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.