Meet Caroline Cooney, Program Analyst for DREAMS

In 2015, an estimated 36.7 million people around the world were living with HIV. 25.5 million of those HIV positive people live in sub-Saharan Africa. Of those newly infected with HIV, women are disproportionally affected. Girls and young women account for 71 percent of new HIV infections among adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa. DREAMS is determined to change that.

DREAMS is a $385 million partnership with the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The mission of DREAMS is to help girls develop in to Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored, and Safe women. DREAMS works to address factors that increase girls’ risk for HIV, including poverty, gender inequality, sexual violence, and a lack of education. 

DREAMS focuses on 10 countries, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. These countries have some of the highest rates of new infection world-wide.

I had the chance to sit down with Caroline Cooney, a program analyst with DREAMS to find out more about the program and what it’s like to work for a non-profit.

So how long have you been working with DREAMS?

“For about a year and a half.”

What was your path to working with DREAMS? Did you know in college that you wanted to work on issues such as women’s health or AIDS prevention?

“I majored in international studies at the University of Madison Wisconsin, and then I got a certificate (minor) in French and also global health. I probably would have majored in global health had it been an option. I was really interested in that and how it brought in the more social side of health, like social inequality and how that really underlies a lot of health issues both domestically and globally.

I also did a summer program in Morocco for a month that was focused on child and maternal health, which was really interesting and looked at how a society that has a strong religious focus and how that is affecting women’s health in different ways. I then wrote a research paper on women’s contraceptive use and how places all over the world, it really doesn’t matter of you are in a Muslim society or not (Morocco is largely Muslim), if you go to a pharmacy and are a young, unmarried girl and try to buy condoms or birth control, people won’t give that to you and you will be judged. When in reality, you can’t just tell people to not have sex and then expect them to do that. We need to teach people safe options and provide them with safe options so that they don’t get trapped in that cycle of early pregnancy or early marriage.

What was your next step after completing the summer program in Morocco?

I continued with global health classes and I did an internship my senior year at a non-profit in Madison, called the Wisconsin Alliance for Women’s Health. Coming out of college I knew I wanted to do something with women’s health if possible, and I had done an internship at the Wisconsin State Department the summer before my sophomore year. I wasn’t doing anything related to health during the internship, but it was a really good way to be exposed to the state department, the structure and how everything works. It was through that internship that I was able to get connected with DREAMS.”

What does a typical day working for DREAMS look like? What is your role?

I started on the administrative side, which is pretty typical for a new graduate, and that was a lot of making the office run, doing scheduling and such. I’ve been lucky, I think that my team has really given me some good responsibility, and since then I have moved up to program analyst.

 I work at the headquarters in Washington DC, our office is very fast paced. How PEPFAR as a whole works is we have the implementing agencies like USAID, The Agency for International Development, Peace Corps, CDC, and they all have teams on the ground in different countries or working at the embassy. They also have implementing partners that they fund, so the actual work of DREAMS on the ground is done by those implementing partners.

From headquarters it’s more making policies, providing guidance, the direction we want the program to go, and overall coordination, coordination between our office and and our country teams. We also are a public-private sector partnership, so we have our private sector partners we work with in various ways. We also work with a group of girls who have been identified as being DREAMS champions. We work with them to get their input on what we are doing because it doesn’t make sense to have a program for these girls if they are not part of it.

What is the best part of the job?

 It is really nice to work on something that you are passionate about and that you feel really makes a difference. Even though the day to day can sometimes make you forget the reason why everyone is there since you’re not on the ground seeing it, but those times when you get to hear a girl who has gone through the DREAMS program or gets a DREAMS service, and it has changed her life, that is a really cool thing to hear, that you are somehow part of that.

DREAMS focuses on 10 countries in Africa, have you visited any of the countries while working for DREAMS?  

I went to Tanzania and South Africa for meetings. I haven’t yet gone on any site visits, which I would like to do in the future to really see the work on the ground. We had a big DREAMS regional meeting last January in Tanzania. It was good to see all the country teams come together and collaborate and figure out what was working, what wasn’t working and share best practices. We also had some of the DREAMS girls there, it was really cool to meet them, we have a Facebook group and try to keep in touch with them all.

If you could offer advice to college women looking to start careers in non-profit work, what would you tell them?

Find the cause that you are really passionate about, whether it’s what you read the most about, what you really connect to. I think it is really important to have that cause that you are really passionate about. Also, just be willing to be the go-to person; be willing to get your hands dirty and get in to it, I know on both the non-profit and the government side there is just a lot to do, and nonprofits usually don’t have a lot of funding, so just be willing to be that person and take on responsibility and be proactive.

Find out more about DREAMS here.