Changing the World

Written by: 
Randena Hulstrand

Two days after a devastating 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti’s infrastructure and buried masses of people under rubble, Graham Sowa (’08) trekked from one makeshift tent to another outside Port-Au-Prince to give victims water and medical care. This trip, his fifth to Haiti, was instinctive after spending summers in the Third World country as an undergraduate anthropology student at UNT.

Through garage sales and fundraising dinners to raise money for his visits, he’s repeatedly worked to distribute medications for TB and HIV through Real Hope for Haiti, a nonprofit humanitarian relief organization. He shares his experiences through YouTube videos and blogs.

“We’re all in this together, especially my generation, since we are so globally interconnected,” he says. “The more we get one another on the same page and help each other, the stronger we are as a species.”

Sowa and other UNT alumni activists are finding personal meaning in the world’s current events, with a global understanding built in part on service learning, research and study abroad opportunities as students. They recognize promise in adverse conditions and are coupling compassion with leadership skills to bring about change for some of the largest social, political, economic and environmental issues of our time.

“Providing students with opportunities to be a part of the community — either locally or globally — is an important part of making sure they learn everything they can while they’re here,” says Elizabeth With, vice president for student affairs. “UNT is committed to engaging our students through student organizations and activities that allow them to take responsibility and ownership of their communities. This helps them become concerned citizens for the greater good.”


Global health and inequalities

Learning that Haiti was the second revolutionary republic in the Western Hemisphere in preparation for his high school debate team, Sowa was perplexed by disparities between that country and the U.S., despite their seemingly similar histories.

“They are so poor and we are so rich,” he says. It motivated him at 18 to pack his bags and go.

As a UNT student, his concern for disparity around the globe grew. He volunteered with Catholic Refugee Services and met regularly with a family from Burundi, helping with their English, schoolwork and cultural adjustments. He based his senior ethnography class research project on this experience, analyzing how the U.S. accepts and helps refugees.

“It taught me so much, and UNT facilitated that connection,” he says.

Later as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, he earned a master’s in public administration at the University of Botswana, and his passion for debate led him to help organize the 32nd annual World Universities Debating Championship this year, the first in Botswana.

“Debate is getting people to talk and see things from different perspectives and is part of a better global understanding,” he says. “I’m trying to make sure that people who don’t have access to the globalized world get access to the globalized world.” 
Now a first-year medical student at the Latin American School of Medicine in Havana, Cuba, Sowa is studying social and preventative medicine, which he plans to practice in rural communities.

“I want to make people’s lives more just,” he says.

Like Sowa, Sarah Broom (’02) has an innate interest in global health and inequalities. She worked as a reporter in Hong Kong for Time Asia and during a trip to Cambodia became interested in exploring how the country was recovering after genocide.

“I have always been interested in how torn-down places of the world rebuild,” she says.

She also was the communications director at The Praxis Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit that works to shift policy related to health justice issues in poor communities. She was writing and editing for O, The Oprah Magazine, when she says a turning point came — Hurricane Katrina.

“I grew up in New Orleans, a place ravaged by all kinds of poverty, with 11 brothers and sisters,” she says.  “After the storm, many of my siblings experienced forced migration and displacement. I wanted to go someplace in the world that could help me put New Orleans in its greater global context, because what happened in New Orleans was really about the world.”

Leaving her job, she moved to Burundi for a year to work at an independent radio station, Radio Publique Africaine, where she raised funds and helped develop new social justice programming.


The power of opportunity

As a journalism and anthropology major at UNT, Broom was always interested in people and the stories they had to tell. Soon after beginning her studies, she joined the North Texas Daily.

“I was looking for a big university and took advantage of UNT’s opportunities,” she says.

Broom studied at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and at William Paterson University as part of a student exchange program.

She also was in the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which prepares low-income first-generation undergraduates to eventually receive Ph.D.s.

“My research in publishing prepared me for my graduate studies in journalism at UC Berkeley,” she says.

Today, as executive director of Village Health Works — a community-led nonprofit based in rural Burundi — Broom is responsible for the overall direction of the organization as it grows. She says it is a collaboration that is meant to build healthy, self-sufficient individuals by providing high-quality health care while treating the underlying causes of illness and disease.

About 125 local staff members — community health workers, agronomists, landscapers, doctors, nurses and cleaning staff — work at the health center in Burundi on 26 acres donated by the community the organization serves.

“Imagine being less than poor and investing your land — the one thing of any value — so that you can have a health center,” Broom says.

“What makes me most proud and excited for the future of Village Health Works is when we treat and heal people who came to us thinking they would be sent back home in a casket. When they leave our clinic alive, healthy and able to pursue productive lives, I feel immense joy and a tremendous desire to do more and reach further.”


