GESI Program: Undergraduate struggles and successes with international development

March 3, 2015

group of people sitting on the floor talkingIn summer 2014, almost 60 undergraduate students traveled to six different countries on four continents to participate in the Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) at Northwestern. The philosophy behind the GESI curriculum is rooted in asset-based community development, but it is also intended to give students a firsthand experience in collaborating with communities that, at first glance, have very few cultural, linguistic, or geographic similarities to their own.

Through internships with grassroots organizations, all GESI students design and implement community-driven projects that align with the social mission and development goals of the local partners they work with. Upon their return in August, students were asked to reflect deeply on their work and personal experiences and share their stories as a group. Here are some of their stories:

Impact Garden

Doringbaai, South Africa
Lauren Culbertson, Chris Harlow, Alice Zhou

Doringbaai has historically been a community focused on the sea, yet climate change and declining fish populations in recent years have led to less profitable fishing and even the closure of a major crayfish factory. Among other factors, these challenges have led to more than fifty percent unemployment in the community. The goal of the project was to help address unemployment and low incomes by improving upon an under-utilized, existing community garden, in conjunction with raising agricultural awareness and stimulating interest from Doringbaai’s youth.

At the time of the group’s arrival, only one individual was planting the community garden, despite it having enough land for more than ten. Years of mismanagement and declining membership led to the land barely being used, while also remaining off limits to community members who might otherwise be interested.

Revitalizing the community garden took multiple forms: navigating the existing social politics of the garden to open land for new members, recruiting interested community members, facilitating the process of electing a new, interim management team, and offering suggestions to improve the collective business operations of the garden.

To ensure that garden’s future success, the Doringbaai group advised building relationships with marketers and suppliers to ensure a more efficient and effective business process with the intention of creating a state of mind where the community views the soil as favorably as they do the sea.

Improving Health, Building Relationships

Masaya, Nicaragua
Kristen Snyder, Kelsey Henquinet

The GESI team worked with Alternativa, a microfinance and community outreach organization located in Masaya, Nicaragua. Alternativa expressed interest in having the team develop their relationship with six clients in the rural area of Las Flores by improving community health conditions. The clients in Las Flores discussed their limited access to health services and the issues they face with insect-borne diseases. Working with Alternativa’s resources and local connections, the team created a project aimed at disease prevention through education and improved infrastructure.

First, they hosted a series of workshops to increase knowledge about health, addressing issues of hygiene, family planning, self-esteem, and the relationship between the environment and public health, using materials from local organizations. Then they focused on improving infrastructure in order to immediately reduce the spread of disease. A partnership with a local organization that specializes in water-based projects allowed the community to build six water filters to drain and prevent contaminated standing water. Finally, one model chicken coop was constructed through the knowledge and effort of the community. The chicken coop will provide a safer environment for the chickens and will serve as a prototype for other families who want to build one for themselves.

The ability to create more chicken coops represents one way this project can be continued by members of Las Flores in the future. Chicken coops are beneficial to public health and have the opportunity to provide an additional source of income. The work in Las Flores will serve as a pilot for Alternativa to reproduce with other clients.

Improving Income and Health for Women of Busuyi Village

Jinja, Uganda
Omeko Eromosele, Ellen Garrison, Michael Hopkins, Sarah Hsu

The focus community chosen for this project was a group of women in Busuyi Village in Jinja, Uganda, who identified the improvement of their fish-drying process as their first priority. Silver fish are their main source of income, but their method of drying was extremely inefficient and unhygienic, with a great deal of their fish ending up contaminated or spoiled. The women were aware they could make a much better profit if they found a way to fix this problem. Another need the community identified was nutrition – the women and their families only eat one meal a day of fish and rice or posho (flour and water) and a garden would be very helpful in improving their overall health.

The project aimed to address both issues by designing and building a simple natural-convection solar dryer for the fish and by building a community garden. The group conducted extensive research on existing solar dryer designs and combined aspects of several different ones to design a unit that is easily replicable and uses only materials readily available in the community or in the nearby town. The GESI group was delighted by the community’s warm reception to these projects: the village mason spearheaded the construction of the dryer and the entire process was done in collaboration with many of the women’s husbands. Finally, the group created a manual for the construction of the solar dryer, including the materials required and the builders’ contact information so the dryer could be easily replicated.

For the garden, the group contracted a local agricultural specialist to teach and assist the community in creating nursery beds, making organic pesticide, setting up a simple irrigation system, and transplanting. With these two projects, Busuyi village has the tools to creating a healthier and more economically stable community.

Cuentos a Cuentas

Cochabamba, Bolivia
Emily Fung, Kelsey Pukelis, Bria Royal, Connor Smith

As all GESI alumni know, one of the most important qualities in working on a community development project is flexibility and the ability to think on your feet.

The group that worked at Centro Integral Warmi this summer in Cochabamba, Bolivia experienced a flexibility test unlike any other. Instead of dealing directly with the working mothers and high-risk youth the center supports, upon arrival they found out their host organization was in the midst of a major and unexpected financial crisis. With only eight weeks to help solve a problem they had not anticipated, the group went to work right away in creating sustainable, cost-effective, and easy-to-use resources that would help the center raise funds. By helping to keep this important community organization open, the students were ensuring the continued well-being of the women and children who use Warmi’s services.

To improve the future financial stability of the organization, Warmi needed to increase engagement with donors. The center was lacking in any sort of formal system for collecting donations before the GESI team arrived, so the students constructed a database for storing donor information, created template letters for fundraising requests, and made personalized postcards and calendars for donors.

At the beginning of the project, the group concentrated on finding ways to receive funds from outside Bolivia, creating online donation forms, instructional documents, templates in English and Spanish, and even a promotional YouTube video. Through these channels Warmi brought in about $900 in donations in a very short period of time.

The group also worked alongside staff to plan storytelling workshops with the kids that would give the children new platforms for expression. By collecting content from the children of Warmi, they were able to create more appealing promotional materials for the center.

The end of the project involved training staff to use the new resources, and like all GESI projects, future success will rely on the year-round staff at Warmi to continue their plan. We are hopeful this project is the catalyst for an inspiring comeback story at Centro Integral Warmi!

Africa, Americas, Development, Global Health, Undergraduate Students