflecting that on what does it what does the US contexts look like? That was a particularly, I think, formative class. But with Russia and Soviet studies, what was wonderful about that, that program was that it was studies it was broad. It wasn’t the history of the Soviet Union or the economy of the Soviet Union. It was studies which meant that I could take RT, Russian and Russian art. And so that was another wonderful course that really, you know, helped me understand that whenever we talk about a course of study or a subject That’s how we currently divide the world into these categories of economics or sociology or, you know, whatever it might be, but at the core, its people and people and their lives and including the creative dimensions to those. So that was just a wonderful course where I expanded my understanding of life, and you know, not to limit ourselves to just trying to understand one piece of it and expect the rest of it to follow. And finally, I think one of my the most important, I would say, of course, was the core course and astronomy. What? Absolutely, that’s where I met my wife. Okay. And, and also, I think one of the, and one of the books that we had to read was Thomas Kuhns, the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which really is, you know, an amazing way to step back and understand how our assumptions of the world and how it works change significantly, as you know, I think he was perhaps the originator of the concept of paradigm shift. And, you know, in terms of really how scientific paradigms shift between, you know, what was the flat earth to what was not a flat earth, and other scientific moments where the information that is available to, you know, to us, really becomes inconsistent with the assumptions of the current paradigm. And so I think that was another reason why that was fascinating in terms of how we understand the stars and our place within them. And, you know, of course, it’s a metaphor for how we understand ourselves and our place within society in the world. Did you shift?
Will Bachman 41:57
Yeah. Did you anticipate a career in international development when you were at Harvard? or was there some kind of sliding doors type moment that kind of caught you on that path?
Rene Celaya 42:13
Um, I think so. You know, looking back, I realized that I was probably on this path, but I didn’t realize it. So I come from Mexico, I grew up in Arizona. And I think, at that time, what was formative and I didn’t know it was seeing how my life and my opportunities were so different than my cousins, lives and opportunities in Mexico. And, and then I had the opportunity to go to a boarding school called United World College. And in New Mexico, there are a number of United World colleges around the world. They were created with the intention to bring children, young kids to do the International Baccalaureate degree. So finishing secondary, with kids from around the world, and in my class of nine of about 100. Kids in, in the United World College. In New Mexico. We’re kids from over 97 countries. Wow, what, in advance in 100. Instance, oh, my God. And so that was another formative moment. And, and that’s where I met my first Russian colleagues, Russia, Russian students. And but I was, I was fascinated by chemistry and the analytics of it. And it was just it is it still is very interesting. But I think as I, you know, then I continued to study Russian and Soviet studies at school, I kind of began to be curious about how societies have different ways of working and different opportunities and what their opportunities are and what their limitations are for individuals, and really trying to understand the inequities of those and, and how can we seek equity and justice for, you know, for any person. And so I think that kind of continued to, for me, my, my first job out of college was, as I mentioned, with oral teach in Russia, and it was around education, and you know, what kinds of opportunities do Soviets or then Russian kids have to understand the rest of the world? And so that kept going and then after? After that, I went to Colombia for the international affairs program, and that’s where I really made the decision by studying economic and political development and So that’s when it was solidified, I would say. And from there, yes, it was economic political development. What would you say?
Will Bachman 45:09
Your experiences? How have the kind of shaped your worldview or different way of asking is, you know, how do you perceive, you know, certain world events, or just the way things work? You were based on this long career you’ve had in different geographies? You know, this kind of topic that you started thinking about, with your cousins, right, have different different levels of opportunity between you and them?
Rene Celaya 45:37
I and I think that the, the point about that there are different ways of doing things in that are different realities. And that that’s how, you know, the worldview is some assuming that, you know, I think a lot of experience is that we assume that what we experience is the norm. And the fact that there is no norm, and, you know, being able to be having the privilege to see different norms around the world really makes me always question, you know, what, how is this elsewhere? How is this for other people? And is one when we were visiting my wife’s family in Boston, with the kids coming back from I think, Mozambique, and they were observing, I want to observations they made was, wow, they have sidewalks here in Boston. And yes, you know, simple things like fireworks. You know, we, we, we shouldn’t take everything, anything for granted, we shouldn’t take anything as assumed or as norm, we really need to understand that the world and people have different experiences and lives and challenges. And I guess my work has and has been dedicated to, first understanding that appreciating that and then seeing if there’s something I can do to help create opportunities for others to understand different things and make different choices.
Will Bachman 47:25
Really, Rene, this has been such an amazing conversation, and what a journey you’ve had. For classmates, or anyone that wants to follow up, find out what you’re doing, where would you point them online, then the links or ways people can follow you or find out what you’re doing?
Rene Celaya 47:43
Yes, well, at this point, I would direct people to the sesame workshop.org site, where the current work on doing with an offline Samsung, the current project and work is described. Personally, I’m on LinkedIn, and I think that would be the best place to find me.
Will Bachman 48:05
All right, well, we’ll include your LinkedIn profile, and sesame workshop.org in the show notes. Listeners, if you want to find out about the latest episode, I’ll send you an email about it if you go to 92 report.com and put in your info. And if you’re so inclined to give the show a five star review on iTunes. It does help others discover the show. Rene, thank you so much for joining. Thanks for all the wonderful work that you’ve done, you know, for International Development and the sesame program sounds completely amazing. So thank you for that. It’s great speaking with you.
Rene Celaya 48:40
Great to speak to you. Nice to chat.