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Teaming Up for Impact

Four internationally-focused service programs offer students opportunities for learning and sharing their skills with others.

By Erin Peterson

Collaboration isn’t just important in the classroom and in the workplace. Done well, it can effect positive change in our world. These days, Princeton students are participating in an increasingly robust array of international service programs that allow them to work with others on challenging problems that communities around the world are facing.

Through these programs, students are teaching English language skills to students in dozens of countries, developing sustainable water and energy systems in drought-affected communities and bringing arts programming to larger audiences. Students bring their passions to far-flung locations and return with deeper and more nuanced perspectives about their place in the world. For many, these projects are the starting point for a career serving others.

Here, in their own words, participants in four different programs share the highlights, challenges and surprises they encountered while engaging in service abroad.

Service Focus

Launched this fall, Service Focus is a new program at Princeton that bridges service and learning across the first two years of the undergraduate experience. The program consists of a funded summer service internship, service-related courses and opportunities to engage with faculty and peers to learn what it means to be “in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.” 

Bridge Year Program

Since its inception in 2009, the Bridge Year Program allows groups of incoming students to begin their Princeton experience by engaging in nine months of tuition-free, University-sponsored service at one of five international locations. More than 250 students have taken part in the program.

Participant:  William Hinthorn ’18

Project:  Hinthorn taught English, math and history to elementary-age children at the Little Stars School, a facility for at-risk children in Varnasi, India.

First-day lessons:  Hinthorn’s teaching style didn’t immediately earn rave reviews: “I drew slight interest from the front rows and complaints from the back. By the end of my first 50-minute class, two students had cried, a third had gotten a black eye and absolutely no English had been learned.”

A shift in focus:  His students weren’t the only ones getting lessons. “A Rocky-style training montage would show me staying up late at night to prepare for lessons only to be pummeled every day by new troublemakers’ tricks. It was discouraging. But then I made a mental shift. Instead of questioning why I could not successfully teach the children. I encouraged them to keep coming to classes, treasure their school books and ask good questions.” Though he is hesitant to ascribe long-term student shifts based on his work, he says teachers in the program have emailed him since he returned to Princeton to let him know that students still remember his ideas.

A new approach:  The real changes he made, Hinthorn says, were to himself. “I had gone into the experience hoping to gain a better understanding of the needs in a developing region, learn cultures and religions of India and discover ways I might use my interests to benefit humankind. [Some of] the most profound lessons I learned were those of patience, self-care, humility and reliance on my community. It made me realize that ‘no man is an island,’ and that my bullheaded approach, which academically got me to Princeton, was useless when facing real-world problems.”

Projects for Peace

Through the national Davis United World College Scholars Program, Princeton students can apply for $10,000 in funding to design their own grassroots “Projects for Peace,” which promote peace and address conflicts around the world. Successful applicants work to implement their projects over the summer. Projects for Peace is administered by the Pace Center for Civic Engagement at Princeton.

Participant:  Lydia Watt ’18

Project:  Watt worked with Alice Vinogradsky ’20, Amanda Cheng ’20 and Kabbas Azhar ’18 to bring a “Potters for Peace” water filter manufacturing facility to a drought-affected community in Guyana. Made from clay, fine sawdust and a silver colloid solution, the filters look like large flowerpots and trap particulate matter within the structure.

From idea to reality:  Getting the project up and running is likely to be a multi-year process, but Watt and fellow students laid the groundwork. “We met with in-country partners which included staff for a school run by a local non-governmental organization; business people in Guyana’s capital city, Georgetown; and leaders from two communities where we hope to work. Hearing their excitement made [the work] feel real. We also conducted preliminary tests on clay and observed firing procedures.”

Collaborative efforts:  While Watt and the rest of the Princeton team had plenty of chances to make important decisions, they relied on the expertise of in-country partners to help them develop smarter solutions. “One of the challenges we anticipated was transporting filters from [one town to another]. When we brought this up, we got many good answers from our [in-country] partners, including transporting them in the cargo of passenger buses, or striking a deal with trucks that come into the region but leave empty.” Working together, she says, helped them make smarter decisions than either group could have alone.

International Internship Program

Each summer, more than 200 students participate in Princeton’s International Internship Program. Within these placements, IIP supports high-quality, carefully designed, eight-week-minimum service internships across the world. The work of the interns often becomes an essential part of short- and medium- term projects which lead to concrete positive results for local communities.

Participant:  Lena Hu ’20

Project:  Hu spent eight weeks at the Bayimba Cultural Foundation in Kampala, Uganda, to develop a campaign plan for an $18.6 million multimedia arts center in East Africa.

A lesson on thinking bigger:  Hu analyzed Bayimba’s finances and historic sponsorships to develop a list of potential sponsors, crowdfunding options and other funding opportunities for the center. She loved working in a small organization with big ambitions. “Bayimba is a fearless nonprofit: It is a huge challenge to raise millions of dollars in a country like Uganda that has relatively few monetary resources. But Bayimba followed its mission to spread the arts to a wider African audience.”

Shouldering responsibility:  Hu was thrilled to be a part of the team. “We were treated like full-time consultants, and we were asked to complete major projects, like [developing] full business plans, setting up an entire charity lottery system and helping to plan out a new arts radio show. The most rewarding part of the experience was presenting our 20-page capital campaign plan to the Bayimba team. After being faced with such a daunting task, it felt amazing to finally complete our project and have a product to show our co-workers…The fundraising plan is going to be implemented by a capital campaign team that Bayimba hires in [the coming] months.”

The impact of cultural contradictions:  While Hu admits there were plenty of work challenges, adapting to the culture was the most difficult part of the experience. “I had many contradictory feelings and experiences. I was touched by the warmth and hospitality of my host sister and host mother and appalled by the taunts of men on the street. I was humbled by the desolate state of the cardboard homes in the slums next to my house and stunned by the gated, Beverly Hills-level mansions built on verdant acres in the fringes of the city.”

Engineers Without Borders

Since 2004, students in Princeton’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders have traveled around the world to help bring clean water, energy and sanitation systems to communities that need it most. Currently, there are active projects in three countries: Kenya, Peru and the Dominican Republic.

Participant:  Alexander Byrnes ’18

Project:  Byrnes has traveled twice to El Cajuil, a small town in the Dominican Republic just north of the Haitian border, to help redesign an existing aqueduct system that is currently incapable of meeting the demands of a growing community. The aqueduct collects water from a spring high in the mountains and is delivered by a series of underground pipes to the community.

Built to last:  Princeton students learned to work closely with the community to ensure a project’s long-term impact. “We met with the community’s elected water committee every day, and they would coordinate community work crews to help us with our daily tasks, whether it be surveying in the mountains or working on the pipeline in the community. Engineers Without Borders puts a large focus on community involvement, since the more a community is invested in a project, the more likely it is to succeed once we leave.”

The importance of on-the-fly leadership:  When plans went awry, Byrnes learned what it meant to lead. “Last year when we arrived in Santo Domingo, we needed to pick up surveying equipment and materials before we left for El Cajuil the next morning. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize stores would be closed for a national holiday when we arrived. I quickly devised a backup plan to split into multiple groups to find open stores before we left in the morning. It worked. We finished just in time to make the bus.”

The bridge between accomplishments and personal growth:  The lessons of international travel are often broader than students anticipate. “I went into Engineers Without Borders expecting to learn the practical applications of my classroom engineering education and to help others in need. I did not realize how beneficial the chapter would be for my personal growth. I am a much stronger and more confident leader, and I can work much better on a team. I understand how to manage a project, seek funding and prepare a budget.”