Student Spotlight

Share the experiences and adventures of Putney students.

Elizabeth Dearborn Davis: From Costa Rica to Rwanda

Elizabeth Dearborn Davis traveled on a Putney Community Service Costa Rica program 10 years ago. She went on to graduate with a degree in International Development from Vanderbilt University and later move to Rwanda to co-found The Akilah Institute for Women in the capital city of Kiwali. Through a twist of fate in 2011, Elizabeth bumped into Putney Student Travel Director, Jeff Shumlin, and his wife, Evie, while they were on a programming visit to the country.

Because of this chance encounter, Jeff and Elizabeth agreed to work together to create a Community Service Rwanda program in addition to Global Awareness in Action Rwanda. As a result of this partnership with our very own alumni, Community Service Rwanda students will work alongside Elizabeth at The Akilah Institute for Women and learn more about her incredible experience and efforts as CEO and co-founder.  Elizabeth is one of so many extraordinary Putney alumni who have gone on to do remarkable work internationally.  We asked her to connect the dots from her first travel experience with us to where she is now.

I joined a Putney group in the summer of 2001 and went to a small town in Costa Rica. We spent our mornings constructing a water tank alongside Costa Ricans, and in the afternoons we helped teach English in the local school and played soccer with the village children. It is not an exaggeration to say that this summer changed my life forever. It opened my eyes to the reality of poverty in the developing world and instilled a permanent desire to do something. This was the first time that I realized that the rest of the world did not have the same privileges as Americans. Our Putney leaders encouraged us to think critically about what we witnessed. They inspired us to think about our role as global citizens and our responsibility to help others who are less fortunate. I left Costa Rica with the belief that it is possible for our generation to end extreme poverty.

“I returned to high school in Tampa, Florida, and continued to think about my experience on a daily basis. I chose to study International Development when I attended Vanderbilt University. I developed a fascination with the Rwandan genocide after I read an article in the Economist. I moved to Rwanda after I graduated in 2006 to volunteer with grassroots initiatives working with street children. In 2008, I founded the Akilah Institute for Women, a college in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. Many of our students are orphans and genocide survivors. Our 2-year diploma in Leadership & Hospitality Management provides them with the entrepreneurial skills, leadership experience, and knowledge to find meaningful employment and launch their own ventures in the hospitality industry, the fastest growing sector of the economy.


“Four years ago, I was sitting in a café in Kigali when I overheard a couple speaking with an American accent. I started talking to them and was overjoyed when they introduced themselves as the Directors of a student travel company called Putney Student Travel. I enthusiastically told them my story and how my Putney experience changed my life. I am thrilled that Putney now offers a trip to Rwanda and I cannot wait to host some students at the Akilah campus. Every day, I am deeply inspired by the Rwandans I know. They have overcome tremendous devastation and tragedy and yet they have emerged as a model of reconciliation, economic development, and women’s empowerment on the African continent. The Putney students will have their eyes opened and their lives changed by experiencing this unique and special country.”

The Akilah Institute for Women is a college for young women located in Kigali, Rwanda. There are currently 80 students ages 18-25. They were children during the 1994 genocide, and many of them lost parents and siblings. Over a third of them are the heads of their households.  We encourage you to learn more about Elizabeth’s amazing work with the Akilah Institute for Women, by visiting her website www.akilahinstitute.org.

Simple and Sweet: A College Essay by Conor Sprouls

Conor Sprouls, of northern New Jersey, is a two time Putney alum. He traveled with us first in 2008 on our Community Service Alaska trip, and again in 2009 on our Global Awareness in Action India program. On that program, Conor and his group studied sustainability issues in the remote Himalayas.  Now, in his senior year at Seton Hall Prep, Conor recently reflected on a memory from his time in India while composing his college essay.  Thanks for sharing, Conor!

Simple and Sweet

On a scorching day during the summer of 2009, in the overly crowded streets of New Delhi, a feeble mother cradled her dying child. Although I was a traveler dressed in the customary clothes of Indian culture, the beggar could still distinguish me from the crowd. Before I came upon this harsh sight, I had been enjoying the satisfying and soothing taste of the popular Ladakhi drink, sweet tea. As I walked past with the cup clutched in my hand, I became repulsed by what I saw.

Conor (second from right) poses with Putney students and new friends during his time of the Ladakh region of India.

