Testimonials

testimonial_swanson

"Through my experience at CRS I learned how important it is to have a good working team, like the one at CRS/East Timor, to make positive changes in the community. I learned how much more effective participatory methods are when running workshops or dialogues. Watching a lecture-style workshop is almost painful because of the lack of enthusiasm among the participants, versus an uplifting and inspiring participatory workshop where everyone is engaged." - Laura Swanson, Class of 2006

easttimorJanuary 16: I made it through the Sydney airport in one piece. I didn’t get lost in the Darwin airport either, which is about one twenty-seventh the size of the Sydney airport. But somehow, in the two-room airport of Dili, East Timor, I managed to get lost three times. Needless to say, East Timor is very different from anything I have ever experienced- which, in the way of overseas travel, isn't much.

Flying into Timor was amazing. Surrounding our tiny, twenty-seat propeller plane was every kind of cloud imaginable, intricately layered around the jagged, green mountains of Timor. Half an hour later, after I had repeatedly embarrassed myself just walking from the tarmac to the airport exit, I met Katherine, the acting country director of CRS, who had thought I wasn't coming because I was the very last person to reach the exit. We walked through the thick, hot air to the CRS SUV and Katherine introduced me to the insanity of the third world.

I share a house with two other women. Sally works for Inter-News, a radio/media NGO and Amy works for AUSCARE, an Australian aid agency. Both of them are wonderful. Although I am a little sorry I am not in a home-stay, I do appreciate the security, privacy, plumbing and electricity of this house. We have pets, too. A family of dogs lives on our porch- mom, dad and three puppies (there were five when I got here last week, but life expectancy is not too high for small animals around here.) They are really cute and are getting much more comfortable around us. They act as very reliable guard dogs at all times of the day, which is a greater security-enhancer.

We have two mice that share our kitchen. They're the fastest mice I've ever seen. I thought one of them was running across the floor in front of me as I was typing this a second ago until I realized that it was a cockroach- the first one I've come across in the house so far. We have geckos that run around the porch walls and sometimes behind my suitcase in my room. Thousands of nasty, tiny ants are everywhere, along with larger ones that are red and look like they have beaks. Finally, we have huge baseball-sized moths.

Our neighborhood, along with the rest of Dili is full of pigs, chickens and goats of all different colors and sizes. They hang out in the middle of the road usually, although Katherine told me they're supposed to be tethered. I'm glad I don't have to drive here because the roads are all very confusing. The Portuguese created a very strange system of one-way streets. So, not only do the drivers have to know which direction to drive (and on which side of the road, since everything is British-backwards,) but they have to dodge pedestrians, bikers, people pushing carts of bottled drinks, animals, crowded microlets (public transportation/vans), and millions of taxis, mud pits and places where the road has washed out from the heavy rains.

Several people have told me that Timor looks very different in the dry season. The mountains that are lush and green now, dry up and the Timorese cut down the trees for firewood. Hence, every rainy season the soil erodes and the roads wash out.

The city of Dili is very small, yet it still seems big to me because I don't know my way around. The buildings are all different- there are a lot of cement bones of buildings, left over from the war of 1999 with Indonesia. Considering everything was destroyed in the war, a great deal has been rebuilt. Unfortunately, the nicest buildings belong to the foreign embassies and the UN. There are several gated communities for foreign workers (not me) fenced off community called "Residential Compounds." They are usually surrounded by make-shift, tin-roofed houses that the many of the Timorese people live in.

There is a lot of garbage everywhere. In the roads, on the beaches, in the ditches and dried up river beds. Usually you can find pigs and goats eating it. When I first got here I had finished a bottle of water and was looking around for recycling. I didn't find it. Even at a beach-side restaurant, the woman who served us collected our empty bottles and walked over to a pile of garbage under a tree next to us and dumped the empty bottles in the pile.

Most of the local people here are very nice. They almost always smile and say "hello." I am trying to learn the local language so I can communicate a little with the people who don't speak English.

