Alumni Spotlight: Kyleigh Payne

Kyleigh Payne Interview pic

Kyleigh graduated from Kansas State University in 2008 with a B.A. degree in Anthropology. She continued her studies at the University of Denver where she got a M.A. degree in International Studies in 2010. She now works as a senior program officer for the National Democratic Institute. The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit organization that works to strengthen democratic institutions around the world. Kyleigh works at the NDI headquarters in Washington D.C. to help design the programs that NDI will implement in other countries all over the world.

I personally do not have much of a direction or idea of what I would like to do with my life so I could imagine it was a bit of a struggle for Dr. Wesch to find an alumni to match me with. He paired Kyleigh and I together because he saw similarities in our personalities as students and I believe we turned out to be a perfect match. I had a fantastic conversation with Kyleigh. We spoke over the phone so the transcript I have typed is my best summary of our conversation. I do not think it fully captures her warm personality but I hope you enjoy learning about the work she does and the advice she has to offer just as much as I did.


Q: What is a typical day at work like for you?

A: It depends if we are in the proposal process or not. If we are in the proposal process, then we are applying for competitive funding, primarily the US Agency for International Development, other US government agencies, and foreign bilateral aid agencies. We are currently working on a proposal in Cambodia, so I attend design meetings where we create a plan for the programs we want to implement. We have to work with local organizations, meet with other international partners, and with our own teams in Washington and in Cambodia to create a plan that meets everyone’s needs and reflects our global experience.

Q: How have you applied anthropology to your job?

A: We work with local organizations to understand the cultural needs of beneficiaries and potential challenges in program implementation. We also consider the specific needs of men and women in designing events and program activities. For example, in Yemen, rural women cannot get to the capital without an escort. So we often hold smaller events in the regions instead of holding big events in the Sana’a. Often we provide childcare at our events. We also have to design programs to meet the needs of both donors and local citizens. The U.S. government is our biggest donor, and they will want to support our mission to enhance the voices of citizens in other countries and further their goals abroad. A lot of local organizations like having NDI as the middle man because they won’t want to take money from the U.S. government but will take help from us because we always work to make sure their needs are understood and fulfilled as well.

Q: What do you love about anthropology?

A: I love the holistic nature of looking at the world. At University of Denver I got my masters in International Studies and that gave me a political lens, but my degree in Anthropology gave me a holistic lens. I can consider more angles when looking at problems at work and elsewhere.

Q: What hardships can majors expect their first year after graduation?

A: For me, I had to find a way to translate my broad studies into a political focus. My advice is to do a lot of internships to figure out what exactly you want to do with your anthropology degree.

Q: Was it always a clear decision to go to graduate school?

A: I didn’t always know what I wanted to do, it wasn’t until my junior year that I decided on a more targeted study. I had the choice to graduate a semester early but I decided to actually do another year so I could study abroad and take more political science classes. That led me to my choice to go to graduate school.

Q: Did you ever study abroad?

A: Yes, I studied abroad in Salzburg, Austria, and also taught English in Konya, Turkey, through K-State. I definitely recommend studying abroad. You get to experience another culture and it’s nice to have no job, no obligations, and learn more about yourself. In Manhattan it’s easy to become bogged down in classes, homework, and a job. Where’s the time to just be who you are?

Q: What is your best memory from your time at K-State?

A: Helping with the world simulation as a TA. It was like taking cultural anthropology all over again and it was great to see the things students learned in class really click for them.

Q: Do you recommend being a TA to current undergrads?

A: I would definitely recommend it! It prepares you to express yourself in front of a group of people and teaching the information gives you a greater knowledge and understanding of the topic.

Q: What was your favorite class at Kansas State? Is there any you would recommend?

A: I really loved religion and culture and all my cultural and linguistic anthropology classes. I also took a lot of history classes and loved policy classes with Michael Krysko. Micro and macro economics are helpful classes outside of the anthropology department.

Q: If you could go back in time to your undergrad years at K-State, what advice would you give yourself?

A: Don’t take yourself so seriously. Enjoy your four years and explore different paths. And learn how your graduate student loans will work, and how they will affect your financial future!


I had a wonderful time talking with Kyleigh. The path she took gave me something new to think about when considering graduate school. I never thought of going to graduate school for something other than anthropology but now I see how I could get a degree to help me focus in on a career in applied anthropology. Overall I loved hearing her story and getting to know her. I do not know where I will be five years from now, but if I end up half as successful and kind as Kyleigh Payne then I think I will be in good shape.


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