Stephen McAndrew, Head of Emergency Operations at Red Cross, Gives Moving Presentation at Poly

As part of the Global Initiatives Program‘s fall events schedule, Poly welcomed Stephen McAndrew, head of emergency operations for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies (IFRC), to campus last Thursday. Poly Global Scholar and senior Shae C. introduced McAndrew, who shared with about 200 people his background and examined crucial aspects of two of his recent missions, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the Syrian migrant crisis in the Middle East and Europe.

After reviewing how he became involved with the IFRC, McAndrew conveyed to the audience the gravity of the 2013-14 Ebola virus. The virus hit Sierra Leone and then “we were chasing Ebola” as it quickly spread across the country with no answers in sight. He dissected, for the audience, how the mission analyzed how to respond and what the IFRC eventually did to stop the expansion of the Ebola virus. McAndrew shared numerous specifics, including the building of Ebola treatment centers. He described the prolonged process for wearing layers of protective gear — and then expressed relief for that bulky, hot gear which saved him when an infected patient vomited on him.

McAndrew also discussed how one solution, the halting of traditional burial practices (some West African societies lay hands on their dead, which can easily spread the virus), while curtailing Ebola in that area, raised a number of cultural issues that had to be delicately addressed through a coalition of church and mosque leaders.

In 2015, McAndrew was assigned to lead the IFRC’s response to the Syrian migrant crisis in the Middle East to Greece. He chronicled the harrowing journey of Syrian migrants from Turkey into Europe and shared a number of photos of people seeking lives of safety. “This is what desperation looks like,” he shared as he showed boats made to carry 30 people overloaded with 90 to 100 human beings. The crowd was definitely moved when he displayed the artwork of children from Syria. Their drawings captured again and again the troubling themes of war and violence.

He closed by identifying the increasing hostilities the migrants face as they move deeper into Europe. Woven throughout McAndrew’s talk were wonderfully thoughtful lessons that he learned through his experiences. Early on in leading operations, he observed that most effective leaders listen. McAndrew pointed out how important collaboration is in a cross-cultural operation. He noted, “I don’t bring solutions, but I provide the supplies and means to let the people there on the ground devise solutions that will work for them.” He added, “Wherever you are, you have to talk with the jeopardized.” McAndrew made a particular effort to identify the important and effective roles females contribute in cross-cultural collaborative missions.

In the months leading up to McAndrew’s presentation, he repeatedly proclaimed how excited he was for the Q&A portion of the evening. The Poly students did not disappoint. Their questions ranged from “How does the pricing of pharmaceutical companies affect IFRC medical operations,” “Do governments negatively affect the efforts and impact of the IFRC,” and “Have terror attacks increased with the influx of Syrian migrants into the West?” When asked about the IFRC’s finances, he openly admitted the increasing scrutiny the organization faces and welcomed the opportunity to be more accountable as an organization. When asked, “How does the idea of when to intervene actually go into effect,” McAndrew explained the politicization of some humanitarian crises (how some disasters get ample financial donations while other areas of the world receive minuscule amounts of money).

McAndrew captivated the crowd with his authenticity, humility (“I’m not the smartest man in the room” and he gave full credit to his professional and volunteer team for their superb work with Ebola), and ability to relationally connect with the event’s attendees. Many Poly seniors commented afterward how refreshing it was to hear from someone who chased his or her heart’s desires rather than brand name colleges and how relieving to know true success can be achieved by those who pursue their heart’s desires. After his presentation and the Q&A session, he remained to answer student questions for nearly an hour. Poly was most fortunate to hear from such a global mover and shaker.

Polytechnic School, 1030 E. California Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 396-6300 or visit





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