I feel an amazing shift in my confidence just since last week. When I first got here I was really uncomfortable and wanted to hide in my room as much as possible. Gradually I am starting to feel more confident. I walked to work yesterday- it's about half an hour from our house, and I took a taxi to work today, which I thought I'd never do because most of the taxi drivers speak very little English and often don't know where the CRS office is. I'm happy that I'm starting to feel more comfortable and I'm excited for my work to pick up. I’m still trying to grasp how things work around the office…

Highlights of my trip so far:

  • Seeing a blowfish at Bondi beach in Sydney... except it was dead, and I stepped on it... twice.
  • Hanging out with an Australian girl, Bek, at the beach and practicing each other's accents.
  • The clouds over East Timor- they're always different and very dramatic.
  • Snorkeling for the first time.
  • Getting to know the national and international staff at CRS.
  • Running along the beach road after work in the rain.

Things I miss:

  • Cold weather.
  • Being able to go to the beach without nasty men trying to take pictures of the white girls.

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testimonial_swanson2

February 6: The good thing about having guard dogs/puppies on our porch every night is that we definitely know when someone is coming up to the house. The bad thing is that we also know when people walk up to our neighbor's house, or down the road, or other dogs are near by. Last night, all the dogs in the neighborhood started howling at two in the morning. For the past few nights I have been lying in bed, sticky from sweat and trying to lie in a position where I'm touching as little as possible, listening to the dogs and chickens and motorbike engines thinking, "God, just shut up." Thank God for Timorese coffee.

Last week I was out in the field a little, working with the Civil Society Program that I have been assigned to. The project I'm working on is called, "Kmanek"; (Mahn-eck) which means "wisdom" in Tetum. The goal of the project is to build a better working relationship between the Local Governments and the Civil Society Organizations in four of the districts in East Timor. The project involves holding workshops to build skills like making presentations, organizing the community, leadership, managing time and people, etc. There are four major bridging events in our project, which are basically dialogue meetings. They are meant to bridge the gaps between government and civil society and get them to share information and begin trusting each other. So, last week Adelaide, Adriano (two of my Timorese co-workers) and I went to Baucau for the first dialogue event.

Baucau is the second largest city in East Timor, which is not big. It's east of Dili and about a three hour drive along steep, winding roads with huge potholes and blind corners that these huge trucks drive around at ninety million miles an hour in your lane. But Baucau is beautiful- much prettier than Dili. It's higher than Dili so the weather is much cooler. There are a lot more trees and a lot of huge rocks that usually have houses built into the sides of them or on top of them.

We arrived in Baucau on Wednesday evening and then went to the dialogue event Thursday morning. Seven government officials attend the meeting and 26 Civil Society representatives. We were a little late getting the invitations out, which we hope explains the low government attendance. Because this was the first dialogue, we weren't sure exactly how it would play out. The first half of the meeting focused on existing perceptions of the roles and responsibilities of both local government and civil society. The discussion went fairly well, although we wanted the CS reps to speak up more when the government officials said that Civil Society had to ask the government's permission before they began working in their districts (they don't, by the way, but nice try).

After lunch, the groups discussed what their priorities were as far as national development goals. The Government's priorities were 1. Education, 2. Health and 3. Agriculture. Civil Society ranked their priorities 1. Agriculture, 2. Health and 3. Education. The government said that through education, people can learn the skills to improve their health and make farming more efficient with technology, different growing techniques etc. But civil society argued that people can't do anything if they're hungry. So, it was basically a difference between the long-term goals and improvements made with education and the short-term goals that may be satisfied by focusing on agriculture. In the end, they agreed that it was okay for them to be focusing on different things because they both had different roles in their communities and maybe more would be accomplished that way.

Overall, the dialogue went really well because the atmosphere remained calm and open-minded, although, there isn't much trust between the two groups. I was frustrated because everything was in Tetum so I had to get a summary later, but it was really interesting to see how everyone interacted. I think this first dialogue will really help us shape the later events and helped me immensely in understanding the project that I flew into the middle of.

Back at the guest house that evening, I had my first encounter with the huge gecko that lives behind the refrigerator. Except we became acquainted in the shower. Adelaide came running out of the bathroom saying, "Oh my goodness it just jumped out at me!" and I was like, "Where is it?! Let me see!!" (I was the huge weird white person looking behind the curtains for the huge lizard that wakes everyone up at night by screaming "TO-KAY!!"). I ran to the bathroom and there it was, sitting on the floor and staring at us, saying, "God, what? Can't you just leave me alone?" It was huge. Ade grabbed a broom and we tried to get it out without falling over laughing as it kept lurching towards the bristles and snapping its jaws at them. Finally it ran through our feet and waddled quickly across the floor, back to the refrigerator. Although it was really funny, I'm glad that it hadn't been me in the bathroom with the lizard.

