Every year, undergraduates from Union are selected from a large applicant pool to live in developing countries in order to help the impoverished communities through the Minerva Fellow Program. Last year, 11 seniors were recruited as representatives of the Minerva Fellowship to assist six countries: Ecuador, Uganda, China, India, Cambodia, and South Africa.
The 2014 group of Fellows included: Gabriella Romero ’14, Samantha Muratori ’14, Ilyena Kozain ’14, William Phelps ’14, Forrister Ross ’14, Danielle Lussier ’14, Samantha Wynn ’14, Miriam Hammer ’14, David Masterson ’14, Joseph Maher ’14 and Rahul Puttagunta ’14.
The fellowship recipients were required to take a social entrepreneurship course in their final spring term at Union. Not long after their graduation, they took off to their destinations in mid-July, returning to the United States this spring.
On May 15, they were welcomed back to Union in Reamer Auditorium. Following a video that showed some of their experiences, the panel of 11 Minerva Fellows answered questions from the audience.
When asked about intellectual and job skills development, David Masterson ’14 explained how he used the powerful opportunities of the Minerva Fellowship program for his personal self growth. Originally a theater major, he was tasked with running a complex business in India as part of the fellowship. He became an operation manager of a textile company, which was found by Union students five years ago.
In the working environment with low or close to no standards, Masterson himself had to implement ideas and stay on top of things, ranging from sampling, checking quality and shipping of products. In an effort to maintain the company when he is not there, Masterson recruited a female employee whom, he noted, had great capabilities to fulfill the company’s goal to “function without outside influences.” He believed the female operation manager would change things around in a patriarchal country like India,.
Other students with different majors similarly had to schedule their own time and show their own initiatives in setting up programs, including a music therapy program in an autism center in China, an HIV program for mothers and infants in South Africa and a mentorship for scholarship students with an environmental sustainability program in Ecuador. “You had to be proactive. Do, show up and make your project happen,” said Forrister Ross, a China Fellow.
When asked about their reflections on their identity, several Fellows responded that they came to understand what it truly meant to be Caucasian. In China, the white privilege was about “attention and treatment for very superficial things,” said Ross. The other China Fellow, Danielle Lussier, has black hair and Latino skintone, and blended well with the Chinese community, to the point that there was a noticeable difference in the way the two were treated in terms of their gender and tone of skin. For example, when a Chinese news reporter came to document their music therapy program, they filmed and interviewed Ross, not Lussier, because he was a typical white American.
Other students gave examples of being served first in a counter or hospital, when there were many local people waiting in the line for their turns. It was considered rude if the fellows refused such treatments. David Masterson, an India Fellow, stated that “you felt guilty and the only way to embrace the gap was to treat others with respect.”
It was meaningful for the fellows to be welcomed and accepted not as tourists or volunteers but as locals. Rahul Puttagunta ’14 shared that when he was in South Africa, he was invited by a 40-year-old co-worker to her home, where she talked about her life and shared a poem with him. “It was a poem about her separated from her family because of a history of racial segregation in South Africa. “
Puttagunta explained that several decades ago, the government conducted a pencil test to determine whether she could live in the African-zone or Indian-zone. Since the pencil went through her hair, she was designated to a non-African zone and she never met her family again.
The participants of the Minerva Fellowship embraced the different social and cultural norms. The fellows agreed that the impoverished communities exhibited greater kindness and happiness, since these communities understood better what was important in life. Miriam Hammer ’14, a Cambodia Fellow, shared, “Even the local students come from nothing. They have no running water. They sleep on the wooden floor with seven or eight other family members in a small room. They still come to school with the greatest smile.”
Thanks to the humble way of life of the local people, the Fellows developed an appreciation for sharing. Even if the poor communities did not have much, the local people would shred a fruit and give one small piece to everyone around. Hence, the Fellows “did the best to find comfort in discomfort and learn to sacrifice your needs for the unconditional love of the collective,” said Samantha Wynn, a Cambodia Fellow.
Thinking collectively was not only limited to sharing, but social interactions were also much more meaningful. The way “you acknowledge somebody is different, because the local people greet everyone, even strangers,” as noted by Joseph Maher, a South Africa Fellow. He continued that it is uncommon to acknowledge somebody in America, unless you know them, which prevents “formation of meaningful relationships.” The ubiquity of technology also takes away the focus and meaning of social interactions.
When asked about advice for Union students interested in the program, the Fellows said that the choice of the destination country is a secondary goal. The most important thing is that the students can “hand in anything” for the application. Therefore, the Union students should show their skills, creativity and real identity in the application process.
The panel discussion ended with everyone reading out the mantra of the Minerva Fellowship Program: Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves” – Lao Tzu