With the religious domination that encompasses India, a commonality among the various religious sects is that most people believe that animals are holy and should not be wasted by means of consumption. In this, it is known that the Indian people are grateful for all that God has blessed them with. Goat’s milk and a heap of sugar are stirred into a batch of tea to create Ladakh’s most popular beverage. However, while holding the cup of sweet tea in my hand, I observed the cruel reality that has swept upon much of the Earth- poverty. This was the first time in my life that I truly grasped the definition of hardship and began to fully understand the feeling of appreciation. Sweet tea, once an insignificant expense, became a luxury in my new eyes and view of the world.

Conor (red shirt) works with friends in the fields surrounding a high school in Ladakhi where students prepare for the National University Entrance Exam on this self sustaining campus.

Then, while painstakingly lifting her bony arms, the emaciated mother opened her hands, revealing nothing, the same emptiness that had consumed her life. The seemingly suffering child was exhausted and lacked the energy to even cry out in pain and misery. Upon this very sight, the weight of my wallet instantly doubled, and my personal value of each rupee, the Indian currency, skyrocketed. Handing her my half-full cup of the sweet tea, which still contained what seemed to be endless satisfaction, I connected myself to the struggle, to her, and with the less fortunate on a deeper level than I had ever thought imaginable. Within those seconds, I had changed. As Gandhi stated, “Sorrow and suffering make for character if they are voluntarily borne, but not if they are imposed.” Hence, my actions were intentional; this is the caring person I wished to be.

Conor (seated on the right) learns how to spin wool in one of the remote hill towns of the Himalaya.

It is through experiences that we become who we are and what we become. On that summer’s day, I focused my attention upon the insignificant underlying problem within my life and directed it towards a solution. I realized that I want to become a positive force and connection for the disjointed world, one that finds solutions to real problems that exist worldwide, and an individual who lifts others up and never puts others down for personal gain. I want to be an appreciative, giving individual and never a self-serving, self-focused, selfish person. Appreciation by definition is the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone or something. This multifaceted word allowed me to reflect upon the small things in my life on a larger scale, including what had previously seemed to be a simple cup of tea.

Conor poses with a young student in the Ladakh region.


 

Natalie Ancona: Reflections on Malawi

Last summer, Natalie Ancona of Portland, Oregon, attended Putney’s Global Awareness in Action Malawi—a program that focuses on the response to the HIV/AIDS crisis in this East African country.  Students visit with the National AIDS Commission, public and private clinics, pediatric AIDS facilities, and hold meetings with health care providers and patients alike to get a broad sense of the many approaches to combating the AIDS epidemic.

“Going on the Global Action trip to Malawi changed me in so many ways,” says Natalie of her experience. “Not only am I different on the surface by becoming a thousand times more grateful for the people in my life and the education I’ve been given, but I have also become incredibly motivated to make a difference in the world. I plan on going to college to study political communication and international relations so that one day I can help the people I met in Malawi, and many more who live in the same conditions. Most importantly, I hope to expose their stories to the rest of the world. I am so happy I went to Malawi with Putney. I learned more than I can explain in words and I have made long lasting friendships with some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.”


Natalie has transformed the perspectives she gained in Malawi into a number of academic projects including this excerpt from her college applications:

Last summer I visited Malawi, the “Warm Heart of Africa.”  The goal was to understand a developing country through its politics and culture. While surrounded by some of the world’s poorest, I was exposed to the concept of dead aid–aid that encourages dependency, or is lost in a corrupt system. I learned that the best way to help Malawi is by offering knowledge, not money. As Kristof Nordin said, “I’ll never do something for someone who can do it themselves. But if they are willing to learn, I’ll do anything for them.” The only way a population can thrive is by learning to rely on itself. Malawi’s sense of dependency on others has prevented it from dealing with the real issues of disease, poverty, women’s rights, and education. This year I am president of STAND: Students Taking Action Now Darfur. As leader, I approach the Darfur genocide using these same principles. Rather than raising money, we advocate for the Sudanese by lobbying for bills and writing politicians who will pressure Sudan’s president to keep a fair democracy.


In a 4,000 word essay, “The Medical Rights of Women in Malawi,” Natalie wrote about Malawi to complete her International Baccalaureate Diploma.  The abstract of Natalie’s larger essay appears below.