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February 15: My eyes jerk open as my head bangs against the car window. We've only been driving for an hour but I'm so trained to sleep in the car that I've given up trying to resist. I just try to get it over with while we're going through landscape I've already seen. I role down the window and stick my head out to get relief from the stale air-conditioning as the driver navigates through the tree trunks, branches and holes of missing road. We're almost in Viqueque.

It's Tuesday and Jessica, the country representative for CRS/Timor Leste, and I are heading south to check in on the some of the microfinance and agriculture projects. Around 10:00, refreshed from my short car-nap, I follow her into the small office of Tuba Rai Metin (TRM), CRS' local microfinance partner. TRM has just recently taken over all it's assets from CRS, the final step to becoming a fully independent organization. This morning, one of the TRM staff members, Pascual, introduces us to a room of about 15 women waiting patiently for the morning meeting to begin. This is a new group of women who are about to sign their contracts and receive their first loans. "We're still waiting for a few group members so we can start" Pascual says to us quietly. The meeting was supposed to begin at 8:00. The women had been waiting for two hours for the stragglers, who had to walk a long way to the office.

Finally, everyone arrives and the meeting begins. Jessica and I sit in the back, trying to be subtle observers, which is a little difficult considering we're probably the only two malai in Viqueque that day, let alone the room. Pascual stands in front of the group and begins to review the terms of the loan contract. "How much are the first loans?" he asks the group in Tetum.

"Fifty dollars," the women reply in unison.

"When are the first payments due?"

"Next Tuesday."

After a few more minutes of Socratic reviewing, he asks one of the women at the back of the room to come up front to read the contract. She's the only one in the room who can read. She looks about 16 from behind because of her small frame and fair skin; although her face shows she's probably in her mid-twenties. Age is very hard to determine in Timor. Many of the others look like they could be in their late fifties, although they're probably only around forty.

From the front of the room she reads the contract out loud and line-by-line the group repeats the terms back to her. It makes more sense to me as I think about it a little more- having her read the term back to the rest of the group probably increases the trust between TRM and its members. If Pascual or another staff member just read them out loud and explained them, the women wouldn't have any way of knowing whether those were actually the terms they were agreeing to.

The woman in the front finishes reading and Pascual calls up the first small loan group. Everyone receiving loans is required to form groups, usually three to five people, so they can guarantee each others repayment and help support each other through the process. The first group of women sits down at the front table. Pascual and his co-workers once again review the agreement and emphasize that once they sign the agreement with their thumb prints, the piece of paper becomes a legal document. I watch silently from the back of the room, getting quick translations from Jessica of what's going on. One of the women who works with TRM walks around the desk and takes the hand of the woman closest to her. She carefully presses her thumb into the ink pad and then touches it to the paper on all the appropriate lines. It all seems very patronizing to me- like the TRM staff are working with little kids. I'm a little taken aback by the whole process, trying to grasp the concept of having to simplify the technical legal processes of lending money so it can be understood by people who can't read or write even their names and have probably never had any kind of education. After the first group has signed their contracts and received their money, they return to their seats, smiling. Everyone claps. Jessica leans over to me as the next group approaches the front desk. "They are allowed to leave after they receive their loans but they want to stay and watch their friends" she says.

We leave as the second group signs their contracts. We have to make it to a nearby village to catch their weekly collection meeting before it's over. We leave the hum of contract reviewing and private conversations behind and go out into hot midday sun.

I feel so spoiled in Dili. I live in a huge house, with two other people. Two of the girls who live behind us clean it every weekend. We have electricity, running water, toilets, fans, and bars on the windows. I can buy things like cereal (at $6 a box, but it's still an option,) yogurt, apples, peanut butter and whole-wheat bread. It's so weird- that's not what I was expecting. Dili is such a weird mix between completely impoverished living and ridiculously nice houses occupied by internationals. Most of the fishermen live in tents on the beach, and many kiosk owners operate their businesses and live in buildings made from rusty pieces of scrap metal. The "middle class" houses are small, usually made out of concrete and are occupied by families of fifteen or so. Then there's the Australian residential compound, where you can drink the tap water. It's such a weird mix. The heavy malai presence has created a false economy and certain expectations among the Timorese that have made the transition from the emergency period to the development period even harder.

