May 14, 2014

Honors students discover the world, themselves

By Undergraduate Academic Affairs

Students at UW achieve incredible individual accomplishments and successes. But part of a good education is becoming aware that no man is an island. Understanding the threads of the world’s tapestry—that threads are related to and impact each other—is core to the Honors Program’s curriculum. Learn how these five Honors students discovered the world and just how interconnected and global our lives truly are.

Jump to: Ashwin Nitin Karnik | Annah Mwendar | Justin Brown | Emily Nitz-Ritter | Shannon Keith

Ashwin Nitin Karnik

Photo of Ashwin Nitin Karnik

Ashwin, left, in a clinic in Panama, an experience that solidified his intent to become a doctor.

Ashwin’s resume defies belief: A pre-med triple major in neurobiology, biochemistry and medical anthropology, a founder of the UW Bollywood dance team, a henna artist, and a volunteer with multiple international organizations who has studied and served in Ecuador, Panama and India. Even more impressive is that, rather than arrogant about his accomplishments, he is realistic about his advantages.

“My international experiences made me appreciate the way I live at home,” he says. “This does not just mean having running water, toilet paper and junk food, but also having the right to education and safety from infectious disease, infanticide, and domestic violence, just a few large social issues I encountered during my international experiences.”

One of Ashwin’s most rewarding international experiences was visiting Mumbai, India. He has volunteered with CRY (Child Rights and You) since his sophomore year of high school and helped start a UW chapter as well, raising funds and awareness for the organization. In 2013, Ashwin and other UW CRY volunteers wanted to see first-hand how that money was being used, so they traveled to India to work directly with the CRY headquarters.

Ashwin recalls, “I was proud to see such incredible hope and determination in these children of my mother country. This trip helped me further understand my identity as an American-born Indian. It was also a very rare experience that showed me how history, corrupt politics, and capitalism has led to some of the worst health inequities in the world.” Ashwin will carry that experience with him, informing his medical training when he enters the University of Washington School of Medicine this fall.

Annah Mwendar

Photo of Annah Mwendar in cafe

Annah, second from left, and fellow students enjoy a very Parisian afternoon—in a cafe.

As a first-generation Kenyan-American, Annah often struggled with her cultural identity. Surprisingly, it was a study abroad in Paris where she came to a full realization of self—her “identity sweet spot,” as she puts it. Living abroad helped her fully realize that she was as American as anyone else, while also embracing experiences of being an African American and Kenyan as well.

Annah says that Paris is such an international hub of politics and academics that, as an international studies major, she grew academically and politically at an incredible rate. She recalls taking classes in French, and being exposed to different schools of thought, of attending a talk by the prime minister of the Ivory Coast and thinking, “I’m hearing this from the source. That’s so exciting!”

“My international experience has influenced every part of my life,” Annah says. “It’s been complicated growing up,” she explains. As an African American living in predominantly white communities, she sometimes felt like the odd one out. But learning and living in Paris “brought all the pieces together,” she says. “It helped me realize that I have a lot of privilege. I have a lot of opportunities to be a bridge of cultures.”

After graduation this spring with a degree in international studies, Annah heads to the other Washington for an internship with the State Department working on issues of educational and cultural engagement.

Justin Brown

Photo of Justin Brown

Enjoying the vista in Washington’s Olympic National Park.

Justin Brown loved the technical side of his mechanical engineering major but wanted more opportunities to help people. To do that, he joined the UW chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

“In other engineering clubs, students are building race cars and submarines, and those are incredible opportunities,” said Justin, “but Engineers Without Borders was something in which I could get this technical experience, while impacting lives in a direct and meaningful way.”

Now a senior set to graduate, he serves as the club’s president. So it might be surprising to learn that Justin remained stateside during his undergraduate career, but it was still shaped by international experiences.

The first club project Justin worked on was designing a fish hatchery in La Vega de Volcan, Guatemala. The residents of the rural, mountainous town needed a hatchery to be both a source of food and income. The challenge: redesign an unproductive hatchery into a productive one.

