I found Maeve Russell ’14 sitting on Foss with a group of friends who were blowing bubbles and soaking in the sunshine. Nothing could better capture Russell’s sunny personality. Russell is the student coordinator of Wesleyan’s chapter of Shining Hope For Communities (SHOFCO), a non-profit organization working to combat poverty in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. The Argus chatted with her about her work with SHOFCO, embarrassing friends at WesWings, and the advice she would give to her freshman self.
The Argus: What are you involved with on campus?
Maeve Russell: My main involvement is in SHOFCO; I’m the student coordinator. This is my second year as the student coordinator of SHOFCO through the Office of Community Service [OCS], so that basically just means I have office hours in the OCS, which is on the top floor of Allbritton. And I also lead all of the weekly meetings for SHOFCO, and I do all of the behind-the-scenes stuff. And in the scene, actually, as well. Just a lot.
I’m also a student advisor for the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship. This is my first year for doing that. I work at WesWings. I was on the WSA for, like, a year. I quit that. Let’s see, what other things…?
A: I mean, that’s a lot.
MR: I think everyone here at Wesleyan, though, is involved in a lot of things. That’s why I love Wesleyan. Everyone’s very passionate about a number of issues.
A: Tell me more about your work with SHOFCO. How did you get involved?
MR: Actually, I first applied to Wesleyan thanks to SHOFCO and Kennedy [Odede ’12, co-founder of SHOFCO]. I remember that I got one of those Wesleyan magazines that they start distributing to prefrosh, and it had Kennedy in it and was just talking about his story. I thought it was amazing that a university would then pay for his tuition and have him come here, and then that he would start this amazing organization that’s both Wesleyan-born and Kibera-born. I just really liked that.
Also, the summer before I was a freshman, Jessica Posner [’09, the other co-founder] won MTV’s Do Something Award. So I learned about SHOFCO before I even applied to Wesleyan, and then once I came to Wesleyan, I just started coming to the meetings and got involved. It’s a really easy organization to become involved in. We’re very much about the idea that every drop in the bucket counts, so you just do what you can: come to meetings, table, get more involved, help with events. We try to make it as non-hierarchical as possible and just have everyone join in to do as much or as little as they want to. It’s really great. I went on the Summer Institute the summer before my junior year.
A: And you traveled to Kibera through SHOFCO to work at the Kibera School for Girls?
MR: Yes. The Summer Institute is where, for about a month, you’re in Kibera, living in Nairobi but working in Kibera at the school. It’s basically just a really great opportunity for the teachers, because, obviously, we’re not qualified to teach these girls. The teachers are amazing, and we cannot compare to them. But it’s an opportunity for the teachers to have a break to work on curriculum, and it’s just kind of a summer school session, so you teach them whatever you want. It’s also already a Montessori-based school, so it’s all about growing as an individual and becoming fully developed. These girls are amazing in that they have a lot of pride and confidence in themselves and in their answers. You literally will ask a question to a group of 20 to 30 girls, and every single one of them will have at least five answers for you. Without a doubt. And they just say it with such conviction, and I love it. I’ve worked in classrooms here in the U.S., and it’s not the same.
SHOFCO is [Kibera’s] organization. And that’s what we try to emphasize here at Wesleyan, that we’re just supporting a grassroots local movement that’s happening seven time zones away. They’re doing amazing things, and it’s all created and supported by them. They employ all Kiberans, or at least Kenyans, other than the two American fellows, and they’re slowly getting rid of that as well, which I’m in full support of. Just because it’s very much their organization, and we’re just lucky to have some sort of personal connection to supporting it and learning all about it.
A: Does SHOFCO have any events coming up at Wesleyan?
MR: We’re going to have a photo exhibit up for WesFest, which will be amazing because it’s going to try to help people visualize what SHOFCO and Kibera look like on site and just give people a better picture of the community that’s there, what a day in the life for a girl there is, just trying to help make it more concrete. That’s why the Summer Institute is great, because we’re always sending people from Wesleyan there, to come back and talk about the girls that they met. Every single meeting, we have a girl of the week: we highlight a first-grader or a second-grader, what her name is, what she wants to be when she grows up—because they all want to be these amazing things. You’ll ask them, and they’ll say, “pilot!” “engineer!” “teacher!” “politician!” “doctor!” The “engineer” and “pilot” really get me, because you do not hear that from any little girl. And it’s awesome.
A: Do you know what you’re doing after graduation? I know that’s a terrible question to ask.
MR: I’m still figuring that one out. I applied to a fellowship here, so I might be here another year. But I also applied to the Global Health Forum, so I’m waiting to hear back from that. I’m applying to a lot of other positions. I’m basically just putting out a very wide net and seeing who will take pity upon me and employ me. Hopefully one person out there will. That’s the dream.
