A Magazine for Alumni and Friends

WinterNott Memorial 2018

A decade of global impact

Minvera Fellows program is 10


n July 2008, Union sent its first Minerva Fellows out into the world.

The hope was this: To instill in recent graduates an entrepreneurial approach to addressing social problems and a lasting commitment to the poor in developing countries. And to inspire an interest in current students to do the same.

Ten years later, this hope has been made reality—again and again. To date, 81 Union College seniors have lived and worked in 13 countries following graduation, paired with non-government organizations striving to improve everything from education to healthcare.

“Because of the fellows there is a community outreach program for the Global Child, a school for former street children in Cambodia,” said Hal Fried, David L. & Beverly B Yunich Professor of Business Ethics, who runs the effort with Associate Dean of Students and Director of Minerva Programs Tom McEvoy. “Fellows founded Bagru Textiles, a company in India that connects artisan block printers to customers in the developed world, and assisted Witkoppen Health Clinic in South Africa in establishing a fully comprehensive postnatal health clinic that treats HIV infection.”

“But perhaps of greater significance, the fellows become friends with people of different nationalities, circumstances, religions and cultures,” he added. “The more people throughout the world who adopt the perspective of a global citizen, the less tolerance there will be for terrorism, bigotry and war. This is a movement that paves the road to peace.”

After nine months abroad, each class of fellows returns to Union in May. They share their experiences with the campus community and teach the final month of Fried’s social entrepreneurship class, which all selected seniors must take before departing on their fellowships. It’s a twist that makes the College’s program unique.

“I’m not aware of another school with a program structured like ours, with the combination of a class and integrating the returning fellows,” Fried said. None of it would be possible without the support of alumni and friends of the College.

“Michael Rapaport ’59 provided the initial funding to run the pilot in 2008 and has continued his support,” Fried said. “Lauren ’78 and Gary Cohen ’78, and Robert Chartoff ’55, have endowed fellowships in South Africa and India, respectively. Ray Marcinowski ’76, Les Trachtman ’77, Elaine Hickey, Chet and Karen Opalka, Brian Epstein ’88, John Hanson ’78 and Tom Stark ’82 faithfully sustain the program every year.”

Going forward, McEvoy and Fried would like to do more—with more fellows and more NGOs.

“Union graduates students with the hearts and minds to be Minerva Fellows. It is a wasted opportunity that we cannot accept every student who is capable of contributing to the challenges around the world,” Fried said. “At the same time, we have more excellent opportunities and NGOs than we have fellows. Over the next ten years, I would like to see the program grow.”

Engeye exemplar: One of many places where Minerva makes a difference

One night in Uganda, as Joe Hinderstein ’15 drifted in and out of sleep, he heard a knock on his window.

“Joe, are you awake?” a voice asked. “I need help.”

Hinderstein, serving as a Minerva Fellow at Engeye Health Clinic (July 2015-March 2016), thought the voice belonged to a local student he knew. But when he opened the door, he saw Olivia.

Nine months pregnant, in labor and barely able to stand, she’d managed to walk a mile in the darkness from a neighboring village. With the help of Engeye co-founder and executive director John Kalule, Hinderstein got Olivia into the clinic’s 24-hour ambulance (a rare service in the region). It saved her a 90-minute walk to the nearest hospital.

“What became apparent to me in that moment was that most women aren’t so lucky,” Hinderstein said. “This was a watershed moment in my life. Never before had I considered the endless challenges that come with trying to deliver and care for a baby. Why would I?”

And the challenges for pregnant women in Uganda are many.

“Ugandan mothers and babies are dying deaths that would be international scandals if they were happening to Americans,” said Charlotte Bloom ’15, who served as a fellow with Hinderstein. “One in 47 Ugandan women have a lifetime risk of dying in childbirth. To put that in perspective, I had 47 women in my pledge class at Union.”

So the two fellows decided to dedicate themselves to adding maternity services to Engeye’s offerings.

In late 2015, they and Kalule began talking with the Engeye community about its needs. They compiled data on infant and maternal mortality in central Uganda, gathered testimony from birth attendants and midwives, and surveyed other facilities to assess workflow. They also worked closely with Engeye’s board of directors, who needed to be certain adding maternity services to the clinic—strictly primary care since 2007—was a realistic and logistically feasible move.

The fellows also committed to raising $30,000 of the $120,000 needed to build the Engeye Maternity Center, which they did while working fulltime jobs after their return to the U.S. in 2016.

“At times it was challenging to get people motivated about giving their money to a place and people they had never seen or met,” said Bloom, who works in clinical trial operations at Foundation Medicine, a biotechnology company in Massachusetts that’s developing companion diagnostic testing for cancer. “But the buy-in from donors is automatic when you tell them that the local hospital charges $30 for a cesarean section that will save a mother and baby. You can save two lives literally for the cost of a week of Starbucks Coffee.”

