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Sylvie Do-Vu '19C

Sylvie Do-Vu

Returning to St. John’s University’s Queens, NY, campus after spending two and a half months in Tanzania was a huge perspective shift for Sylvie Do-Vu. “I hear people complaining about walking to class from the bus stop on the corner and I think, ‘My students had to walk two hours each way to get to school,’” she said.

Sylvie, a Sociology major who will graduate in 2019, completed an internship with the Indigenous Education Foundation of Tanzania (IEFTZ), an organization that works to achieve sustainable community development through high-quality, community-based education. She taught English and music at the Orkeeswa School, a community-based secondary school located in Orkeeswa Village, an underserved Maasai community in rural Tanzania. The school serves four villages, covering an area of approximately 32 square kilometers with a total population of more than 10,000 individuals. Founded in 2008, the Orkeeswa School is the only opportunity for most students in the region to continue their education beyond the primary level.

A Jeanette K. Watson Fellowship sponsored Sylvie’s travel for the trip. As a Watson fellow, she will complete three summers of self-initiated internships funded by the Watson Foundation. Last summer, she interned with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, where she gained valuable experience working with government and nonprofit organizations. But she knew she wanted to do something different for summer 2017 and have an international experience. “I was always behind a desk at the Department of Cultural Affairs,” Sylvie said. “I knew I wanted to interact more with people.”

She had always wanted to travel to Africa, so she approached Konrad Tuchscherer, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History, Director of the Africana Studies Interdisciplinary Minor and Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship advisor, for recommendations of African organizations to which she could apply for internships. She applied to several, and was pleased to accept an internship offer from IEFTZ because of the organization’s commitment to providing education to youth, especially girls, within the Maasai culture.

Before beginning her experience in Tanzania, Sylvie traveled with Dr. Tuchscherer and five other St. John’s students to Cameroon in May 2017. She then joined both Tanzanian and international teachers at Orkeeswa School from June to August, and stayed in a volunteer house for the school’s international staff. “It was nerve-wracking at first,” she said. “I was disoriented waking up every morning and realizing I was on a different continent, but everyone was so welcoming. There is a Swahili word, karibu, which means welcome. People would say that to me all the time as I walked past and meant not only ‘welcome to Tanzania,’ but also to invite me into their homes and share their meals.”

Though she started teaching English, Sylvie quickly realized that she had more knowledge and skills to share with the students. The school had a music room where some of the students would experiment with instruments, though they lacked formal music instruction. Sylvie, an accomplished pianist from the age of five, took over music education for the school. “It was wonderful to provide the students who were interested in music with a knowledge base as foundation,” she said. “I was able to teach them some techniques and music theory that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

To help the students achieve their academic goals, Sylvie also organized fundraising for a bike share project. Orkeeswa students have to travel a long distance to get to school each day, which requires up to a two-hour walk each way. By the time they arrive home, it is often dark, which puts their safety at risk and makes it difficult to do their homework if their family doesn’t own enough solar lamps. Orkeeswa had some donated bicycles, but due to the area’s rough terrain and the lack of storage space, the bikes were mostly unusable. Through the fundraising website CrowdRise, Sylvie reached out to family and friends back home and raised $3,000 to fix, paint, and store the bicycles for students to use.

Other memorable experiences from Sylvie’s time in Tanzania include “Boma visits” to students’ homes. Bomas are traditional Maasai houses made of mud and sticks, and it is customary for teachers to visit students’ homes and share a meal. One of the student’s mothers also comes regularly to the school to cook lunch for the students and staff. Since most of the Maasai are subsistence farmers, the local dishes consist mostly of carbohydrates like rice, beans, and potatoes, but Sylvie would also visit the Thursday and Sunday markets in Orkeeswa Village, where women sell vegetables they have grown.

Sylvie applied for the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship as a freshman at St. John’s. She was nervous about moving to New York City from her hometown of Anaheim, CA, and wanted to find an organization she could belong to on campus. “I felt like I really needed to step up my game and make the most of my college experience, so I decided to give the Watson Fellowship a chance,” she said.

After two rounds of interviews, she was one of 15 students chosen from New York as part of the J. K. Watson Class of 2018 cohort. The program aims to develop young leaders professionally, personally, and culturally by sponsoring internships, holding weekly workshops, and engaging participants in cultural events throughout New York City. So far, the J. K. Watson Fellowship has provided Sylvie with the niche she was looking for when she applied. “The fellows are such a great resource and support for each other,” she said. “It’s such a diverse cohort, but Watson is what unites us.”

“Sylvie is adept in creating horizontal mineshafts between and among disciplines, connecting anthropology with history, languages with psychology, and above all theory with experience,” said Dr. Tuchscherer. “This makes her an ideal Watson Fellow. She is fearless. Her experiences this summer in Cameroon and Tanzania have given her the opportunity to use her education to tackle real-world problems such as challenges faced by women in the rural marketplace, childhood education, and cultural preservation.”

Sylvie hopes to return to Tanzania, perhaps to teach for a full year, but she isn’t sure yet what her third Watson summer internship will be. Thanks to her experiences, she is strongly considering a future career in nonprofit development.