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The 2015 Harpur Fellows reach out to Kenya, Haiti, Egypt

By Haley Silverstein, Eleanor Krasner and Maureen Mullarkey

Harpur Fellows do more than design a project that serves the community: They change the lives of people of all ages.

"The Harpur Fellows program gives our students the opportunity to explore their academic and cultural interests through sustained engagement with communities nationally and internationally," says Doug Jones, an assistant dean of undergraduate studies who oversees the program. "The program attracts some of our best and most motivated undergraduates in the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities."

The program, made possible by the support of Harpur alumni, provides students with the means to pursue an interest that is not possible through an on-campus academic program. Fellowship recipients receive up to $4,000 to pursue their project, which usually takes place over the summer. Past recipients have worked in areas of New York such as Brooklyn and Skaneateles, and overseas in countries such as China, Belarus, Tajikistan and Nigeria.

"This year's fellows hold a range of interests, from children's education to breast-cancer research, and will apply their skills to the betterment of communities as far afield as Haiti and Kenya," Jones says. "Harpur Fellows return to Binghamton having gained first-hand experience and prepared to contribute in integral ways to the intellectual life of our University."


Lynn Mugodo

Lynn Mugodo

Project: Lending a Hand to the St. Jude Education Centre

Year/majors: Spring 2015 graduate/political science and philosophy, politics and law

Hometown: Nairobi, Kenya

Lynn Mugodo was 14 years old and living in Nairobi, Kenya, when flames engulfed the cities, violence soared and bloodshed swept the country after the contested 2007 presidential elections.

"On my birthday, they announced [the election results] and havoc broke loose," Mugodo says. "You could not leave the house. It was really bad. That was the experience that made me think, 'I want to focus on human rights. I want to be able to help people.'"

Over the summer, Mugodo returned to Western Kenya — to her mother's rural village of Chakol — as a Harpur Fellow. There she taught an after-school poetry class to children at the local school.

"I chose a poetry program because I wanted to help the kids improve on their English, but not in an academic way because Kenya's education system is very intensive in terms of academics," she says.

Mugodo, now pursuing her master's degree in public administration, used some of the funding she received as a fellow to build an additional classroom.

"The village where my mom is from still needs a lot of development," Mugodo says. "There's a women's group there called the Daughters of St. Jude and (it) basically started the school for underprivileged children."

Only a handful of the school's 200 children can afford to pay the tuition. As a result, many of the building projects have remained unfinished.

Mugodo says being a Harpur Fellow "feels like the first major step in the right direction with humanitarian work."

"What I want to do in the future is help women and children in rural areas with sustainability," she says. "That's why I chose this project. I also strongly believe in being a positive role model for children. I think all children need that, especially if they're going through tough times in life or they're not from a privileged background. So for me to be able to do that for children, I think that's one of the best things you can give back as an older person."


Briana Renois

Briana Renois

Project: Project K

Year/major: Junior/sociology

Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.

Alone and gripping a basket of oranges, a little girl approached Briana Renois outside the gates of a Haitian hospital begging for money. At that moment, Renois knew she wanted to make a change.

"She was no older than 8, and needed money for medical fees," Renois says. The Haitian native says that she regularly encountered these upsetting situations as a child.
Nine years and countless life experiences later, Renois, a junior who spent the second half of her youth in Brooklyn, N.Y., returned to her native country to make the difference she has dreamed of.

Renois, a sociology major and Africana studies minor, has been recognized as a Harpur Fellow. As a result, she will receive the support to pursue a meaningful interest through a self-designed project.

Titled "Project K" (The "K" standing for "kids"), Renois' mission involved organizing a summer educational program for children in Mariani, an extremely poor and densely populated area of Haiti.

"In Mariani, there's a local community center for children unable to afford school, but its low budget prevents it from remaining open in the summer," Renois says. "With the center closed, no one's feeding these kids and they'll forget what they're learning!"

Renois, with the help of local volunteer teachers, devoted her summer to teaching children several academic subjects, including English, geography and mathematics. As a licensed practical nurse passionate about health and wellness, Renois also led sessions focusing on healthy living and coping with anxiety.

"I've always envisioned having a non-profit organization, and Project K will kind of function like that," she says.

Not only did Renois provide school supplies and hygiene kits, but also daily lunches and snacks to the more than 50 children registered for the program.

"Project K" does not represent Renois' first endeavor to advocate for healthy living or reach out to impoverished groups. On campus, she serves on the Health Advisory Committee and the Poverty Awareness Coalition.

To Renois, being a Harpur Fellow means giving back to her community.

"When I lived in Haiti, I was too young to do anything beneficial," Renois says. "Now, Binghamton (has given) me an opportunity to return as an adult with money, resources and the ability to have a direct impact."


Walaa Ahmed

Walaa Ahmed

Project: Hindrance of Early Detection Breast Cancer

Year/major: Spring 2015 graduate/biology

Hometown: Queens, N.Y.

Breast cancer has had an impact on Walaa Ahmed's life.

Ahmed's grandmother, aunt and most recently, her mother, have all been diagnosed with breast cancer. Her aunt lost the battle.

"My grandma knew what she had to do and saw doctors for treatment, whereas my aunt didn't know what to do," Ahmed says. "I've seen both sides of it and I've seen how much education can really make a difference."

Ahmed, from Queens, N.Y., was born in Alexandria, Egypt. The Harpur Fellow recipient returned to Alexandria over the summer as part of her project: "Hindrance of Early Detection Breast Cancer." While working with oncologist Dr. Alaa Kandil at the University Hospital of the Alexandria School of Medicine, Ahmed conducted breast cancer prevention workshops for women who either had a breast exam or were recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

"Breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in Egyptian women," Ahmed says. "Sixty-five to 75 percent of cases are advanced stages. I thought: If it's so prevalent, why aren't the percentages of advanced stage cases much lower?"

To answer this question, Ahmed conducted questionnaires at the end of her workshops. She will present her findings in the fall at Binghamton University.

"I don't want this to be just a summer thing," she says about her Harpur Fellows project. "I talked to other health centers and hospitals in Alexandria to see if they'd want to keep my workshop after I leave. Women (in Egypt) don't have a place where they can talk openly about issues or talk about something they feel insecure about. It will be a safe zone, and I feel like all women need that."

After Binghamton University, Ahmed plans to attend medical school. She served as a research assistant for two years under biology Professor Karin Sauer and worked as an intern at UHS Wilson Medical Center in Johnson City.

"There's a much bigger component to being a doctor than just knowing what you have to do," she says. "When you become a doctor you take an oath to help people no matter what, to be there for them and support them."

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Last Updated: 3/1/17