To what extent does the Malawian government’s policies concerning HIV/AIDS violate the rights of women? This essay used primary research the author conducted on a four week trip to Malawi, along with scholarly journals, primary documents, qualitative and quantitative research by HIV/AIDS research associations, and books on human rights theories in Africa. These sources were used to discover the actual rights laid out in the Malawian Constitution and to determine whether the government has violated these rights or not. The author concluded that during Dr. Hastings Banda’s rule, the government violated women’s medical rights out of neglect. The Banda administration violated these rights by failing to protect them, and by oppressing all those who hoped to address Malawi’s weaknesses. The government mainly focused on urban elites and made no effort to educate men and women of rural areas about AIDS. Bingu wa Mutharika, the current president, has made a greater effort to educate his people about the syndrome and female empowerment. He implemented programs in schools and hospitals in order to prevent the HIV/AIDS epidemic from growing. However, Bingu’s administration has not made hospitals and healthcare easily accessible. It has yet to develop an affordable mode of transportation to and from health care services. The government has failed to recognize the cultural barriers that prevent women from truly attaining their rights. These barriers include the secondary status of women and the cultural ceremonies that they are forced to take part in. Although Bingu is obligated to create laws against these discriminatory practices, stated in the Constitution, he has not. Today women’s medical rights are still being violated out of neglect. Bingu’s administration has failed to address the issues that would uphold the rights concerning women and HIV/AIDS.


Thanks for sharing Natalie!  We look forward to hearing about how you continue your wonderful work through college and beyond.

A Drop in the Bucket: A College Essay by Max Kraus

Max Kraus is a Community Service Ghana alumni and a senior at Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York.  His college essay, a thoughtful reflection on his time in Ghana is featured below.  This essay, along with the rest of his outstanding application, earned Max Early Decision acceptance from Bates College.  Congratulations Max and thanks for sharing!

A bucket can hold so much more than water.  It can hold dirt or sand for building.  It can carry mortar for a shelter or a school.  It can bring a remedy for dehydration and hunger.   A bucket can hold remedies that improve hygiene and health.  And a bucket is a perfect vessel for both challenges and life’s lessons.  Best of all, a bucket can hold hope.

 

Shea, Auntie Mary, and Max complete an independent project. Auntie Mary taught the boys how to plant tomato seedlings.

​My 16-hour trip to Ghana, where I volunteered for four weeks last summer, took me across the globe to a destination unlike anyplace I had ever seen.  When I arrived with my fellow volunteers in a small village of 1500 people, I quickly discovered the village had no electricity or running water.  No sinks, no toilets, no showers.  In place of sinks, there was a well and an abundance of hand sanitizer.  Where I would have expected to see a toilet, there was a dark hole in the floor.  Instead of a shower, perched on a makeshift shelf were buckets lined up in a row, each able to hold about a gallon of water.

​We paid our leader, Kelsey, rapt attention when she demonstrated for us the best way to handle the buckets for washing. We were meant to fill them from one of the two cisterns that were full of water from the rainy season that had just ended.  That evening, when it came time to bathe for the first time in two days, I went to a cistern, and brought not one, not two, but four buckets of water to wash myself after the long trek from New York to the village.  Thinking back on it, I must have looked either incredibly ignorant or monumentally selfish by using carelessly an amount of water that an entire family from the village might use in a week!

Mike, Benjamin, and Max carry buckets of dirt to fill a foundation for the new library.

​At our worksite, a few hundred feet from the school, we were to build a future library’s foundation.  We carried and dumped the buckets—now filled with dirt and weighing 20 pounds apiece—over our heads to reach the back of a pick-up truck.  By the day’s end, our group was exhausted and dirty and collectively could have filled a bucket full of sweat and mud from our labors.  All I wanted to do was take a shower, and I was acutely conscious of the difference between the ease of jumping into one at home, without a second thought, and the complexities of preparing for one here.   Too tired to carry multiple buckets that evening, I took only two buckets to fill with bath water instead of four.  Now aware of the need to conserve water, I used small quantities rather than dumping an entire bucket over myself.  The water was cool, and the dark starry night made my outdoor shower even more gratifying.  When I finished bathing, I discovered I had actually used only one bucket of water, so I left the unused bucket I had carried from the cistern for the next person; I simply didn’t need it.

​My group repeated the work process for countless days.   I learned to carry buckets on my head although it was still an arduous task.  Gradually, lifting the buckets became easier while my shower buckets became less filled each evening after the day’s labor. ​ By comparison, being scrubbed clean each evening was of far less importance than conserving my community’s precious resource.  On our last night in the village, I looked down at my bathing bucket and noticed it was only filled to the halfway mark. This time, however, it felt too full, so I poured some water back into the well.

Bismark and Max stop for a photo during a batik workshop taught by the Trinity Yard School students.