A: But you have one particular field in mind?
MR: Nonprofit, social entrepreneurship, for sure. I mean, I do want to have a salary that can support me, and unfortunately sometimes that seems like it’s mutually exclusive, but I want to be part of an organization that’s doing some amount of social change, positive social change, in the world. It might just be a small community—like Kibera—but we live in such an interconnected world that changing one individual’s life means a lot. It’s not even changing it, per se, but empowering them to make the changes that they want to make and to do what they want to do. Actually, yeah, I’m not for going in and telling people how they should live their lives, but I think empowering others to do what they want to do, and giving them the tools to decide how they want live their lives and what they want to do with them, is so important. Because everyone should have those opportunities. In an ideal world, everyone would. I think people at Wesleyan are very good at being culturally and socially sensitive when discussing these things, and I’m just saying that we don’t know what’s best.
A: Shifting gears a bit, what’s your major?
MR: I am majoring in government and environmental studies.
A: So is that what you did your capstone project on?
MR: Yeah. So for environmental studies, if you’re doing the linked major, you have to do either a thesis in your primary major or a senior essay in your primary major, or a capstone research project. So I chose the capstone research project. But I wrote 61 pages for that, so it was still an endeavor, I suppose. I would not put it in the thesis realm, though. I one hundred percent do not compare myself to them; they deserve so much credit for doing what they did. But it still added up to a lot of sleep deprivation and some slightly crazy moments.
A: What was the focus of your research?
MR: I’m really bad at the one-sentence summary that so many thesis people have gotten so good at. But I basically looked at hunger in terms of micronutrient deficiencies instead of calorie deficiency, because a lot of people think of hunger in terms of lack of food supply and lack of calories in one’s diet, instead of lack of vitamin A and iron. The difference between the number of people who are undernourished and the number of people who are malnourished in the world is about 1.5 billion, so it’s a huge population that’s disregarded in policy. So I looked at how that is affecting populations across the world, in both developing and developed nations, and then looked at policies that can affect that, like school lunch programs, breast feedings rates, infection rates, health policies, a myriad of other things. And then I looked at Brazil’s policies, which are really interesting. Brazil is interesting because there’s still a lot of social inequity there, and there are still a lot of issues, but they’ve done some pretty interesting policy work. So you’ve got to hand it to them for at least attempting to make positive change.
A: Now that you’re done with that, how do you see your last month here going?
MR: A lot of Foss. Honestly, a lot of quality bonding time, I think, is quite necessary. I mean, I’m still doing a lot of job applications, so that’s fun. And I still have schoolwork I need to do, but it’s not that much compared to what I was doing junior year. I’m also in transition from my [SHOFCO] student coordinator position, to an amazing sophomore named Marina King. It’s really fun, actually, just to tell her what I’ve experienced and see what ideas she has for the position. So I’m working on that, trying to make a nice, smooth transition. Graduation’s becoming more real, thanks to that, in a way that I don’t know if I like or not. But yeah, a lot of hanging out.
And also, honestly, just making more friends. Because that’s what I love about Wesleyan, is that everyone is so approachable, so friendly, so personable, so wonderful. Cannot get enough of it. So I guess just soaking up everything Wesleyan has to offer. I actually have a huge bucket list.
A: You said you work at WesWings. What’s that like?
MR: I mean, I joined pretty late in the game, compared to other people. I joined my junior year. It’s awesome…My bosses are really great, and everyone I work with is pretty awesome. Also, it’s just nice to have a job on campus. First of all, it gives you structure, because you have to be somewhere for a certain amount of hours on this day and this day. And also—I’ve had this conversation with so many people—I think everyone should work in the service industry at some point, just because it teaches you to be mindful about things.
A: You must get to know a lot of faces through working at WesWings.
MR: You do. It’s a great way to embarrass friends over the microphone, write weird nicknames on their tickets. It’s a good way to meet people, or just see people you don’t always see. Because they have to go somewhere to eat, and you just have to be there.
A: Anything you would want to tell your freshman self?
MR: I think freshmen have a tendency to get involved in too much, and I know I did that as well, and I got involved in things that I wasn’t necessarily as passionate about or interested in. I think it’s just finding those select few things that you really love doing and to do them, and to really enjoy them. And also just not to be afraid to introduce yourself to complete strangers, and to get to know everyone who is sitting by you, and to have conversations with them, because everyone is really open to getting to know people here, and I really love that. And I think I didn’t fully take advantage of that until my sophomore year, when I started to come out of my shell. I think Wesleyan has too much to offer everyone, almost, and people get really bogged down with trying to do everything that’s amazing on this campus, which is honestly impossible.