By Archana Apte
This July, I traveled to Lusaka, Zambia to work in nonprofit management. I was expecting this Dialogue of Civilizations to be a fun opportunity to get my hands wet and learn about a new country. But, it wound up teaching me so much more than that.
This Dialogue counted for my minor in Global Social Entrepreneurship, but other students sought credit towards their Human Services or International Affairs degrees. The twelve of us volunteered at four local nonprofits in Lusaka. I and three other students worked for Pakachele Primary School, where I taught sixth-graders math, science, and history, and oversaw recess games. The Dialogue also required each group to implement a month-long project to sustainably improve some facet of our organization. We decided to help restart the student garden plots, which were destroyed by climate change-exacerbated flooding. And we also cemented the garden’s use as a hands-on science teaching tool.
When not at our nonprofits, we worked with local university students to create a day of workshops for a local youth shelter. Our Northeastern professor, Lori Gardinier, who heads the Human Services Program housed in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, also brought in daily speakers, gave lectures, and assigned written work.
The polarization of Zambia between poor and rich reminded me of how India’s economic development also bypasses its poorest citizens. When I visited my grandparents in India, the malls and shiny cars of Pune seemed a world away from the city slums and the quiet suffering of the rural poor. Lusaka seemed similar: the wealth of Levy mall, whose fruit smoothies and free WiFi drew in the city’s burgeoning middle class, seemed to completely pass over the crowded streets where one of the Dialogue groups worked with impoverished youth.
Local university students, who were interested in poverty alleviation, reminded me of the many Northeastern students back in Boston whose concern for the urban homeless is blunted by constant exposure. It’s harder to generate moral outrage for impoverished Bostonians when you politely ignore the man jangling his change cup outside of Ruggles T Station every day.
Professor Gardinier’s lectures and readings analyzed these moral quandaries. Yet, balancing scholastic and experiential education was a challenge for the Dialogue. Sending students to Lusaka with no prior knowledge of the nation’s issues could cause ignorant blunders. On the other hand, teaching too many theories and statistics could keep students’ experiences from speaking for themselves. Professor Gardinier skillfully straddled this line.
In classic Northeastern fashion, working directly with issues like Western involvement in third-world countries and inaccessible childhood education deepened our understanding of these topics and turned philosophical arguments into real people who demanded our admiration as well as our sympathy. Studying poverty alleviation seems impossible, or at least incomplete, without working with these issues personally.
Working in Lusaka taught me how to work in teams. As someone used to prodding disinterested teammates in academic group projects, I was surprised to find myself deferring to my more assertive group members on the trip. I quickly realized that I had to overcome my naturally docile, supportive attitude when I disagreed on something. Doing so was difficult, but when something bothered me—e.g. not researching the audience of the supplementary curriculum materials beforehand—I made myself speak up.
Developing a project with real-world ramifications helped me realize that I would enjoy a career in product management more so than as a specialist delivering some facet of a project (grant writing, interface design, coding, market analysis, marketing, etc.). Paying attention to the larger picture —the stakeholders, consumers, market direction—is my default outlook when working on something. Writing the logic analyses and grant application for the Pakachele garden project was thus easy for me since it required fitting the details of a project into a long-term framework. I realized that I enjoyed prioritizing different deliverables by referring to the project’s goals and deciding whether a feature fit those goals. While I did similar work for a startup creating an iPhone app, the project in Zambia helped me realize that I also enjoy product management outside of a tech context.
Hopefully, this discovery will help me narrow down options for my first co-op next fall. I hope to land a position at a startup business or smaller nonprofit working in microfinance, renewable energy, or some other pressing issue. Wherever I choose to work, I know that the lessons I learned in Lusaka—understanding myself and the value of experiential learning—will prove invaluable.
Archana Apte is a rising second-year student majoring in Environmental Studies and double-minoring in Global Social Entrepreneurship and Interaction Design. She participated in a one-month summer program with teaching professor Lori Gardinier, director of the Human Services Program, that introduces students to social change theories and social organizations in Lusaka, Zambia. In her free time, Archana enjoys baking, writing poetry, and taking every personality quiz she can find.
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