Whether I was building a new library or taking a shower, the buckets I used dictated my routines, and their contents had become precious to me.  While at first it felt as if the filling and carrying I did was incessant and would never end, I came to appreciate the significance of the materials the buckets held.  They didn’t just equal ingredients of a foundation or a bath.  The buckets carried the life forces of the village:  shelter, hydration and the power to create a place for education.  In a more spiritual sense, I came to see the buckets as holding the obligations we all have to the welfare of our respective communities and not just for ourselves.   My volunteer work in Ghana may not have been more than a drop in the cosmic bucket of community service, but even the rainy season starts with the simplest of showers, gathering strength and accumulating power, leaving behind a lifeline of hope for this wonderful community.

Max Feidelson: Continuing to Give

In the summer of 2009, Max Feidelson of Bedford, NY, an alumni of Putney’s Community Service Costa Rica program returned to Latin America as a member of the Community Service Peru program.  He spent a month living and working in a small community in the country’s historic Sacred Valley area, an experience that Max tells us, “changed my life forever.”

This past summer, Max worked as a caddy at a local golf course, and in the fall contacted Putney because he wanted to donate his summer earnings back to the Peruvian community.  Touched by the gesture, Max’s family offered to match their son’s generosity.  Max set aside several hundred dollars to purchase basic tools—a wheel barrow, some spades, etc.—for friends in the community.  The rest of the funds, Max will donate to the Putney Open Door Fund, a foundation dedicated to providing summer opportunities for students who could not otherwise afford them, with the instruction that a student will have the opportunity to travel, like Max did, to Peru.

Max, wearing the blue baseball cap, concentrates as he works to master traditional Peruvian weaving techniques.

In his own words, here is what Max feels he gained from his summer experience:

“Two summers ago, I went on a community service trip to Patacancha.  This small, rural, and impoverished Peruvian village changed my life forever.  While there, seventeen students and I helped to build a school classroom, paint murals, and teach some English to the local children. Helping those less economically fortunate than me was an extremely rewarding experience in and of itself.  Additionally, I made everlasting friendships with not only members of the group, but also with some members of the community. I made a real connection with two men in specific, Ignacio and Narciso, who helped us construct and plan the foundations for the schoolhouse.

Friends David, Narciso, Sam, Ignacio, Max, and Juan break for a photo in front of the classroom they helped to construct.

“Besides great feelings of fulfillment from my trip to Peru I left with many lessons that I have kept with me even today. The overarching theme that I have learned from my trip was that no matter a person’s status or where he or she is from, working hard each day to help others is a key human value. It also showed me that each and every human has something to give: young or old, rich or poor. The act of serving others is not just beneficial to those in need but to you as well. These lessons of hard work and helping others will be something that will stick with me forever thanks to my amazing trip to Patacancha, Peru.”

Thanks, Max, for your generosity and for sharing a story that will stick with us!

In his own words, here is what Max feels he gained from his summer experience:

“Two summers ago, I went on a community service trip to Patacancha.  This small, rural, and impoverished Peruvian village changed my life forever.  While there, seventeen students and I helped to build a school classroom, paint murals, and teach some English to the local children. Helping those less economically fortunate than me was an extremely rewarding experience in and of itself.  Additionally, I made everlasting friendships with not only members of the group, but also with some members of the community. I made a real connection with two men in specific, Ignacio and Narciso, who helped us construct and plan the foundations for the schoolhouse.

“Besides great feelings of fulfillment from my trip to Peru I left with many lessons that I have kept with me even today. The overarching theme that I have learned from my trip was that no matter a person’s status or where he or she is from, working hard each day to help others is a key human value. It also showed me that each and every human has something to give: young or old, rich or poor. The act of serving others is not just beneficial to those in need but to you as well. These lessons of hard work and helping others will be something that will stick with me forever thanks to my amazing trip to Patacancha, Peru.”

Thanks, Max, for your generosity and for sharing a story that will stick with us!

Natalya Pyatkovska: Life After Excel Amherst

Director Patrick Noyes recently interviewed alumni student and PR powerhouse, Natalya Pyatkovska, about her time at the Excel at Amherst College program.  Natalya speaks about the ways in which the Excel program influenced her, the interesting work she’s doing now, and her ambitions for the future.

Natalya Pyatkovska attended the Excel at Amherst College program I directed in the summer of 2005. I remember it as a year of incredible students and close friendships. Like most students, Natalya came on the program by herself—but you would have been hard pressed to find a staff member or a student that didn’t know her within 24 hours of her arrival. There wasn’t an activity Natalya didn’t try or a potential friend she didn’t attempt to meet. I caught up with her recently and got the chance to ask a few questions about our shared summer at Excel.

