Alumni Spotlight: Althea Pickering's Purpose ‘Came Together’ at Batten

A typical week might find Althea Pickering (Col ’17, Batten ’18) flying into a remote part of South Sudan and traveling, by amphibious vehicle, to a six-foot-wide dike, the only dry land for miles. There, she’ll camp, alongside local families, while searching for the best way to move food to isolated parts of the flood-prone and war-torn country.

“It’s really shocking to see the conditions of a lot of these areas, and it’s heartbreaking to see the families that have had to flee their homes,” said Picking, a logistics officer for the United Nations World Food Programme.

It’s grueling work but helping to address South Sudan’s complex challenges is exactly what Pickering was looking for when she moved from the program’s Zimbabwe office to its Juba, South Sudan, location in June 2021. She’s interned, researched or worked for the United Nations World Food Programme in some capacity since 2017, when she was a student at Batten.

The youngest country in the world, South Sudan is in the midst of a protracted humanitarian crisis. Of its 12.4 million people, 7.7 million don’t have enough food, according to a July 2022 report from the World Food Programme. Between January and June 2022, the program has helped 4 million people with food and nutrition assistance..

“The small wins when you see the food start moving to these locations that previously were completely cut off, it’s exciting,” Pickering said. “It makes you realize why you’re doing what you’re doing.”

Theory and Practice

Pickering grew up in Charlottesville and was always interested in sustainability and environmental issues. Global and international development intrigued her, but, as a teenager entering UVA, she didn’t really understand what humanitarian work was.

She majored in global studies security and justice in the College of Arts & Science and entered Batten’s accelerated master’s program where her career path came into focus. “It was all disjointed interests, but then it all came together later on at Batten,” she said.

At Batten, her classes focused not just on theory, but its practical applications. And two professors guided her way — Kirsten Gelsdorf, Batten’s director of Global Humanitarian Policy, and Batten lecturer Galen Fountain.

Both faculty members came to Batten with years of on-the-ground fieldwork. Gelsdorf had worked in Ethiopia, South Africa and Liberia, among other places, for the United Nations. Fountain had led U.S. congressional staff on overseas missions focused on trade and food security as U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee clerk.

“Having those professors who came in with those stories of how what we’re learning links to what you can actually do on the ground, that made a big difference in helping me picture exactly what I was looking for in a career,” Pickering said. “It really made things a little bit more concrete.”

Impacts Big and Small

She also gained some of her own field experience when Batten sponsored her trip to Nepal to research school nutrition programs for the World Food Programme as part of her graduate capstone project. The research opportunity came after Pickering interned for the program’s Washington, D.C. office the previous summer.

“Visiting a country office for a few weeks, working with the government authorities, going to visit schools and engaging with teachers and the different people engaged in the program, that really solidified that this is something I’m really interested in,” Pickering said.

In South Sudan, there are few easy solutions, but Pickering can see her impact in big and small ways. Among her other duties this year, she was a leader on a project to turn an invasive aquatic plant into charcoal briquettes that can be used for fuel, which is difficult to find in the region. She was involved in the research, testing and applications for funding for the project.

A few months ago, she took part in the first tests with some local women’s groups, and the reaction was immediate. “You just kind of see on their faces that there is another option,” she said. “They don’t have to spend eight hours a day walking through water to find firewood for one meal for their family.”

Her next trip, Pickering hoped, would be to the local market where the briquettes are now for sale, where she would be able to see the tangible outcome of her efforts. “I love the work, I love the experience,” she said. “It’s a cool job where you get to solve these complex problems, but you get to do it while you go out and work together with the communities.”