Staying Committed

By: Kirsten Dimovitz

Last year for CGIU, my team, comprised of myself, Brooke Staveland and Ryan Toney, committed to partnering with the Sri Ram Ashram in northern India to establish a peer health-mentoring program called the Peer Health Education Network. We were full of energy and excitement about the prospects of travelling to India and working in a field we were all passionate about. Our goal was to build on the partner school′s network and structure to empower students to teach and learn from each other. The idea was to travel to the site and address the children’s biggest needs, so as to avoid imposing our own ideas and biases on the school, thus truly benefiting no one. After talking to children, teacher, parents and community members, we would sit together and draw on their answer and combine them with our own public health knowledge. The curriculum would be created and implemented with the help of local teenagers, and will focuses on identified community health issues that students and their families face. We saw the failures many other projects had around the world because they were unsustainable or realized on a consistent flow of money and staff. We wanted to make a lasting impact without centering the project on ourselves and how we could benefit.

Yet, we encountered a hurdle in almost direct correlation to this. My team and I spent almost all of our spring semester applying to the business plan, to CGIU scholarships and other local organizations. But, we kept failing. Failing to obtain any money. And we could not figure out why. Maybe our approach wasn’t techie or innovative enough. Maybe we need a fancy gadget to take to the communities. We could not figure it out, and never did we stop to think, maybe we were asking for money for the wrong reasons. Looking back it’s easy to see where the problem lied. It lied not in our well-constructed project, but in the fact that the project was built to be grassroots and sustainable, meaning our costs were virtually zero. Our biggest cost when we were applying for funding was in airfare. As students, and now we considered ourselves team members, we couldn’t afford to travel to India on our own dime, so as other NGOs do, we budgeted our airfare into the cost structure. Yet, because we were asking for money from others, and the budget sheet read $6,000 in airfare and $50 in materials for the actual project we had a problem. We did not receive money and thus we were stalled. We had to go back to the drawing board and try again. Innovate around the own problem we created.

And after Mr. Clinton’s speech at CGIU, we came up with an idea. It was our duty to ourselves and to our partners to continue with this project even though we hit a roadblock. Powering through and flying to India with money from our own pockets was not an option we could afford to take however. But I’m passionate about technology, and during that same time, I was reading tons of articles on e-learning. And Brooke and I had the idea, while sitting in the parking lot at the University of Miami. Why not bring ourselves virtually to the students? We were excited. We could still make this work.
We flew home inspired, but we were again caught in our own web. We were entrenched in midterms, and applications for funding which we would never received yet applying to stole countless weekends from us. And then the summer came, and our partners were out of school and we were in full time jobs. India seemed like a distant dream. As school was just about to start in India, I was on a plane to Kenya, and Brooke a plane to Budapest. Though we tried to keep in contact with ourselves and our other team members I was basically off the grid. Now, being in the capital city Nairobi, I have access to WiFi and this access to my own thoughts I’ve been wrestling with for so many months. We had to reckon with ourselves. We let our project sit and stall. And after seeing so many goodhearted development projects miss the mark or pull out Kenya, I couldn’t believe our good intentions were going the same way.

We both return from our study abroad programs in late December. And though, we’ve slowed our progress, we are recommitted with new intention and new insight from our experiences abroad. We know what needs to be done to accomplish our commitment, and we know we can do it. We have the simple funds from GW to produce educational materials, to produce videos, and to give and on the ground donation for the launch of our program. We’ve learned more than we could have imagined and feel even more prepared to do something meaningful. Sometimes things don’t work out as you planned, but that’s okay, as long as you stay committed and benefit your community in the end.

Peer Health Education Network

By: Kirsten Dimovitz & Brooke Staveland

My team’s trip began at 3am on Friday March 6th when we walked out into the freezing cold dressed for the Miami weather. My best friend and team partner, Brooke Staveland, ordered us a super shuttle to make the long trek to BWI, something we were initially annoyed about, but later became very grateful for our decision. Other Spring Breakers from GW accompanied us in the shuttle and we drove off.

Upon arriving at BWI, we met up with a fellow commitment maker. We pushed through our exhaustion and commiserated about the earliness, lack of sleep, and terrible coffee. Our flight left at 6:45, and two hours later I could see the ocean. Once we got off the plane, we had the task of navigating our way to the Miami airport because we landed in Fort Lauderdale. As we were trying to find the shuttle to take us the Tri-Train, our third team member Ryan called, and relayed the news. Flights from Reagan were all delayed, and he didn’t know when he would be able to get to Miami.

Three shuttle rides and a train ride later, we arrived at our hotel, exhausted from our brief one hour of sleep, we passed out. We awoke to get ready for the student networking reception, and soon we were on the CGI U bus headed for the University of Miami.

After the networking session, we went to the opening event. I was excited to see Bill again, but while he was inspiring, this anticipation paled against what we were able to take away from the event. So much of our anxiety about our commitment was focused on raising money for the required trip to India. We had applied for every scholarship possible, but thus far, we had only secured $455 out of the cost of four team members’ plane tickets. The opening session reinforced the importance of completing our commitments. Brooke and I realized that no matter if we could get to India in person or not, we could complete our own commitment. So, we decided to get out of our own way and innovate around the travel problem. The whole bus ride back to our hotel we brainstormed ways to complete our commitment. Finally, arriving at the hotel, we decided if we could not obtain the money to India, we would bring our commitment online, and harness the power of technology to educate students in northern India.

The next day, Brooke and I attended the Big Data opening seminar and the public health break out events. At the first event, we were blown away by the work of the young student who founded Cloud4Cancer. At first we felt a tad bit small and inadequate, but as we reflected on the event we began thinking of ways to capitalize on big data. These pre-concept ponderings followed us to the Globalization of Non Communicable Disease seminar, where we met the CEO and co-founder of Novo Nordisk, Phil Southerland. From him and his fellow panelists, we learned about the rising importance of non-communicable diseases. Brooke traveled to our pilot location before and saw the issues of sanitation and feminine hygiene. But after talking, with Phil and others, we were thinking about harnessing both big data for our analysis of disease and specifically including more information on diabetes and indoor air pollution.

At the second public health event, we met Dina Borzekowsk, a biostatistician, professor, and world traveler. Her thoughts on education, especially that of youth in developing countries, became an integral part of our commitment’s plan moving forward. Her work on evaluating public health, and child’s learning motivated us to develop some kind of metric for our commitment, where we discover if and how much our students are learning and changing their behaviors.

That night Brooke and I were able to sit in the front row, to see Hillary and Chelsea discuss the No Ceilings Project. We were so close, we thought we could run up to the stage and shake her hand, but for some odd reason, security didn’t seem to approve of that plan. However, the next day, during our service, I was able to snag a picture with Bill Clinton, through persistence, perseverance, and maybe some annoyance. That day was especially beneficial, because I met two girls I plan to learn from, collaborate with, and become closer friends with. One was from Haiti and is working on empowering women financially, the other from India and working on sexual violence. Both girls communicated the hardships they faced pursuing their commitments. People in their commitment communities and their local areas consistently told them they were not good enough, shouldn’t be doing their projects, and would never succeed.  I also met a future partner for another CGI U commitment; as a student at AS and an electrical engineer, we both share a passion for biomedical technology and the developing world. I’m excited to see where our passions take us.

The weekend overall was eye opening on so many levels. We reinvented ourselves numerous times, and learned countless ways to improve our project as well as ways to make sure we follow through with it in any form.