It's a problem in the districts even more. A group of farmers sits around us in a covered meeting area on the edge of one of their fields. We are surrounded mostly by corn and green-beans. Jessica and I have just finished looking at their broken corn-grinder and coconut oil press. They have explained to us that they just need one small piece to repair the corn grinder but it's impossible to find quality spare parts for this donated Chinese machine. Plus, since the coconut oil plant opened in near-by Viqueque, the farmers have largely given up on trying to sell their own oil. There's no way they can compete with their single, small press. I wonder why foreign agencies have given these farmers the press in the first place, when the plant was to open only a few months later; it's another indication of the sometimes careless and ignorant gifts from the relief period that do more damage than good.

"I've asked you a lot of questions this afternoon about your team," Jessica says to the group in Tetum, "Do you have any questions you want to ask me?"

A farmer to our right wipes the sweat off his forehead. "We need more machines and seeds. Can CRS help us with that so we can make more money?"

Now Jessica must explain to them, as she has explained to other groups, that CRS' role has changed since the country has transitioned into the development period. "We will no longer be giving away machines, but we are working with a local organization, Tuba Rai Metin, on creating different types of loans for farmers to purchase new machinery" Jessica tells the group.  "CRS is also working on developing the market in East Timor so that the goods you produce can be transported to Dili and Baucau and you will have more people to buy your goods" she continues, as the farmers nod, looking disappointed. One of the biggest hurdles, and what's difficult to explain, is that the machinery really doesn't matter if there is no one to buy the product. This agriculture group sells their produce in a near-by market that three villages use. For them, even the half-hour trip to Viqueque is too expensive- forget the three hours to Baucau or the six to Dili. With no middle-man to transport goods, consumers are harder to come by. Jessica tells me later that as far as equipment goes, she knows they need more, but "people just don't take care of them if they're given out for free- if they purchase what they need as a group, they take more care to maintain the machines properly." So true.

One of the things I love the most about East Timor is all the kids. And not just the people, but the puppies, chicks, kid-goats, piglets, calves, colts- they're everywhere. "Wow, so many animals" I think to myself, then remembering that most of them will die soon- hard-living with no help is the main form of population control around here.

It's now Wednesday and I'm sitting with Helvin, one of the CRS health monitors, on a family's porch in a small sub-village about an hour from Baucau. It's hot, like always, and sweat is dripping off my face... like always. Helvin is asking survey questions to the mother of the house about the CRS mosquito nets that were distributed a few months ago to families with children under five. Everyday, Helvin and his partner, Serafin, travel to the sub-villages around Baucau and interview ten randomly-selected families about their use (or non-use) of the nets. I like their selection system- after each house they twist their pens in the air and let them fall. Whichever direction the tip points is the direction they walk. Sometimes this requires them to go up and down the mountainside several times. When accompanying them uphill I am constantly reminded of how out-of-shape I have gotten since I arrived.

As Helvin goes through his questionnaire I look around me. They are speaking in the local dialect and I don't even understand much of Tetum, let alone the sub-village dialects, which are completely different. I'm watching the woman's three kids, who are clustered around us. The boy, who looks about five, wipes his runny nose on the back of his hand and scoops up a dirty new-born puppy. The puppy is so cute- I feel bad for it as the boy whips it around roughly like a toy. It's your average treatment of animals here (our neighbors think we're crazy to pet and feed the dogs on our porch in Dili- there are now six of them). To our left, a girl of about nine holds a baby and listens attentively, chiming in to help her mother with some of the answers. I'm always amazed at the closeness of the kids in East Timor- they all seem to stick together and take care of each other. Many have runny noses and coughs, as well.

I tune-in again to the questioning. Helvin has asked if the family has put up the CRS net, or any other nets, for the younger kids. The mother says no. She goes into her house- a traditional style with bamboo sides and woven palm-leaf roofs. When she emerges, she's holding the CRS net, still in its bright blue packaging. "It's the rainy season" she explains. "The roofs leaks and we don't want the net to get wet." Helvin nods and makes a note on his questionnaire. A few minutes later, he translates her responses for me as we walk back up the muddy trail to the road. "Aren't the nets waterproof?" I ask him. He says yes. I don't say anything further, not wanting to overstep my role as an uninformed observer, but annoyed that he didn't point out to the woman that the nets are okay to use in the rain. The rainy season is the most important time to use the nets and she had said her kids have gotten malaria before. Someone told me later that the monitors are not supposed to correct behavior because then they will be seen as the "mosquito-net police." I guess that makes sense- but then what's the point of distributing nets if people don't understand how to use them, even after being trained?

