Marissa Hastings ’22 came to Lehigh to study civil engineering. Four years later, she graduated with degrees in international relations and economics and a certificate in global citizenship, and she’s preparing to move to Armenia to work with a girls’ empowerment organization. It all started with a gap in her schedule that first year.
Hastings came to Lehigh because she knew it was a place where she could study engineering and also explore her interest in international issues. When she needed an extra three credits to fill her spring course schedule, she decided to enroll in “Introduction to Global Citizenship.” She didn’t know it was a pre-requisite for the Global Citizenship Program (GCP), an interdisciplinary certificate that prepares students in any major to engage with the world.
“The cornerstone of my Lehigh experience was that first Global Citizenship class,” she says now. “I found that I was much more passionate about that type of work and I wanted to learn more about other cultures and study abroad or work internationally.”
Through GCP, Hastings developed a particular interest in women’s empowerment and the role of economics in securing gender equality. She left engineering and switched to a double major in international relations and economics. She also completed her first international experience: the GCP study trip to India in January 2020. From a base in New Delhi, the group visited human rights groups, houses of worship, historical sites, an ashram in the Himalayan foothills, and scholars at Ashoka University in Haryana.
“We learned a lot about India before we went, but actually being there was so different,” she says. “It was so valuable to actually meet with people, hear their stories and see what their daily lives look like and what they’re looking to do.”
In particular, she remembers visiting a legal aid and advocacy organization and hearing a survivor of an acid attack talk about her work helping other victims (most of whom are women) seek justice and rehabilitation.
“A lot of what I’m doing at Lehigh is focused on women’s empowerment and being able to advocate for yourself,” Hastings says. “It was so impactful for me to learn from someone doing similar work in an entirely different country and context.”
Hastings came back from India with a desire to keep exploring the world and to do more to advance gender equity. When the pandemic hit a few months later and travel stopped, it didn’t slow her down. She found virtual opportunities to engage internationally and make an impact.
I wanted to see what else I can learn in different environments to help me be a better advocate for women’s rights.
Learning how to empower women in three countries…
Through the Lehigh University-United Nations Partnership, Hastings began working with an Armenian nongovernmental organization called Nor Luyce. Nor Luyce, or “new light,” helps socially vulnerable girls build the skills to live self-sufficient lives. It was founded by Shogher Mikayelyan ’16G, a Fulbright Scholar and Lehigh alum. Working remotely, Hastings helped evaluate the organization’s impact, researched mentoring models, and attended online UN meetings on its behalf.
“My whole connection with Nor Luyce was virtual until my senior year,” she says. “I still had an amazing experience. We attended meetings and conferences with people all around the world, many of whom we wouldn’t have been able to have conversations with if we could only meet in person.”
Hastings says that she was able to implement in real life some of what she learned in the classroom and see some of the nuances of working in a different cultural context. For example, she learned that her direct approach to talking about equal rights for women may not work well in Armenia.
“Shogher knows how to say the same things, but in a more approachable manner for the society that we want to work in,” she says. “We share the same perspective, but from different angles.”
In her junior year, Hastings became a Global Social Impact Fellow (GSIF), joining PlasTech Ventures, a project in the Philippines that aims to keep plastic waste out of the environment and provide an income opportunity for women by building a community-based recycling facility.
“We want to work with women in the area to achieve the overall goal of reducing plastic waste,” she says. “I tried to figure out how we can incorporate the women into the business model so they can get a wage and feel like they make an impact.”
Unable to go to the Philippines for fieldwork, she instead read interviews conducted by previous team members to understand the women’s points of view and give them a voice in the implementation.
Hastings got another chance to examine how economic forces shape gender equity over the extended 2020-2021 winter break, when Lehigh’s UN Partnership launched a research project with the International Labour Organization and Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador. Her team studied the impact of COVID-19 on women working in the informal economy in Ecuador and Brazil and published a research paper with policy recommendations. While the team faced some challenges working virtually across time zones, Hastings says she learned about the living wage and the risks that women working in the informal economy face.
“I wanted to see what else I can learn in different environments to help me be a better advocate for women’s rights,” Hastings says.
…and how to make schnitzel over Zoom
Lehigh resumed in-person operations in fall 2021. Before returning to campus, Hastings completed one more international experience: a virtual Iacocca International Internship (IIIP) with a business services company in Vienna, Austria.
“After working with Nor Luyce in Armenia, I wanted to work with another company abroad and learn about a different country,” she says. “I gained so much professionally and personally from my internship, even though it was virtual.”
For the virtual internships, IIIP staff developed additional virtual activities to facilitate the intercultural learning that’s a hallmark of the program. Students worked in regional teams and met weekly over Zoom to discuss the culture of their host countries. When they were tasked with cooking a local dish, Hastings asked her coworkers about their favorite foods. It sparked a conversation that helped her get a sense of life in Austria and connect with the team in the office.
“In both the GCP trip to India and the Iacocca internship, I got to meet wonderful people and learn about the culture,” she says. “You might feel a little more comfortable on Zoom than you would in a different environment, but you still have to get out of your comfort zone and learn different cultural norms.”
Through experiences spanning four continents, some in person and some online, Hastings has learned to work across cultures and seen how much women’s lives, and journeys toward equality, can vary. Now she’s heading to Armenia for a year to help Nor Luyce pilot a new education program. But first, she’s going to stop in Vienna to meet her coworkers from her virtual internship.
“That first trip to India sparked my interest in more global experiences,” she says. “It inspired me to continue to educate myself and learn about other ways to approach problems. The most exciting thing is being able to use what I’ve learned to make an impact.”