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South Carolina Honors College

Nicole Modeen Hark

Deputy regional director for Asia and the Middle East, Lutheran World Relief

Class of 2007
International Studies

 Profile and interview by Aïda Rogers

Nicole Modeen Hark has learned it’s important to focus on the small when dealing with the big. That’s why she has a five-year-old corncob from India on her desk. It reminds her that in her work helping people in developing countries, she can have an impact, no matter how long it takes to prove it.

“There are far greater needs in the world and the communities we work in than resources to meet them,” says Hark, a 2007 Honors international studies graduate. “It’s hard not to feel the type of work I do is making a difference, and it’s a drop in the bucket to the overall need.”

Still, there is the corncob—evidence that families in Bihar, India learned to grow more than the rice that fed them for only three or four months of the year. Thanks to Lutheran World Relief, where Hark is deputy regional director for Asia and the Middle East, farmers are growing a variety of produce. It’s one change that’s rippled into dramatic, positive improvement. Now families can feed themselves year-round and sell the remainder in markets, providing money for necessities they couldn’t afford earlier. And, the husbands who migrated for work can stay home and farm while their wives, who had worked the fields, can better manage their families and households. The young farmer/mother, in her early 20s, gave Hark the corncob as a gift.

“She was so proud of their ability to grow food,” she recalls, recounting the mother’s story about how now, when her daughter is sick, she can take her to the doctor. “Before, she would have had to borrow from a money lender who lends at exorbitant rates, or be helpless. And you can’t overstate the importance of eating 12 months a year.”

For her humanitarian work, Hark has received the SCHC’s 2016 Distinguished Young Honors Alumni Award. Her efforts in international development have helped implement more than 40 projects in India, Indonesia, Jordan, Nepal, Palestine, the Philippines, Syria, and Sri Lanka. She’s also helped communities rebuild after natural disasters—the earthquake in Nepal, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the tsunami in Indonesia—frequently making them stronger.

“I thrive more in emergency situations than I thought I would,” she confesses. “I expected to be overwhelmed, but there’s something motivating about a natural disaster. So much you see is sad—the collapse of buildings, the separation of families—yet at the same time you see such opportunities to make things better. How do you build communities back so they’re more resilient to the next shock, so that people are having a better life after the tragedy? My energy gets going a lot more to rise to those challenges.”

A native of Columbia, Md., who brought her fascination about the Middle East to Carolina, Hark took numerous courses with Ken Perkins and was a fellow in the Washington Semester Program. During her semester in D.C., she worked for the Aspen Institute, which confirmed for her that while politics are interesting, her talents lie with thought leadership and non-governmental organizations. USC’s Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs helped her win a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to the American University in Cairo, where she studied intensive Arabic language and became conversationally fluent in Egyptian Arabic. She earned a master’s in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University in Washington, D.C.

While her husband—lawyer Adam Hark, SCHC ’05—would say his wife has been in danger on the job, she says that’s not so. Her word is “awkward.” On assignment in Sri Lanka, she found herself escorted by a military colonel from that country across fields that were being de-mined. “As an NGO, we don’t collaborate with the military, but because those were minefields, it was for the best.” 

For Hark, optimism and patience are necessary. The corncob represents five years of education and labor, and emphasizes that while the poor in the United States suffer, they still are better off than in other places of the world. “In the poor rural areas where we work, there are families dependent on agriculture who are unable to earn a living wage or feed themselves for more than three months of the year. There is no food bank for them to go to, and while there are some support programs, there are significant barriers to accessing them.”

Many people can’t read or write to complete necessary paperwork for aid, and some have never left their villages because the distance to get help is too far to walk, she explains. “In the U.S., the support systems are so much better.”

The sight of orphaned children living together in a train station in Kolkata, India haunts her. “They’re trying to cobble together a family environment. They collect trash and bottles to sell, and rely on people throwing food away and giving them their change rather than having to scour for it. I feel like we are still a few steps ahead of that, even in the worst of situations.”

The Harks live in Ruckersville, Virginia, with their toddler son, Preston, and infant daughter, Abigail. Leaving them for two weeks at a time four to six times a year is difficult. “It goes without saying I have a pretty amazing husband,” she says. “I like to think my kids will understand I’m helping the future of kids in other countries.”

 Reading now: Oh Crap! Potty Training by Jamie Glowacki. If anybody out there is trying to potty-train a toddler, it’s great.

Favorite movie: The Shawshank Redemption

Most recent concert: We saw U2 in Washington, D.C., years ago. There was just enough political commentary.

Good at: Puzzles. I’m a total puzzle nerd. I feel like my work is really a big puzzle. We have to get the equation to fit for whatever person or country we’re working on.

Bad at: General networking. That generic chitchat that happens at happy hours—I suck at it. It’s hard because of what I do. When someone asks what I do, there’s no five-second answer to what international development is.

Most people don’t know: I only eat foods I dislike if I’m a guest in someone’s home. I travel so much I expect I will be somewhere and have to choke it down.

Weirdest thing eaten on the job: Chicken feet in Indonesia and bull testicles in Egypt. Thankfully they didn’t tell me what it was beforehand.

Best SCHC memory: Seeing Scott Bakula in Shenandoah at Ford’s Theatre during my Washington Semester. We hung around afterwards and had our picture taken with him. He signed my program. It was awesome.

What the SCHC did for me: The Washington Semester Program gave me a greater awareness of options and exposure to the district. And through the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs I was able to go to Cairo and study Arabic. Having that support to talk through applications and have them challenge me, and a faculty committee interview you—that was the toughest interview I’ve had. That continual push and motivation was helpful. I love those ladies at the OFSP, just love-love-love them.

Regret: I probably should have traveled more. I haven’t spent time in Latin America and that’s probably a disadvantage. I don’t speak Spanish. But I don’t feel like that’s out of the question. I’ll get there eventually.

Advice for today’s SCHC students: Travel is a great way to see how you fit into the broader global community. Also, it may not apply to everyone, but you don’t need to spend as much time focusing on graduate school as you do getting work experience and seeing what it takes to do the job. Now that I’m on the other end hiring people, I can’t tell you how many don’t have experience outside the classroom. You can have amazing professors and classes, but it’s no substitute for real world experience.       

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.