by Tom Parisi
A reunion between NIU professor Kurt Thurmaier and an old college friend has resulted in the first-ever NIU Study Abroad program to Tanzania, where students this summer will help build a high school dormitory for girls and learn about the workings of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Thurmaier, a professor of public administration, visited Tanzania last year with his wife, Jeanine, and reunited with their friend, the Rev. Leo Kazeri. The parish priest serves as development director for the diocese, director of a secular economic development organization and business manager for a secondary boarding school with an enrollment of 500 students.
Kazeri and Kurt Thurmaier had met years ago, when they both were working toward their public administration degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Seeing the substantial work that the priest is accomplishing and the great need that remains in the region was a life-changing experience for the Thurmaiers.
“There is so much need in so many ways in one place,” Kurt Thurmaier says.
“At the same time, the generosity of the average person there is just overwhelming. So you have this contrast between abundant need and abundant generosity. It’s a paradox that makes you say to yourself, ‘The world is different than I thought it was.’ ”
The experience prompted Thurmaier to initiate the Study Abroad program, which will run from June 1 through June 28. Nine undergraduates and graduate students already are signed up.
During the program, students will learn about non-governmental organizations in developing countries and about the government and politics of Tanzania and the East African Union. They will work to develop marketing plans with entrepreneurial women’s groups.
They also will join forces with a volunteer group led by Jeanine Thurmaier and help build the new dormitory for high school girls in the small village of Nyegina.
The service group is organized through Tanzania Development Support, a nonprofit organization created in 2008 by the Thurmaiers and friends to raise funds for the dormitory and other needs. Future projects and study abroad groups will enhance the school library and equip chemistry, physics and computer labs as well.
“The single most effective way to fight poverty is to provide secondary education to young women,” Kurt Thurmaier says. “That’s true in the United States as well as in developing nations.
“A woman who has a high school education is more likely to choose a better mate, have fewer children and have a higher income, and her children are more likely to meet higher health measures,” he adds. “In other words, the household has a better chance to succeed.”
The study abroad program is open to all students. Under several enrollment options, a student can receive three to six undergraduate or graduate credit hours.
“I think we can learn firsthand how NGOs work and make a difference in a community,” says Lucy Carter Smith, a student in the Master of Public Administration program who is participating in the study abroad adventure.
“Then we’re going to help bring the school to another level,” she adds. “I’m excited about that. What I would really like to do is come back and do something similar in an area of the United States that needs help.”
Thurmaier said the experiential learning component of the study abroad program taps a strong desire of students today to contribute to society through volunteerism.
“It’s not just study abroad, where students go and look, but where they go and look and do,” Thurmaier says. “Students can experience a different culture and leave knowing they’ve made a lasting contribution.”
Of course, there will be time to take in the considerable sights of Tanzania.
The Study Abroad experience will include an overnight camping trip and safari to the Serengeti during the wildebeest migration. Students also will take a trip to the island of Zanzibar for tours of the spice markets and slave market historical sites.
“Kurt is a very dynamic and enthusiastic program director,” says Anne Seitzinger, assistant director of the Study Abroad Office. “I’m quite sure this is going to be an amazing program for everyone involved.”
In addition to running the study abroad program, Thurmaier is leading fundraising efforts to pay for construction materials for the girls’ dormitory.
So far, $30,000, or 75 percent of the goal, has already been raised. Those wishing to make a contribution can write a check to Tanzania Development Support NFP, 201 Thornbrook Road, DeKalb, Ill., or contact Thurmaier via e-mail at TDSNFP@hotmail.com.