Growing up in bucolic Walnut Creek, Calif., a suburb of San Fran­cisco, Esther Chou never lost sight of how priv­i­leged her life was: She didn’t go to bed hungry; she didn’t have to worry about genocide.

But, empa­thetic from an early age, she wor­ried anyway about those who were less for­tu­nate than she, many of them worlds away. She vol­un­teered in soup kitchens and hos­pi­tals in her com­mu­nity to be of ser­vice to others.

Then, Chou says, “I read an article about AIDS in Africa. I became really inter­ested in what was hap­pening on that con­ti­nent. I remember feeling really insignif­i­cant, like I needed to do something.

That was my first calling to Africa.”

The inter­na­tional affairs and eco­nomics major answered that call with two con­sec­u­tive co-​​op posi­tions in Zambia, which lasted from Jan­uary to December 2006.

Working first for San Francisco–based FORGE, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion that aids dis­placed com­mu­ni­ties in Africa, she met daily with refugees who had fled from war-​​torn home­lands to safe refugee camps in Zambia.

We helped some of the poorest refugees go to work for them­selves,” she says. In col­lab­o­ra­tion with North­eastern aca­d­emic spe­cialist Dennis Shaughnessy—an expert in fos­tering entre­pre­neur­ship, inno­va­tion and microloans in poor countries—Chou taught refugees how to use simple busi­ness plans to better their lot.

She says, “We ini­ti­ated a lot of microloans on behalf of farmers, helping them grow and sell crops. Most recip­i­ents of our loans were able to pay them back and earn a small income for themselves.”

In a second co-​​op posi­tion, Chou helped resettle some of the most des­perate refugees. She says “Chris,” a Tutsi who escaped the Rwandan geno­cide, is someone she will never forget.

Chris was in his 50s, very well-​​educated in both Eng­lish and French lit­er­a­ture,” Chou says. “He had a beau­tiful wife and chil­dren and, through hor­rible cir­cum­stance, was lan­guishing in a refugee camp.” After a series of inter­views with him, Chou was able to help Chris and his family find a new home in Den­mark. She was able to aid other can­di­dates for asylum as well.

Helping Chris begin a safer life was one of the most rewarding aspects of her inter­na­tional co-​​op posi­tion, she says.

His story really stood out to me,” says Chou. “He couldn’t return to his home­land because he was a wit­ness to the geno­cide, so his family actu­ally walked from Rwanda to Zambia,” stop­ping at refugee camps along the way.

Chou’s expe­ri­ence in Zambia only under­scored her desire to work on behalf of the under­priv­i­leged. She cur­rently works at Northeastern’s Social Enter­prise Insti­tute, which teaches stu­dents about social entre­pre­neur­ship, and plans to go on to study con­flict res­o­lu­tion in grad school.