Fostering new generations

Helping students become engaged citizens and leaders is one of the goals of UNT’s Center for Leadership and Service. In 2009, the center added UNT SERVES! to UNT’s REAL (Residents Engaged in Active Living) communities, which group together students in the residence halls who share the same major or interest. UNT SERVES! is focused on community service and civic engagement, with students not only living on the same wing of Kerr Hall but also serving together.

The Center for Leadership and Service also organizes student work projects each year for Make a Difference Day — a national day of service — and through Alternative Spring Break programs, students who might otherwise be vacationing are rolling up their sleeves to connect with communities.

It’s through opportunities such as these that students discover the personal impact they can make, large and small — whether they are picking up trash around campus during Earth Week, mentoring area at-risk students or feeling empowered to take a political stand. UNT is building on individual talents and passions to foster new generations of humanitarians.

More on Changing the World

What can you do to make a difference?

Watch Graham Sowa's firsthand account of Haiti's devastation after the earthquake through YouTube videos.

Rachel Rachel, a senior applied arts and sciences major and president of the campus chapter of American Humanics, spent last spring break working with underprivileged children in Kansas City. This year she’ll be a site leader in New Orleans, focused on Katrina rebuilding projects.

“UNT has become a gateway for me to learn about how I can play a role in the community,” she says. “And as a resident assistant in UNT SERVES!, I get to share the ownership I feel for giving back with other students who are then able to take it and run with it.”


Building economies

Kirk A. Johnson (’94 M.S.) finds personal success with the triumphs of others. He assessed the war-torn region of Iraq as senior economic advisor of the U.S. Department of State’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Muthanna. He knew that the southernmost province, a desert, had promise, despite having only a small Euphrates River and few natural resources.

“I saw the natural strengths,” he says. “It lacks oil, but it has great tracts of land filled with limestone, the basis for cement.”

Johnson saw this as Muthanna’s economic opportunity to build cement factories to fuel reconstruction projects such as new roads and bridges. He says using real applications for problem solving is why he came to UNT to study applied economics.

“It’s not just theory but knowledge you can apply to real life problems and public policy,” says Johnson, who went on to earn his doctorate from George Mason University. “I find data to find solutions.”

As a representative of the U.S. Department of State, Johnson’s team is part of the 16 provincial reconstruction units working to build Iraq’s technical capabilities in areas including law, agriculture, the court system, prisons, and political and governance issues. Field visits require Humvee transports with a small Army platoon so Johnson can advise the provincial governments face-to-face on regulatory constraints and Iraqi private investors.

“If you can marshal resources locally, you can have the competitive advantage,” he says.

The transition from a centralized economic system in Baghdad to a more decentralized one with local decision makers has been at times slow and frustrating, he says, but each triumph — such as a new cement factory or the passage of a new law opening the door to foreign investments — makes it worth it.

“I keep coming back because I want to give back to my country,” he says, “and serve our nation’s best interests.”


Preserving nature’s resources

Steve Windhager (’94 M.A., ’99 Ph.D.) is an advocate for nature, which he believes is in the best interest of history and development. As director of the Landscape Restoration Program at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, he oversaw the center’s ecological research and natural areas management for 11 years, and in November was named CEO and president of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden in California.

To his new post in Santa Barbara, he’ll take his research knowledge of the role of fire and other historic ecological processes in restoring the Texas Hill Country, and the role of competition in controlling invasive species.

“My goal is to use native plants to solve ecological problems,” he says.

Since 2001, he’s worked with a team to restore the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, an eight-mile stretch along the river, to its once stable native ecosystem. The area contains hiking and biking trails to connect San Antonio’s four historic Spanish missions.

“Decades of engineering to combat a flood plain damaged a once existing bottomland forest,” Windhager says, “creating a massive drainage ditch, washing away soil and the existing ecosystem.”

He consulted with the U.S. Corps of Engineers on how to stabilize the eroding area by bringing back the Blackland Prairie ecosystems more common on higher ground.

He also worked with Advanced Micro Device (AMD) Inc.’s new corporate campus in Austin, built over the contributing zone of the Edwards Aquifer, which feeds Barton Springs. It is the first 100 percent native landscape corporate campus in the U.S. and one of the largest rainwater collection systems in the world, holding 1.5 million gallons.

Windhager says UNT’s world-renowned environmental ethics program showed him that relevant research could solve real problems. While earning his doctorate, he founded UNT’s chapter of the Texas Society for Ecological Restoration, a natural extension of his interests in philosophy and science.

