Twelve years ago, when Princeton-in-Africa was still only an idea, co-founder and current PiAf board chairman George Hritz ’69 discovered that things have a way of working out.
At the time, Hritz, a longtime board member of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), was working to place Renee Hsia ’99 in a summer internship in Bosnia. But NATO bombing in the area prompted a change of plans, and the IRC switched Hsia’s assignment to a health clinic in Rwanda. Hritz asked Hsia if she spoke French, one of the country’s official languages.
“I do,” she said.
Hritz subsequently learned that the clinic doctors were sponsored by the Chinese government, and that all but one of them were Chinese.
“It’s OK,” Hsia assured Hritz. “I also speak Mandarin and Cantonese.”
And so Hsia spent the summer in Rwanda making the rounds with a dozen Chinese doctors, and became, in essence, among the first Princeton-in-Africa “fellows,” even before the program officially was up and running.
For several years before that, summer interns had been sent to Africa as part of the Class of 1969 Community Service Fund. The response from the IRC to their Princeton summer interns: We want them for a full year!
In 1999, about the time of the 100th anniversary of Princeton-in-Asia, a team including Hritz; Jim Floyd ’69; Paula Chow, director of the International Center; Jeffrey Herbst ’83, former chairman of the politics department; Howard Ende, then the University’s general counsel; former dean of students Andy Brown ’69; and the Rev. Frank Strasburger ’67 gathered to ask the question: Shouldn’t there also be a Princeton-in-Africa program?
“One of the reasons that I got involved in founding PiAf was to give an opportunity to black students to become involved in Africa — something that [former assistant dean] Carl Fields had hoped to do 40 years ago,” Floyd said.
Hritz added that he was a scholarship student in college. “We wanted to level the playing field and give all students a chance to get to see Africa and contribute something there, not just students whose parents could pay for them to take a trip,” he said.
The program officially launched in 2000 with four yearlong fellows. As PiAf celebrates its 10th anniversary, 25 fellows have been placed this year in 16 countries. Areas of work range from humanitarian aid to public health to social entrepreneurship. There are more than 200 PiAf alumni, and the program opened its application process for the first time this year to students from schools other than Princeton.
Adrienne Clermont ’09 works for the U.N. World Food Programme in Cotonou, Benin. “In the U.N. system, entry-level positions are incredibly difficult to obtain,” said Clermont, who serves as an assistant program officer. “Without PiAf, there is no way I would have gotten a position like the one I have now.”
Whitney Williams ’09 views her time in Africa as a critical supplement to the education she received at Princeton. She works in Lesotho for the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative and is developing a curriculum on sexual and relationship violence for teens. Williams recalled how a village chief told her that she must become fluent in Sesotho and learn to hoe a field in order to be an eligible wife for his son.
“Living in Africa is almost the biggest contrast you can make to living in Princeton,” Williams said. “After spending years in that bubble, I think that living so differently is one of the best things someone can do for himself or herself.”
One important achievement in the development of Princeton-in-Africa is that this past year, for the first time, the program placed a fellow with an organization that was founded by a PiAf alumnus, Oliver Barry ’05.
Barry, now a Yale Medical School student, spent his first year after graduating from Princeton helping to manage AIDS testing and treatment campaigns for the organization Africare in Lusaka, Zambia. While there, he noticed that the cost of secondary schooling in Zambia rises steeply after primary school, causing a huge dropout rate following seventh grade.
In response, Barry helped create the Kucetekela Foundation, a scholarship program to help high-achieving seventh-graders earn placement at private boarding schools. This past year, Kucetekela provided 26 students with scholarships.
Barry noted that his connection to Africa did not end with the conclusion of his PiAf fellowship. It has continued both in his work with the Kucetekela Foundation and in his medical school research. “The impact of Princeton-in-Africa isn’t just that I went to Africa,” he said. “It’s that Africa will continue to be part of my life and career.”
Hsia today is an emergency-room doctor who lives in San Francisco. She still thinks about her time in Rwanda; the experience that stands out is a visit on her second day in the country to Nymata, a site of mass killings during the country’s 1994 genocide.
During the visit, Hsia talked with a young girl who had survived the genocide but was left with a six-inch scar on the left side of her head. Hsia asked the girl if she had any brothers or sisters. The response, Hsia said, was a tragically common one: “I did,” the girl said.
“You couldn’t not be changed by an experience like that,” Hsia said. “It opens your eyes to the reality that there’s a lot of pain in the world — and it motivates you to believe that doing nothing is not an option.”