* This post was first published on the Ashoka Start Empathy Blog on April 7, 2014.
One of my most vivid memories from my early childhood comes from a family trip to Costa Rica. I remember checking into our hotel that provided the many luxuries I was accustomed to in the US, and climbing the steps to our second floor room with a balcony view of the city. Expecting the view to be as lovely as the hotel, I was shocked to look out and see endless rows of shantytown homes made of assorted pieces of scrap metal and plastic tarps. It was a bustling area with people moving in and out of the homes, selling goods on the street, and running their errands. I couldn’t imagine that many of these people I was seeing had to live in these deplorable conditions. To a ten year old American, their homes looked like something I might build in my backyard for fun, but were unimaginable to actually call these a home where people lived. I remember feeling deeply saddened by this sight and also guilty for looking down at it from my nice hotel balcony, and the eventual thought of leaving here to return to my family’s large, four bedroom home.
I believe this is one of my earliest memories of feeling empathy towards others and it greatly shaped my life. Starting in middle school and continuing through high school, I volunteered regularly in my community and largely with organizations addressing the needs of Latino migrant workers. I immediately connected with this cause because the image of poor living conditions in Costa Rica remained with me, and I understood why many of the people we served made the tough decision to leave their homes in search of better conditions. In college and later in graduate school, I studied international development so that I would have the skills and knowledge to contribute towards addressing the many social injustices in the world. And, I have followed a career path that has lead me to several amazing jobs in non-profits in the US and in Latin America.
I consider myself very fortunate for the opportunity to take a trip to Costa Rica. It is rare for someone at such a young age to have already had an experience that so greatly shaped not only their personal values, but also their education and career track. I wasn’t that student who entered college undeclared or who changed their major each semester. I was lucky that my parents valued cultural awareness and international experiences, and had the financial means to provide me the opportunity to travel abroad when I was still just in elementary school. This is an experience that most youth are not afforded until college, and even then, it is limited by financial constraints. So, how do we provide our youth with similar exposure to international issues, especially the extremities of the developing world, when not everyone has the means to travel?
The internet is an easy and obvious answer. But, google-ing images of foreign places and reading the news are not going to address this gap between those who can and those who cannot have international experiences. Instead, young people need to feel connected to a different country that pushes them outside of their comfort zone. This means interacting with the people, hearing directly from them the conditions and daily livelihood of their countries, sharing experiences and knowledge, and ultimately finding ways to use that exposure to take action and make an impact in addressing these issues. While the ideal situation would be for every young person to get the experience to spend time abroad, this is not realistic. But, with structured curriculum and mentoring, we can still provide a similar opportunity using the internet.
I work with a Maryland based non-profit called e-collaborate that connects high school students to NGOs all over the developing world through a virtual internship. Students interact directly with the staff at their assigned NGO through Skype calls, instant messaging, and email. They conduct background research on their country of placement to gain an understanding of the issues that the NGO is addressing and the population that they are serving. The personal connection and interaction, in addition to the exposure, is the key to building empathy. So far, the students and the NGO staff have hit it off instantly. This is complemented with the student making an impact by completing meaningful work assignments that support the goals of the NGO. For example, one student made a short film for an organization in Egypt that explains the work that they do, which will be used to attract more visitors and potential donors to their website. Another student is researching and writing articles for Fair Trade blogs to help increase the profile of an organization in Guatemala that works with women weavers. These experiences not only expose students to the issues of the developing world, but give them the opportunity and the skills to make a difference.
It is our goal that this experience empowers youth to continue exploring inequalities and finding ways to address the injustices around the world. Hopefully, by being engaged virtually, this will encourage young people to also volunteer in-person in their own communities and to develop a life-long sense of service. While not everyone will chose to study these issues in college or to pursue a career in it like I did, it will make them more empathetic to others around them and foster global citizenship that understands and embraces the different conditions, cultures, and beliefs in the world. With this, we will hope for a more just and peaceful world; and it is our responsibility to level the playing field so that all young people have the opportunity to have such meaningful and rich experiences to shape their lives and build their character.