The funds, largely from their friends and family, and most in donations of $100 or less, are now being put to good use building the maternity center.

It’s slated to open in early 2018 and will work toward:

  • Eradicating maternal mortality and delivery-related complications
  • Preventing infant deaths in childbirth
  • Expanding access to family planning methods for women
  • Providing mother-to-child transmission prevention drugs to HIV/AIDS infected mothers
  • Increasing access to reliable prenatal care
  • Raising immunization rates for preventable diseases like polio and tetanus

This will be “a safe and affordable place where pregnant mothers could deliver. Where women can learn about their bodies, receive prenatal vitamins and access family-planning methods in a culturally sensitive, confidential environment,” said Hinderstein, a project associate at athenahealth working to help small, rural U.S. hospitals run more effectively and efficiently.

“Where they can deliver their babies on a bed instead of dirt floor. Where the staff will always show up for work. Where the conversation about childbirth contains the words love and joy, rather than lucky and survival,” he continued. “Engeye will now be equipped to conduct 300-400 safe deliveries per year, in what I believe will be the strongest rural delivery center in East Africa.”

It’s a future that wouldn’t be possible without Hinderstein’s predecessors.

It all started with the first Engeye fellows, Rebecca Broadwin ’08 and Stephen Po-Chedley ’08, said Sarah Yergeau ’10, herself an Engeye fellow. Then came Elliot Harmon ’10, who led the establishment of a fully dedicated lab room, which now has two paid staff.

Brendan Kinnane ’11 and Mark O’Shea ’11 dramatically increased the amount of water available at Engeye, which meant hand- washing stations and more lab equipment now that the water existed to clean it.

And it was Ben Weiner ’13 who fundraised and donated the ambulance that brought Olivia and her soon-to-arrive son safely to the hospital that night.

“Each year builds upon the work of the years before so that the cumulative effect is much larger than what any one group of fellows does during their nine months,” Yergeau. “The full evolution shows the lasting impact the Minerva Fellows have had.”

Yergeau serves on the Engeye Board of Directors as vice president of education and chair of the scholars committee. She is also manager of digital advocacy and network capacity building at United Way Worldwide in Alexandria. Va.

Invaluable resources

No one ever doubted that sending graduating seniors to developing countries would change them. How could it not?

What was less predictable was the impact these young people would have.

“Ten years ago, I don’t think I realized how important the Minerva Fellows would become to the NGOs they work for,” said Tom McEvoy, associate dean of students and director of Minerva Programs.

Important, it turns out, is a bit of an understatement. Just ask Judy Wheeler, chairman of the board of the Global Child, which operates a safe-house and school for impoverished or orphaned street-children in Cambodia.

Before the NGO partnered with the Minerva Fellows Program, the school lacked teachers who could instruct its students and staff in written and conversational English, which isn’t part of the standard English curriculum offered in Cambodian public schools.

“In countries like Cambodia, English is a universal language and without it, you don’t go anywhere,” Wheeler said. “Recently, we had seven girls graduate from high school and they’ve all got full scholarships to universities and they all have jobs. Seventy-five percent of their success has to do with their English—the written and conversational English they learn from Minerva Fellows.”

“I can’t say enough about the fellows,” she added. “Without them, we feel we wouldn’t see our students having such success.”

The Global Child, founded in 2003, has been part of the Minerva program from the beginning. Since 2008, it’s hosted 20 fellows, 14 of which have been women. And while all fellows have been spectacular, having so many women has been particularly special.

“Women do most of the work in Cambodia but they are treated two steps behind men,” Wheeler said. “It’s really been great for our students to have young women like the fellows as mentors.”

Lauren and Gary Cohen, both Class of 1978, feel just as strongly about the importance of the fellows. One has worked with their NGO—the Gift of Hope—each year since 2011.

The Cohens established the Gift of Hope in 2006 to provide care for South African women and children infected with, and affected by, HIV. Partnering with local organizations like the Witkoppen Health and Welfare Centre (where fellows are stationed), the Gift of Hope offers services and programs to fill critical gaps in care in Durban and Johannesburg.

“To me, the fellows are an invaluable resource,” Lauren Cohen said. “They are my liaisons on the ground in South Africa. They provide a great deal of support to Witkoppen and care to its patients, and they help with programmatic efforts in my absence.”

One such effort is A Fresh Start, a new endeavor that provides care for mothers and infants for 18 months after birth. Offering all well care for each, from psychological and social support to nutrition and health education, it also performs repeated HIV testing for moms and babies.

Before A Fresh Start, Lauren Cohen said, mothers and babies couldn’t get care past 10 weeks (post-delivery) as a pair.

“Durban and Johannesburg are very under-resourced communities and the fellows are an excellent resource without any cost to the organization,” Cohen added. “They really miss the fellows when they’re not there three months of the year.”

 Winter  2018 table of contents