I talk to Jessica about it as we sift through our cooking pasta to remove the little black bugs, weevils, that had been living happily and unnoticed in the bag until we came along and boiled them to death. This is how I can truly tell I've become desensitized in Timor. Black bugs in my noodles? Whatever, I'll just eat around them. After all, a while ago I had already eaten almost a whole bowl of them before I realized that the "seeds" in my granola had legs. Hmmm...

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March 3: A friend asked me the other day what I will take away from this whole experience. I hate questions like that - like I will be able to sum it up in a few words. But throughout this whole thing, I've come up with more questions than answers- like, is there any hope for the developing world? Do International NGOs actually make a positive difference in the long-term, or just create deeper trenches of dependence? And how much good can foreigners do when they don't even necessarily think about the long-term results of their tiniest actions?

Yesterday, I sat on the patio of a café near my house, happily eating a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich (I've been out in the field for a week and a half and needed a non-rice-based meal.) I watched a Portuguese man in a nice suit walk up to a kid who was hanging on the rope dividing the patio from the sidewalk. He gave the kid a dollar from his pocket and told him to go home. He stood there looking important and I could tell he thought this was his good deed for the day. The kids gathered around the boy and the man, also wanting a dollar for nothing. The man just turned his back and walked back to his table. Nice job. Now, you've not only encouraged the kids to beg for money from Malai, but you've created expectations with the other kids. If you're not planning on giving them all money, then you shouldn't be giving them any money. It makes me sick.

My housemate, Amy, told me she was sitting at the same restaurant a while back and watched a man hand a one dollar bill to one kid in a crowd of boys, then he stood back and watched them fight over it. It's too bad that people like that have to exist- or have the right to work in a developing country in a high paying UN job.

Obviously that's not what everyone is like, but how do the local people know that when they've been living under foreign control for 400 years.

"A lot of this dependence among the local organizations is created by the International NGOs themselves," Jo Hann, our workshop facilitator from Malaysia, told me. Things given out for free during the emergency period create expectations that make the transition to the development phase even more challenging. "But then, what's the alternative?" I asked him. "We're still working on that", he told me.

I feel like foreigners can do a lot of good in development work- especially during emergency periods. But in the end, it's building the local capacity that has to happen first before anything can be developed on more than a superficial level. In a place like East Timor, foreign expectations are huge. Many people forget that their own countries took hundreds of years to reach the stages they're at now, and no one has gotten right yet even in the first world. So when people come in and expect everything to be repaired in ten years, and if they actually operate on those expectations, not only will they be disappointed in the results, but they will have a wasted a lot of resources. As East Timor continues to move into the development stage, more and more NGOs pull out because there is no longer that sense of urgency. When the UN pulls out completely, where will East Timor be then? What resources will they have if no foreign money is coming in? Since Xanana has signed an agreement with Australia to split the profits from the Timor Sea and not renegotiate for fifty more years, how is East Timor supposed to generate its own income? Plus, once the oil industry takes off, a different kind of foreign presence will move into the country and this one won't have local interests in mind at all. Maybe East Timor is destined to be a puppet forever.

"It takes time. We are a new country and still trying to work things out," most Timorese will say. It's true. But unfortunately, that time it takes to develop properly is when the country is the most vulnerable to self-interested powers.

Many Timorese and Malai have questioned the Cuban doctor exchange lately. Over the next few months, 8,000 Cubans will be in East Timor, either working as doctors or on a literacy program, while hundreds of Timorese are going to medical school in Cuba. Jennifer, the program manager of the CRS health program told me about how people in Baucau have reacted to the Cubans. "They don't trust anything they say" Jennifer told me. "And I've seen Timorese nurses undermining the Cuban doctors' advice right behind them. Everyone is suspicious of the Communist presence in Eat Timor." And Jen pointed out to me that although the Timorese who are going abroad to study medicine are excited about their opportunity, what is Timor going to do with so many doctors? There just aren't enough resources to support them all. Isn't that just another form of creating false expectations?

