Community-Based Research Fellowship allows GESI alums to build their own research projects abroad

January 4, 2016

One of several new undergraduate programs introduced in 2015, the Community-Based Research (CBR) Fellowship provides the opportunity for former participants of the GESI study abroad program to return to GESI project sites and work with their in-country partners. However, this new program is not a “GESI 2.0,” but a research opportunity for undergraduates already familiar with asset-based community development. CBR Fellows build upon their previous experience with GESI by researching past student projects and supporting in-country partners such as the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD) and Social Entrepreneur Corps (SEC).

Like GESI students, CBR Fellows adjust their objectives for the summer based on feedback from local community partners, resulting in a diverse range of research projects. This past summer, CBR Fellow Stephanie Medina (WCAS 2016) worked with a Dominican NGO to find better ways to define and identify empowerment within one of their women’s self help groups. Yaritza Sandoval (WCAS 2016) traveled to Doringbaii, South Africa, to study why a tight-knit village with sufficient social services was lacking in small businesses and entrepreneurial ventures, and therefore lacking in employment opportunities. Bria Royal (SoC 2016) chose to conduct a deeper examination of GESI group dynamics in Bolivia to learn more about how diverse teams of students work together in an international setting.

CBR Fellow Chris Harlow in UgandaCBR Fellow Chris Harlow (far left, SESP 2016) traveled to Uganda to assess past GESI projects and work with the FSD Uganda team to get more in-depth community feedback on GESI teams’ past work. He followed up on more than half a dozen GESI projects completed in 2009-2014 in partnership with local organizations such as St. Francis Health Services.

St. Francis is a clinic located a few miles outside of Jinja that helps patients who are infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS. One of its signature programs is the Source of the Nile Grandmothers (Jjajas) and Orphans Support Group. Due to the high incidence of HIV/AIDS, many working-age Ugandans have died of the disease, leaving behind orphans who often end up being cared for by their grandmothers (Jjajas). Many Jjajas experience a significant economic burden in caring for these children, and so the Source of the Nile Support Group was created to teach the importance of saving while encouraging Jjajas to embark on income generating projects.

Chris’ follow-up report on 2009’s Mushroom Project at St. Francis uncovered an excellent example of GESI’s lasting impact.

About the 2009 St. Francis Health Services Mushroom Project

Building mushroom farms in 2009“A group of GESI interns worked with St. Francis in 2009 to build on their savings and loan project by putting renewed energy into a stalled mushroom growing project, which was seen as a means to grow mushrooms that could be sold by Jjajas for a profit, or eaten in order to add variety and additional nutrients to their diets. The interns worked with five local families who were provided with the tools and information necessary to start their own mushroom gardens. The team also brought a local mushroom expert to host a seminar and teach about nutrition, created a mushroom growing guide in English and Luganda, and worked with one Jjaja in particular to keep the program going after the interns left Uganda.”

The Mushroom Project status in 2015

“Constance, the Jjaja Coordinator for St. Francis, introduced us to two Jjajas who were part of the original community groups that the GESI students worked with: Judith and Catherine. Neither Judith nor Catherine had known how to grow mushrooms prior to the summer of 2009 when the GESI students arrived and helped them to learn the process.

“While the families and individuals who participated in The Mushroom Project are no longer working collectively, the influence of the program has spread significantly. Constance estimated that 2-3 Jjajas in each community/village now grow mushrooms, and that some collective action occurs. Catherine, for example, takes mushrooms from several older Jjajas in her village and sells them on their behalf, since they are too old to travel regularly to the market. 

Jjajja Catherine shows off her darkroom where she grows mushrooms“Since the GESI students left in 2009, Judith and Catherine have trained a number of other individuals. Catherine [pictured at left] estimates that she has trained at least 10 people in the last few years and that most of them grow mushrooms regularly. Instead of selling her mushrooms at the market, Catherine typically sells them outside of the local hospital and at the St. Francis health clinic. She has developed a presentation that she gives at the hospital espousing the nutritional benefits of mushrooms, and particularly the benefits for HIV-positive patients. These patients then usually buy mushrooms after Catherine’s presentation.

“In regard to the mushroom guide that had been developed, Catherine–unprompted–mentioned the guide and that she had given it to a friend who wanted to learn how to grow mushrooms. 

Jjajja Judith with her children"When I asked Judith if I could take a picture of her to share with the GESI students back home, she called two of her grandchildren to join in the photo [pictured at left] and said: “He was 13 and she was 9 when the students came, and mushrooms have been paying for their school fees ever since.”

“Catherine was so proud of the darkroom and hanging mushrooms that she has in her house (the same room the GESI students helped her to build). She said she hasn’t missed a single growing cycle in six years and that the money she’s made has been enough to sustain her house, providing food and school fees for her five grandchildren.”

About the CBR Fellowship

After his return from Uganda, Chris reflected on what the CBR Fellowship meant to him: “Being a CBR Fellow was the highlight of my time at Northwestern. Learning can happen in a classroom in Evanston and also in a village in rural Uganda. Community members became my teachers and their stories my textbooks. The Buffett Institute gave me the rare opportunity to experience international community development as an undergraduate when similar opportunities are normally reserved for graduate students or experienced professionals. This past summer has shaped my international perspective and shifted my life-long career aspirations.  So often undergraduate students feel like they cannot make a difference, but I came away from my summer as a CBR Fellow feeling just the opposite.”

Applications for the 2017 CBR Fellowships are due February 1. Fellows will receive up to $6,000 in funding for travel, living expenses, immunizations, travel medical insurance, and stipend.

Learn more about the CBR Fellowship here, or email Emory Erker-Lynch, Program Manager of Undergraduate Initiatives, at

Africa, Development, Global Health, Undergraduate Students