“From urban prairie restoration to rain gardens, it all comes out of a skill set of philosophy because it’s important to connect people with the environment,” he says.

And as director of the Sustainable Sites Initiative, an interdisciplinary effort by the American Society of Landscape Architects, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the U.S. Botanic Garden, he’s helping to create national design standards for landscapes such as parks, roadways and gardens, similar to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED criteria.

“I’m living my philosophy,” he says.


Everything started to change

Kristyn Admire (’09) worked for the Texas Campaign for the Environment as an undergraduate international studies major at UNT. She interacted with legislators, communities and corporations, inspiring constituents to write more than 6,000 letters in support of legislation to have electronics companies assume responsibility for disposing or recycling of their products. In 2007, this work helped result in Texas House Bill 2712, mandating responsible disposal of hazardous electronic waste.

“I feel strongly about environmental issues,” Admire says, adding that her studies piqued additional interests in water and resource scarcity and, most recently, security issues. Awarded a Kathryn Davis Fellowship for Peace, she is working on a master’s in nonproliferation and terrorism studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.

“UNT is where everything started to change for me,” she says. “With these experiences and great mentors, I began to see the world for what it was, not in a one-way interpretation.”

James Duban, director of the Office for Nationally Competitive Scholarships, and faculty mentors helped guide Admire and other students to prestigious national scholarships and fellowships. Duban says it’s not surprising that so many UNT alumni distinguish themselves professionally and help make the world a better place.

“UNT is the ideal environment to cultivate leadership and communication skills, community engagement, international outlook, innovation, creativity, intellectual risk-taking and self-learning,” he says. “It all adds up to an amazing education and numberless opportunities for distinction.”


Peace through education

Admire, who minored in Arabic at UNT, refined her language skills in Egypt through study abroad experiences, volunteered as an English teacher for Iraqi and Sudanese refugees, and conducted extensive research in foreign policy. As Miss Monterey Bay, running for Miss California USA, she attends fundraising events for CASA and is now sharing her platform of language education, which she has learned improves globalization, security and adaptability.

Next year, she plans to work with the United Nations Al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee to further her career interests in intelligence and analysis.

“I want to use my Arabic language skills to conduct intelligence analysis, supervising field missions and briefing Capitol Hill,” she says. “I want to become a decision maker.”

Patricia Aliperti (’99, ’02 M.Ed.) also is focused on making lasting changes. She knew at 12 years old, when she came to the U.S. from Mexico and was immersed in school without English as a second language, that she wanted to make a difference.

“My world views were limited, but something in me told me there was a big world out there — you can feel it,” she says. “My international move made me resilient and my high school experience made me want to help other kids as a school counselor.”

After earning degrees in psychology and counseling at UNT with stints as a Spanish teacher, Aliperti was awarded a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to Peru in 2002. She joined Rotary clubs in community projects including volunteering in orphanages and organizations for people with disabilities, and in a medical campaign where she served as a counselor to remote communities. She returned as a high school counselor to Fort Worth, but her experiences in Peru kept flooding back.

“All the poverty and need still to be addressed pulled me back to do more in other ways,” she says.

One year later, Aliperti joined the Peace Corps as a teacher trainer, certifying English teachers in Ukraine, educating them to teach students about HIV and providing training on human trafficking. Through the Rotary Club, she helped bring computers to a school and arranged for four Ukrainian teachers to visit Texas to observe U.S. schools.

“It was an immersion in culture and learning,” she says.


Change through empowerment

At the end of her assignment, Aliperti was awarded a Rotary World Peace Fellowship — the first ever for a UNT student — to study at the International Christian University in Japan. She researched the role of education in preventing trafficking of children for forced and bonded labor in India. Through fieldwork in India, she chronicled the changes in children who had been rescued from trafficking and learned about the empowerment of women in Bangladesh.

“The children were empowered by human rights education to become leaders in their own communities, to organize adults to speak up to authority to report cases and to stop the exploitation of other children,” she says. “They were the changemakers.”

Motivated by the children, Aliperti returned home to Texas this year with a master’s in public administration and a clearer understanding of peace education. She now works as an elementary school counselor in Austin and hopes to establish a peace education club for children.

“My heart belongs in education,” she says. “I’ve seen the world and the impact you can have by addressing the root causes of problems in society and not just covering them with band aids. This can only be done by an education that empowers students to stand up for what they believe in to benefit everyone, especially the voiceless and oppressed.”

Broom agrees that making a difference involves inspiring others and efforts of all sizes.

“I feel on a very deep level that human beings have a responsibility, a calling even, to give back,” she says. “What the world needs now is the courage to simply act, one person at a time. We can do life-changing things together.”

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