Recently, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility announced the newest class of 2011 recipients of the Eugene M. Lang Opportunity Scholarship. Recipients Ecem Erseker ’11, Priya Johnson ’11, Katherine Lam ’11, Chengetai Mahomva ’11, Ashia Troiano ’11, and Sneha Shrestha ’11 have each been awarded a guaranteed summer internship, educational enhancement funds, and up to $10,000 in funding for a social project of their choice.
This year’s recipients focus on projects to empower youth and women through politics, economics, and education. The majority of this year’s Lang projects consist in international efforts helping demographics such as orphans, sex workers, women immigrants, and adolescents. These six scholars, with the shared passion to help others, aspire to improve women and children’s rights and ultimately, change the world.
Ecem Erseker ’11, an international student from Turkey, has proposed to use her funding to assist Anatolian women through a microfinance program. Erseker was inspired by her previous experience working with Anatolian children in which she was exposed to their families’ poor living conditions. Erseker explains, “I’ve always been interested in children and women’s rights because I had a chance to work with children from Anatolian families who worked in the cities and now I want to work with their mothers.” Anatolian women move into big cities like Istanbul in hopes of better opportunities, but they lack the education and skills to obtain jobs.
Through Erseker’s Lang microfinance project, women will be given seed money so that they can start their own businesses and ultimately support themselves economically. As an Economics/Asian Studies double major, Ecem has both the theoretical and pragmatic skills for her proposal but there are still challenges such as the cultural differences and the support of the Anatolian women. In conjunction with a major NGO in Turkey, the MF-Marmara Strategic Research Foundation, Erseker’s project “Micro Anatolia” will give women “the chance to bring change to their lives through this small change,” explains Erseker. When asked about her motivations and passion behind “Micro Anatolia”, Ecem replies, “If there is a problem, you either do something about it or you don’t. I wanted to start from my own community, my own country.”
Also focusing on women’s rights and empowerment, Priya Johnson ’11 plans to create a program, titled Kahaniyo ki Rani (translation is “Queen of Stories”),that works with approximately fifteen women who are active commercial sex workers in Mumbai, India. Fusing sexual health education and awareness with performance arts workshops on dance, music, and visual arts, the program aims to “increase the foundation of sexual health knowledge among a group of sex workers and eventually decrease the prevalence of sexually transmitted disease and infection in the larger community,” Johnson elaborates.
Priya was primarily inspired by her growing interest in grassroots public heath and her love of dance and art. Her Lang project concentrates on presenting health education in creative, easy to understand methods so that, “the community at large is able to understand the message and subsequently participate in passing it on,” says Johnson.
However, as with many aspiring, ambitious programs, there are ongoing challenges and concerns to address. Current ones include getting direct access to the community of commercial sex workers and openly communicating to workers in the industry. Despite these potential social barriers, Johnson remains optimistic and hopeful. Her personal passion and connections to India are particularly inspiring. Priya explains, “I am inherently connected to all Indian women by blood, birth, and choice. With this new access to home as a scholar and an agent of social change, I have the chance and responsibility to lend them a voice.”
In contrast to her previous colleagues’ projects this year, Katherine Lam ’11 aspires to encourage youth in the Los Angeles area to take action in local and state politics. In a three-step project named Angeleno Youth Advocates, Lam wants to facilitate strong relationships between teenagers and their elected officials and use technology to link people to politics and our society’s ongoing political processes. First, the Lang opportunity grant will be used to conduct focus groups with youth in LA and determine the particular issues that they are personally interested and vested in, such as education and climate change. Then, the focus groups will conduct education seminars on how to get involved in the community and hold conferences between youth and legislators to lobby for these issues.
After starting the dialogue between youth and legislators, Lam’s project will come out with a dynamic website where teenagers find out more information about California’s bills and contact information of the state’s legislators and political officials. Lam describes her main inspiration for this project as coming from her high school experience with debate and her Congress internship.