Q: What brought a West Coast girl to Amherst College in the foothills of Massachusetts’ Berkshire mountains? Was it what you were expecting?

A: I was looking to get out of my comfort zone, experience something new and broaden my horizons. Excel Amherst was exactly the adventure I was hoping to embark on. Coming from L.A., it was a pleasant change of scenery to experience the beauty of Massachusetts and to get a feel for college before my senior year of high school.

Natlya at work during the 2010 NBA All-Star game in Dallas.

Q: When I first met you, you said you were going to one day “own the Staples Center.”  There was something about you that made me take it seriously then, and continue to do so now. Tell us what you are up to in this first year out of college.

A: I am still very determined to buy the Staples Center one day or achieve something equally commendable in my lifetime. While at UCLA, I worked to achieve my goals by working for the UCLA Womens’ Basketball Team, UCLA’s Blue & Gold Organization, the Los Angeles Sparks for two seasons, and the Los Angeles Lakers during my senior year. Today, I am the Director of Public Relations for the Bakersfield Jam, the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers Development League Team. I hope to continue on this path and work my way up the NBA.

Natalya (center) on the floor of the Staples Center.

Q: Tell me about one person—a friend you met or an Excel staff member—who stands out in your mind. What about them is indelible?

A: I will never forget my Public Speaking instructor, Jacob. He really challenged my thought process and changed the way I communicate to this day. Come to think of it, he is perhaps the reason why I ultimately chose to study communication and pursue a career in public relations.

Q: You definitely made the most of your time at Excel Amherst. Is there any advice you would have for this summer’s students to help them do the same?

A: Learn as much as possible and really allow yourself to experience the college
atmosphere, but don’t forget to have fun, make friends, and create lifelong
memories!

Natalya Pyatkovska attended the Excel at Amherst College program I directed in the summer of 2005. I remember it as a year of incredible students and close friendships. Like most students, Natalya came on the program by herself—but you would have been hard pressed to find a staff member or a student that didn’t know her within 24 hours of her arrival. There wasn’t an activity Natalya didn’t try or a potential friend she didn’t attempt to meet. I caught up with her recently and got the chance to ask a few questions about our shared summer at Excel.

Q: What brought a West Coast girl to Amherst College in the foothills of Massachusetts’ Berkshire mountains? Was it what you were expecting?

A: I was looking to get out of my comfort zone, experience something new and broaden my horizons. Excel Amherst was exactly the adventure I was hoping to embark on. Coming from L.A., it was a pleasant change of scenery to experience the beauty of Massachusetts and to get a feel for college before my senior year of high school.

Q: When I first met you, you said you were going to one day “own the Staples Center.”
There was something about you that made me take it seriously then, and continue

to do so now. Tell us what you are up to in this first year out of college.

A: I am still very determined to buy the Staples Center one day or achieve something equally commendable in my lifetime. While at UCLA, I worked to achieve my goals by working for the UCLA Womens’ Basketball Team, UCLA’s Blue & Gold Organization, the Los Angeles Sparks for two seasons, and the Los Angeles Lakers during my senior year. Today, I am the Director of Public Relations for the Bakersfield Jam, the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers Development League Team. I hope to continue on this path and work my way up the NBA.

Q: Tell me about one person—a friend you met or an Excel staff member—who stands out in your mind. What about them is indelible?

A: I will never forget my Public Speaking instructor, Jacob. He really challenged my thought process and changed the way I communicate to this day. Come to think of it, he is perhaps the reason why I ultimately chose to study communication and pursue a career in public relations.

Q: You definitely made the most of your time at Excel Amherst. Is there any advice you would have for this summer’s students to help them do the same?


A: Learn as much as possible and really allow yourself to experience the college
atmosphere, but don’t forget to have fun, make friends, and create lifelong
memories!

Ellie Parker: The View from Dominica

Community Service Dominica alum, Ellie Parker of Los Angeles, CA, put together a video of her time on the Caribbean island. Of her experience, Ellie said, “That trip has left such a significant mark in my life and I had to capture some of it in a video.”

Ellie is currently a senior at Immaculate Heart High School in L.A., and is keeping busy these days with college applications and school visits.

Thanks for sharing your creation Ellie!

Putney Community Service Dominica 2010 from Ellie Parker on Vimeo.

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