By Becca Luttinen '20
Through the Iacocca International Internship Program at Lehigh University, I was able to achieve one of my dreams – going to Africa to do work with poverty alleviation.
I was given the opportunity for an eight-week internship working with the Pathways Development Initiative (PDI) in Bududa, Uganda. Before coming to Lehigh, I had several international experiences in high school, traveling to remote locations in Mexico to do missionary work. These experiences awakened in me a desire to serve those in need. I came to Lehigh hoping to fulfill that desire, choosing a dual major of International Relations and Economics with a minor in sustainable development.
When my sustainable development classes began, I was so excited. Hoping my professor realized just how much I cared about the subject matter, and despite being more than a little intimidated, I introduced myself and said, “I can’t wait to begin studying sustainable development. I want to help others, and I just love poverty.” His reaction said it all. How could a person “love” a condition of suffering that plagues more than 3 billion people on this planet? Of course I did not mean those exact words. I was struggling to express my desire to work with and help those who live in poverty.
My journey thus far into the field of international development has taught me much. I never realized just how much I would have to learn, and how much my worldview would be challenged. The most ironic aspect has been realizing working in this sector for the right reasons will hopefully destroy the situation in which I am working. In other words, my overall goal should be to eradicate poverty.
Some people choose to work for humanitarian organizations and missionary groups because it makes them feel good. When I was involved in missionary work, I always came home feeling satisfied with myself and what I had done. Such work made me happy and led me to want to dedicate my life to helping others, and that is a good thing. But why was my application essay for Lehigh all about how serving others has impacted my life? At the time, I did not realize what a cliché my statement actually was. Like so many volunteers and missionaries to underdeveloped countries before me, I was favoring my experience over the actual effect of my work on those I hoped to help. I have since gained a bit more clarity on things. I now believe that good intentions are not enough.
The Iacocca program and my time in Uganda introduced me to some of the more complex problems of humanitarian aid. Annette Zaale, the founder of the NGO Pathways Development Initiative I worked for, said to me once, “I hate poverty because it takes away the dignity of people.” Her words stuck with me. They took me back to my own works about how I “loved poverty”. She helped me refocus. I became determined to make my work worthwhile. I did not want to leave with just a good feeling. I did not want my efforts to be just about me. I wanted my internship to benefit those I hoped to help. As motivated as I was to make a huge impact in Bududa, I realized it was the little things, and my everyday efforts, which truly counted.
I could have left Uganda with lots of pictures of people living in poverty for my social media accounts without ever making tangible relationships or even knowing anyone’s name. Such an approach would only minimize the existence of those I came to help as part of my “experience”, and it wasn’t about me after all.