The UW Engineers Without Borders team took into account the technical issues as well as the local needs, challenges, and culture. Justin worked on the design and fluid calculations of the incubation system, and a small team went to Guatemala to implement the redesigns. Justin was committed to an engineering internship but even if he weren’t, the on-site team needs were specific (Spanish-speaker and a fish expert among them) and Justin’s skill set didn’t match. The project was a success, though, and the hatchery produced 25,000 fish in its first season—up from under 2,000 in previous years.

The group’s latest project is a more efficient and cleaner-burning cookstove for East Africa. Each year, more than 3 million people die from household air pollution. Justin’s task is to design a mechanically-powered air source for the stove that does not rely on electricity, batteries, or solar power.

In both projects, learning about the cultural and societal differences was imperative. Along with that came the understanding that, as different as people are, there are more similarities than we might think.

Justin will see cultural differences firsthand after graduation, on his first international trip. He and a friend will spend a month in Japan. When he returns, he’ll start work at Janicki Industries, an engineering firm in the Skagit Valley of Washington. One of the company’s primary projects has a very Engineers Without Borders feel—developing a power plant for developing countries that can run on sewage and human waste.

Emily Nitz-Ritter

Photo of Emily Nitz-Ritter

Emily Nitz-Ritter in Morocco.

Emily is graduating with degrees in English and comparative history of ideas. She participated in a study abroad to Morocco her junior year in 2012 through an Honors Program Exploration Seminar. In her final reflection, she wrote, “Morocco: not the place I had expected or anticipated or planned for. Me: not the person I had expected or anticipated or planned for.”

Emily elaborates, “I do not necessarily mean this as a ‘this experience changed my life, I would go back in a heartbeat’ way, but more along the lines of ‘this was really difficult and uncomfortable, and look at the kind of growth that arose as a result.’”

Emily notes that she is extremely grateful for the opportunity to study abroad, especially with such fantastic professors and peers in a dynamic setting. She also admits, “Was it all pleasant? No, not all of it. Was some of it absolutely unforgettable? No question.”

Emily plans to pursue further studies in education leadership and policy. Her experience in Morocco helped solidify her course. After being exposed to such a different educational system, she realized that educational philosophies are subjective and variable. She says, “I was compelled to re-examine my own perspective and to more intentionally develop goals for my own future in the field.”

More broadly, her international experience led to a fuller sense of self and place. As she wrote in her final reflection, “I am home now. But ‘home’ is wider and more complicated than when I left it, just like the rest of the world.”

Shannon Keith

Photo of Shannon Keith with her homestay mother in India.

Shannon Keith with her host mother in India.

While reading National Geographic as a child, Shannon Keith didn’t realize it, but her interest in international studies was being sparked by the pictures and articles of far-off places.

Shannon didn’t waste any time venturing to far-off places, either, and went on an Honors Program study abroad trip to Sierra Leone the summer after her freshman year. There, she conducted ethnographic research into local perceptions of school.

After her sophomore year, Shannon spent a summer in Uttarakhand, India, interning with an NGO and taking classes. She wrote in her Honors portfolio, “This trip is among my most transformative experiences because my close work with the NGO staff solidified my career goals of working in international development. In addition, our course material exposed me to inter-household dynamics between genders, a subject that I would eventually pursue in my honors thesis.”

Shannon discovered and solidified her academic interests on these trips—and she exhausted her travel funds. Her coursework was becoming more demanding, though, which led to international development opportunities in Seattle.

A requirement for international studies majors is participating in a task force, an intensive research and policy suggestion project. Shannon and a team of 15 other students researched the conflict in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and recommended a course of action for the U.S., presenting their findings to U.S. Congressman Adam Smith and Ambassador R. Barrie Walkley, special advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Shannon is currently interning with williamsworks, a Seattle-based international development consulting company, and learning about the business side of international development.

For her Honors thesis, Shannon is writing about women’s land rights in Rwanda. She characterizes the thesis process as “the most academically-challenging thing I’ve really taken on, but in a really good way…mostly.” But she adds, “I know I’m growing when I’m uncomfortable.”

Her variety of experiences have given Shannon a strong foundation and have also inspired more questions. Shannon says she thinks about “what my place is in this system, and what I’m responsible for. What can I really accomplish and what is right for me to do?”

She will continue to address those questions after graduation, as she works and eventually plans to earn a master’s degree in the field.

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