Last summer, Aida Choudhury, ’15, went to bed each night under a mosquito net. She fell asleep to the sound of zebras trotting through the yard and woke up each morning to an ostrich calling out at dawn to his mate.
“The boundaries of my comfort zone could be stretched much further than I ever thought,” says Choudhury. “There wasn’t a proper ceiling over my head, locks on the windows, or clean water in the faucets.”
Choudhury was living in tiny village in Zambia, about six hours from the nearest city. A summer fellowship brought her there to work with the School Club Zambia (SCZ), a nonprofit that sets up small enterprises at community schools throughout Zambia. Many of the country’s schools receive little to no funding from the government, and SCZ helps them generate enough income to pay teacher salaries, build classrooms, buy books and supplies, and offer a high-quality education.
“My goal with this internship was to learn about access to education and how it could be made available to extremely vulnerable and isolated populations,” Choudhury says. “At the heart of SCZ’s aim is to ensure that as many Zambian children as possible have a chance at a quality education.”
The internship counted as a half-credit course for Choudhury’s minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS). And she’s currently using the insights she gained as she finishes a senior thesis on why the public school system in her birth country of Bangladesh is failing.
International development — particularly in education — became a focus area for Choudhury during her time studying abroad in 2013. She enrolled at the University of Cape Town in South Africa through the Council on International Educational Exchange, a Richmond affiliate program. The program consisted of classes on poverty and development and service-learning experiences.
Choudhury had gravitated toward South Africa because of the country’s history of shaping world thinkers like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
After a tour of several service sites, she opted to volunteer as a teacher’s assistant in a class of 50 third graders at Manenberg Primary School. The school serves an impoverished township that’s no stranger to gang violence and drug abuse as it continues to struggle in the decades after apartheid.
Choudhury spent three days a week providing literacy tutoring to struggling students at Manenberg. But she also began to think about how she could have a lasting impact even after her time there. That’s when she set her sites on the playground.
The dilapidated jungle gyms and swing sets hardly made for an inviting recess. The playground was often vandalized and a site for illegal activity after nightfall.
In such a stressful environment, Choudhury wanted to provide a long-term solution that gave students a safe and well-maintained outlet for play. She started reaching out to fencing companies to secure the playground and got one enthusiastic reply for a group to donate and install fencing that could not be cut, climbed, or even penetrated by gunfire. Then came the painting and the crowdfunding through indiegogo.com, which raised around $1,500 for new equipment.
The school ultimately won a grant form the South African Department of Education to install similar fencing around the entire school. And the site coordinators sent Choudhury pictures of the smiling kids enjoying her handiwork.
“The most important part of my experience in South Africa will always be the playground at Manenberg Primary School,” Choudhury says. “I knew I wanted to work in international development but this helped me realize my dreams and my potential in a way that just wasn't possible in a classroom.”