InterExchange Foundation Awards $27,000 to Five Ambitious Young Americans

5 minute read

From water sanitation in Laos to raising awareness of deaf communities in Italy—the October 2015 Christianson Fellowship recipients are a diverse bunch. Read on to learn about the service projects of these curious and compassionate young Americans.

Alysha Aziz


Image courtesy of Alysha.

Earning a degree in Community Health and conducting healthcare research as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa cemented Alysha Aziz’s desire to pursue a career in global health. She recently completed a nursing program at Yale University and will be traveling to Cape Town in February 2016 to assist Doctors Without Borders (MSF) with an HIV-prevention project. The pilot program entails providing HIV negative adolescents and women at high risk of HIV infection with pre-exposure prophylaxis (medicine that can help prevent HIV infection).

"By being actively involved in this project, I hope to spread the message to South Africans that the HIV pandemic is a global problem—one that requires united and passionate collaboration from the entire global community."

- Alysha Aziz

Ethan Faber


Image courtesy of Ethan.

"The mission of my project is to build the capacity of community members in Guatemala City Metropolitan Area and to reduce loss-of-life from small landslides through the use of a landslide risk evaluation form and low-cost and easily implementable mitigation techniques."

- Ethan Faber

Ethan Faber didn’t want to take the traditional route after studying engineering. Volunteering with Engineers Without Borders in Central America helped shape his desire to work directly in communities as opposed to securing an office job.

Faber is taking his skills and passion for helping others to Guatemala, one of the hardest hit countries for landslides. He’ll partner with Fundación Ecuménica Guatemalteca Esperanza y Franternidad (ESFRA), a non-profit based in Guatemala City, local municipalities and other organizations to bring his master’s thesis project to fruition—a landslide risk evaluation and mitigation plan.

Colleen O’Brien

Image courtesy of Colleen.

The InterExchange Foundation awarded Colleen O’Brien a $4,400 Christianson Fellowship for her project with Abundant Water, a non-profit that manufactures and distributes ceramic water filters, in Vientiane, Laos.

O’Brien will apply her civil engineering degree from the University of Southern California to assist in the design and manufacturing of water filters, and to help train local potters in filter making techniques. Only a small fraction of the water supply in Laos meets national standards for drinking water.

"It is difficult to imagine a world where entire days are spent collecting wood to boil and purify water, but this burden is a part of daily life for many communities in Laos."

- Colleen O'Brien

In addition to helping locals, O’Brien is excited to learn more about their culture.

“Acceptance plays a key role in Lao culture; they accept and cherish the gifts that are given to them—something as simple as water is considered a blessing to the people of Laos. I hope that during my time in Laos I can learn to better appreciate the gifts I often overlook in my own life.”

Rebecca Schneider

Image courtesy of Rebecca.

After volunteering for a few weeks in Ecuador in 2009 and 2014 rehabilitating wildlife and helping with reforestation efforts, Rebecca Schneider wanted to commit to a longer service project in this ecologically rich country. Working with the Arajuno Road Project (ARP) was the perfect fit for her background. Schneider has a degree in Natural History from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is a New York state licensed wildlife rehabilitator and led educational programs on wildlife conservation during her time at the Center for Science Teaching & Learning.

“The English program designed by Arajuno Road Project combines English basics with an emphasis on environmental themes to spark an interest in the sciences and conservation,” she says.

In addition to teaching, Rebecca is also starting a reforestation project in the indigenous community of San Ramon, where many people earn a living by clearing and selling lumber and/or raising cattle on land that’s been cleared. While the government is offering incentives to preserve the land, Schenider laments that the majority of residents are poor and don’t have time to register for these incentive programs.

“They just need someone with the time and energy to get them started. So after my teaching day is over, I spend time going to government offices to start reforestation projects and bring in volunteers to help re-plant trees.”

Sheila Xu

Image courtesy of Sheila.

Sheila Xu was born deaf to two hearing parents and received a Cochlear Implant at age three. She was forbidden from learning sign language due to the misconception that her oral English skills would deteriorate and recalls feeling isolated growing up in an all-hearing environment without any knowledge of sign language or Deaf culture and without deaf friends.

Xu’s life changed when she went to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT) and met deaf people fluent in American Sign Language (ASL). She credits this deaf community for helping her become more comfortable with her burgeoning deaf identity and to see her deafness as an asset rather than a disability. Xu went on to recruit deaf students for MIT, established a pilot ASL and Deaf culture class at the Institute and received a fellowship to research the Deaf economy.

"My dream is to create opportunities for global deaf communities to raise awareness, preserve their language/culture, advance their educational and economic opportunities and promote their right to quality of life, so that they can enjoy the social, economic and educational privileges I have experienced in the US."

- Sheila Xu

While backpacking through Europe and delivering lectures at two deaf-related conferences, Xu witnessed the lack of public services and rights for the Deaf population in Italy.

“I was saddened to see the experiences of many of my deaf Italian friends in their struggles to search for employment or secure at least one sign language interpreter for one college course,” she says.

This experience inspired her to reach out to the Department of Linguistics and Comparative Cultural Studies at Ca’Foscari University and local non-profits to create community development initiatives to help the deaf in Veneto Province and raise awareness about the deaf community. Xu will teach English and ASL, two courses that have never been offered to the deaf in the region before.

“Compared to their hearing counterparts, the deaf are one of the most underserved minority populations in the world. They are much less likely to be employed and educated due to discrimination, lack of awareness or lack of support infrastructure.”

Xu’s service project is an important step in her journey to becoming a leader and advocate for the deaf population around the world.

Ashley Lulling By

After earning a M.A. in Diplomacy & International Relations and teaching English in South Korea, Ashley joined InterExchange to promote cross-cultural understanding and help others have amazing experiences abroad.

U.S. Department of State-Designated J-1 Visa Sponsor
Alliance for International Exchange
The International Coalition for Global Education and Exchange
European-American Chamber of Commerce New York
Global Ties U.S.
International Au Pair Association
WYSE Travel Confederation