Despite seeing her high school peers passionately engage in debates about bills and politics, Lam worked as an intern in her congressman’s office where a set of entirely different demographics called into the legislature office. Lam elaborates, “They [politicians] are supposed to represent all constituents, but even I did not know that I could call into my legislator’s office.” Using the website and other forms of technology, Lam’s project aims to fight this common misconception among youth that they cannot participate in politics. In the end, Katherine wants to promote the idea that everyone, despite age differences, should be given the responsibility and the tools to engage in politics. As she explains, “Youth can be empowered…Through seeing the collective power of youth and getting the media on our side, hopefully we’ll change these types of political resistance.”
Chengetai Mahomva ’11 and Ashia Troiano ’11 will be working on a joint Lang project that also focuses on the education of youth. With their previous experience with working at the Matthew Rusike Children’s House in Epworth, Zimbabwe, Mahomva and Troiano plan to use their Lang opportunity grant to establish a school for the orphanage.
Beyond the typical education of mathematics and sciences, this proposed school will offer a more holistic education that includes health, nutritional education, awareness of different cultures, and nonviolent social change. Troiano describes their motivations for specifically focusing on education instead of other social issues in Zimbabwe; she explains that both Chenge and herself felt overwhelmed by the ongoing social problems in Zimbabwe and how each problem had its own set of issues that need to be addressed.
Troiano elaborates, “From there, we decided that education was the key, that if we could prepare the youth to be leaders, we could give the whole of Zimbabwe a better future.” As founders of Project Shingayi, Mahomva and Troiano plan to continue building upon the socially and environmental sustainability of the orphanage. Children in Zimbabwe’s Matthew Rusike Children’s House lack the security that most of us are associated with in a family situation.
Mahomva says, “The orphanage is about meeting basic necessities and this is taking it one step further. Our school wants to expose them to the rest of the world and show them that life doesn’t always have to be that way.” In the logistical planning of this ambitious project, both Chenge and Ashia have not lost sight of the larger picture of helping communities of Zimbabwe. As Ashia explains, “There is a window of opportunity that we, as agents of social change, really need to take advantage of right now. The current events in Zimbabwe indicate that the country is ready for social and political change, and we see it as our duty to offer our services and resources to Zimbabweans to help them lift themselves up.”
In her Lang Opportunity Scholar grant, Sneha Shrestha ’11 aims to establish a program, named Heal, Learn and Transform, that will address the psychological needs of conflict affected children in Nepal through creative processes such as art, storytelling, and lifeskill training. During the decade-long conflict in Nepal, many men have lost their lives and subsequently, left families father and husband-less. Consequences include the displacement of young girls from their home villages and their relocation to abandoned plots with poor living conditions.
Shrestha’s Heal, Learn, and Transform aims to help these girls deal with the psychological scarring that they have experienced in these traumatic processes. The program uses methods of expressive art and narrative therapy to help ease difficult emotions and assist the healing process. Shrestha elaborates, “On completion of the program, a documentary will be made and it will serve as a framework for organizations to replicate the model and mold it in ways that work best for the group of people they are catering to.” Sneha describes her personal ties to this social issue and past experience dealing with women and children’s rights in Nepal. Raised by a single mother, Shrestha saw first-hand the discrimination and injustices that widows in Nepal faced.
She volunteered for the NGO Women for Human Rights (WHR) where she worked on creating a documentary that exposed “the harsh reality of stigmatization against widows in Nepal especially in the rural areas.” Moving beyond her work with widows, Heal, Learn, and Transform aspires to building upon the crucial healing process in Nepali families. While she remains realistic about the implementation of her project, Sneha firmly believes in its ability to help women, both young and old, in Nepal. She says, “The program will by no means eliminate suffering, but it will play a vital role in the healing process for conflict affected children. There is only so much that an individual can do but I believe that it is small scale social change that can bring about a large scale social impact.”
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