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My Year in the Warm Heart: Reflections from a Malawi Graduate Fellow

By Lauren Durnwald

In the fall semester of my senior year, I found myself in the place so many students do: wondering how I would apply what I had learned over the past four years to a world beyond the university. As a student in the Human Rights Studies (HRS) program, my post-graduate path was more ambiguous than that of many of my fellow students pursuing conventional degrees. While the ambiguity of human rights education is an asset in allowing students in the program to pursue a breadth of careers within the field; at the time, I was overwhelmed by the uncertain trajectory of my future. It was when I learned about the Malawi Graduate Fellowship that my hazy future, for the first time, began to take shape. 

The fellowship encompasses a year-long program officer position with Determined to Develop NGO (D2D) in Malawi, Africa followed by enrolment in graduate school at UD while working as a Graduate Assistant in the Human Rights Center (HRC). The combination of international experience and a Master’s degree is an invaluable opportunity for a person pursuing the path of international development. 

I had heard UD alum and founder of D2D, Matt Maroon, speak about the organization on a couple occasions. I was impressed by the breadth of the impact the grassroots NGO had made since its inception in 2009. One thing I admired about D2D was its bottom-up approach, working with the community in which it is situated to establish and continue its mission: “to empower, through education, the people of Malawi to become agents of development for their families, communities, country, and world.” When I was offered the position as Malawi Graduate Fellow, I was thrilled about the path that lay ahead. 

Prior to my departure, the prospect of spending a year away from home was daunting. My excitement at the chance to participate in development work in an unfamiliar culture, however, far surpassed my fears of homesickness. I had learned of Malawi’s reputation as the “Warm Heart of Africa” owing to the friendly and welcoming nature of its population. While this sentiment is obviously an overgeneralization of the richness and multifaceted nature of the Malawian people, I felt it in the warmth that exuded from the people I met upon arriving in country, within and outside of D2D. This quality is not one that dissipated with time, but rather, became more meaningful as my appreciation of the place deepened.

It was not just the country itself that made my time in Malawi meaningful, but also my position as a program officer. Among my responsibilities were maintaining media and donor relations and assisting with D2D’s ongoing programs, primarily Girls’ Empowerment. It was this part of my job that was the most challenging and rewarding. One of the primary initiatives within the Girls’ Empowerment Program is Girls Club, an after-school life skills program for primary and secondary (high school) girls. School dropout is prevalent among Malawian girls, as they often face pressures of early marriage and pregnancy. Girls Club encourages its members to stay in school by promoting life-skills including self-esteem, healthy decision making, personal hygiene, and HIV/AIDS education, among others. Alongside the Malawian Girls’ Empowerment Program Officer, I facilitated Girls Club lessons, steadily growing in my own confidence as an instructor as I encouraged the girls to build theirs. 

It is difficult to put into a brief blog post all that I gained from my year in Malawi. I was exposed to the inner-workings and challenges of a small grassroots nonprofit, worked through cultural and language differences, and formed lasting friendships. My rich experiences and deepened worldview, which will prepare me for a future in continued development work, are things for which I am eternally grateful. I thank D2D and the University of Dayton for offering me this unique opportunity for personal and professional enrichment. 

In my return to UD as a GA this fall, I will continue to strengthen the HRC-D2D partnership through the Malawi Undergraduate Research Practicum, Malawi Graduate Fellowship, and related initiatives. 

To learn more about the Malawi Graduate Fellowship visit our website

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