Then, I look at all the reasons people decide to do development work. "I think everyone comes here with good intensions" a friend told me after listening to my cynicism. "But we all carry our baggage with us wherever we go."

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March 21: Well, I guess you can't have a truly complete Timor experience without getting a stomach bug. So, I decided that my last full day in Timor was the perfect day to do just that. I quickly cancelled all my plans and stayed home sick all day. Fortunately I was luckier than most of the malai in Timor and it only lasted 24 hours.

I think some of it was stress-related though because I was actually more anxious about coming home than I allowed myself to realize. It wasn't until I left the office on Monday afternoon and turned around in the CRS car to thank Adelaide and Sally for coming with me to the airport that I lost it.

My experience in East Timor ended on a high note though. Three major projects in Civil Society, Health and Peace-building have just been funded, and a few more are in the works, so I expect CRS/East Timor will be expanding significantly in the next few months. The Kmanek project, which I have been working on for the past three months, just got funding to continue for two more years- a tremendous step for the development of East Timor's Civil Society Organizations. I have learned so much from watching and participating in the workshops and dialogues we have held in the districts, but I think one of the most important lessons from my whole trip is that all development takes time. There is still so much work to be done.

After seeing all the dependency in Timor over the past few months, I'm still left questioning what the best way is to balance emergency relief work and participatory practices in a conflict zone from the very beginning of the aid process. Although it seems nearly impossible to find a middle ground between the two extremes in an emergency situation, it is so necessary to look for one because so much damage can be done to the development phase of a country during the relief phase.

In East Timor, although people in general feel optimistic about their new country and the progress they are making, there is still a significant and damaging attitude of dependence on foreign agencies. While driving around and through the many potholes/pits in Dili with one of my Timorese co-workers, he exclaimed in irritation, "Ugh! Why can't the government fix the %$@%# roads! They are always waiting for the international agencies to do everything, even though it's their job!" I think that Timor's long history with occupation only reinforces that attitude- people want independence and fought hard to achieve it, but they still don't know all that comes with it, including fixing the roads themselves.

Jessica gave me examples of the two extremes the other day. In Bosnia, international aid agencies rushed in to villages that had been completely destroyed, thinking that if the houses were built, the villagers would return. However, no one had ever consulted with the villagers to find out if they wanted to come back, and they didn't. So, yes, the houses were rebuilt very quickly but they still remain empty.

On the other hand, in Aceh, Indonesia, hit in December 2004 by the Tsunami and an earthquake, the emergency relief has been extremely participatory- something that has never been done before. The strong emphasis on community participation might ease the transition to the development phase by introducing sustainable practices from the very beginning. However, the trade-off is that many people are still homeless.

In East Timor, the relief period is over and the road of capacity-building is long and difficult. But many of the Timorese are up to the challenge. Once the community leaders both at the village level and in local NGOs learn the skills they need to organize their communities, more people will learn how to effectively participate in the development of their country. I think the next generation will already show significant positive changes.

Through my experience at CRS I learned how important it is to have a good working team, like the one at CRS/East Timor, to make positive changes in the community. I learned how much more effective participatory methods are when running workshops or dialogues. Watching a lecture-style workshop is almost painful because of the lack of enthusiasm among the participants, versus an uplifting and inspiring participatory workshop where everyone is engaged. I also realized the importance of knowing the local language when doing any kind of development work. Not knowing more than basic Tetum limited the depth of my understanding of issues in communities as well as dynamics between participants in the workshops because I had to rely on co-workers' summaries. It also limited my connection with many of the Timorese I met because not many people outside the professional world speak much, or any, English. Nevertheless, I am extremely encouraged to find that I have come away from Timor with a commitment to myself to return, even if it's just to visit, and to continue on my path to a career in development. I am so excited to be coming away from this experience inspired to do more, rather than wanting to run away screaming. I am so grateful for all the people who have been involved organizing this internship and have helped me along the way and I can't wait to continue on this path.

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Contact

Dr. Meena Rishi 

Program Director
Pigott Building, Room 518
Phone - 206.296.2078
Fax - 206.296.2486
Email - rishim@seattleu.edu