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Published: June 15th 2014
I have always felt alien; relatively disengaged and underutilized in sunny Southern California. As Sal Khan puts it in his book, The One World Schoolhouse, our primary education is adapted from a Prussian style meant to output a generalized workforce. Out of frustration in both experience and observation of this, I am determined to redefine education. Not to change necessarily the system itself, but to clearly identify what it takes to operate efficiently in the real world and solve problems that stop at getting graded and returned. No longer do I want myself or others to empty their pockets for a low quality of fulfillment that sweeps the standard of our collective visions of success. Which is why the best scholarship I ever received was not money, but a phone call from Pedro Delgado Ortiz.
I reached out to Pedro’s company, Agua Inc, to provide expertise on a clean water system in Haiti amidst a service trip in Haiti that I organized last winter. Two weeks after I returned, Pedro called me with a challenge; to set up an internship program and innovation space in The Gambia of West Africa. I had four months, a lot of energy, and way too many ideas. This was my idea of fun.
This opportunity allowed me to have more time for the transcultural, for the true international network, for the feeling of seeing the grassroots effects of your efforts. Versus the short-term study abroad, service, and travel opportunities I had experienced before, this would allow me to build the deeper relationships I have thirsted for throughout my life, as opposed to being an outsider looking into the fascinations of foreignism.
Fast forward to now, and I am sitting in the Agua Campus house of Bijilo, Gambia. This is much more than a space, but rather a place. A place to find purpose and establish identity. A local hub for innovation, and an exposure to the hidden hospitality that people might need to trigger transformative action. This is my mission, to turn space to place. The Latin root of “university” categorizes itself with “community”, which is why I believe that a structure for a supportive community can be a cheaper and more equal medium for learning, and why accreditation is not necessary for transformation. Another challenge is to curate the building of skills required for the globalizing marketplace, such as communicative excellence, global competencies, and technological and social familiarity. But truly a necessary skill is uncovering what individuals are good at, and channeling their efforts to where they can make the greatest social impact.
Of course, the best learning comes from fruitful relationships, and it’s easy when my company team and the interns here are among some of the most amazing people I have come to meet. The locals have incredible passion for building sincere friendships, and it has been a pleasure so far to work next to them. One of my now good friends and a great example, is Saikou, a local journalist with some of the best networking capacities in The Gambia. Saikou is on a similar mission to change The Gambia, and has so many skills that he has potential to tap into. An example of this is that Franco, a killer finance/anthro intern from UVA, and I were discussing the best way to support social entrepreneurship and local innovation in Gambia. Saikou decided to introduce to the director of NEDI, the National Enterprise Development Initiative, a government initiative to microfinance youth and women entrepreneurs. After moving fatfat (fast) to create partnership, we now have access to mentoring these entrepreneurs countrywide and providing prototyping space.
The learning so far is amazing. With interns researching things like compressing biomass to create flotation matrices for our plant-based filtration systems, to thinking about electricity-free refrigerators for the local fish market, and generating electricity with potential energy of falling water from home rain catchments. We certainly have our work cut out for us...and now I feel quite at home.
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