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Aurora Gilbert: Empowering Communities with Global Brigades


1. What kinds of volunteer opportunities does Global Brigades offer and which have you been most proud of?

Columbia University Global Brigades is one chapter of over 380 chapters at universities across the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Germany, and Switzerland. It is the world’s largest student-led sustainable development and global health organization, and our mission is to improve equality of life in under-resourced regions while respecting local culture. These Brigades are conducted through nine different skill-based programs: Architecture, Business, Dental, Environmental, Human Rights, Medical, Microfinance, Public Health, and Water. Columbia University offers six of these nine programs: Business, Medical, Microfinance, Public Health, and Water. Each winter break, CUGB sends Columbia University students on week-long brigades. In January 2013, we sent over 90 students on six different brigades, helping empower rural communities in Panama, Honduras, and Ghana. On these brigades, students use their skills to work with community members on projects to strengthen stability and sustainability in the area that their specific brigade focuses on.

I am particularly in awe of the way in which all skill-based brigade programs run by Global Brigades are able to work together to collectively develop each community’s health, economic, and educational systems. Following a holistic model for development, each brigade program aids in perpetuating other community projects facilitated by Global Brigades, the ultimate goal being a sustainable community with stability in all nine areas and no more need for the involvement of Global Brigades. On my most recent brigade to Panama, it was fascinating to see the way in which the Environmental and Business Brigades were working together with a pilot Public Health Brigade program to provide the community with sustainable and collaborating agricultural, health, and financial practices.I also have a particular affinity for the Business Brigade to Panama, which I have organized and led for the past two years. On the Business Brigade, volunteers work in rural Panamanian communities with local families on financial literacy and planning, small business development, and microfinance education. In January 2012, my group worked with families in Torti Abajo in the Darien Province, and in January 2013 we worked in Embera Puru, an indigenous community in rural Panama. It is absolutely awe-inspiring to see community members’ scarce financial literacy transform into knowledge about spending and saving strategies, small business development, and micro-loans in just one week.


2. Who should be part of Global Brigades? Why has it become such a strong passion of yours?

Everyone should consider becoming a part of Global Brigades! There are no language or previous experience requirements. GB is a great way to explore the practical applications of a field that you have studied or are interested in while at the same time empowering under resourced communities and exploring a country and culture completely different from your own. It’s also a fun and productive way to spend that extra week of our long winter break! Every year, I come back to campus with a fresh outlook and new motivation for spring semester. I personally joined Global Brigades because I have a strong interest in international development and microfinance in Latin America that dates back to my first immersive service trip to the Dominican Republic in early high school. Having familiarized myself with the Columbia on-campus community in my first year, I was looking to engage with other students who shared my passion for international service work and sustainable development. GB allowed us not only to discuss issues of international development in an on-campus setting, but also to take our knowledge, skills, and passion beyond the classroom and Morningside Heights, across borders and into areas of extreme need. The students I have met through Global Brigades have been some of the most fascinating and passionate students that I have encountered at Columbia. The coming together of these students creates a unique, supportive, and enthusiastic community that I am grateful to be a part of. Global Brigades has just as much become a passion of mine as it has helped me identify and shape my passions.

My involvement in GB has led me to pick up two new concentrations at Columbia (Business Management and Statistics), and to pursue internships with microfinance and international development organizations (namely Accion USA and Grameen Foundation). Global Brigades has been essential in shaping my path through college and my dreams for the future. Joining the organization has proved to be undoubtedly one of the best decisions of my college career.

3. Tell us a story from one of your trips abroad! :)

I will never forget the first family that I worked with on my first Business Brigade to Panama in January 2012. Rosa and Elias were the mother and father of five children living in Torti Abajo, a community of about 350 people located three hours outside of Panama City. In Torti, the average family income per month is estimated to be $100-200, and the main form of employment is agriculture. Elias and Rosa’s three youngest children had been getting ill recently as a result of walking barefoot on the mud floor of their three-room house. To prevent their children’s sicknesses, the family wanted to build a concrete floor in their house. A couple of Business Brigaders and I sat down with Elias and Rosa to discuss this goal and help them turn their dream of a concrete floor into a reality. Over three days, we worked with the two on financial literacy, savings strategies, and educated them on how to take out a loan from the community cooperative that Global Brigades had helped to create in the community just that year. At the end of these three days, the family had an advanced savings and loan plan, including a template in which to track their daily, weekly, and monthly income, savings, and spending. This plan enabled Elias and Rosa to take out a loan from the cooperative to buy new machinery for Elias’s wood-cutting business, and with this machinery make enough money to both pay off the loan and begin laying a concrete floor in four months.

The warmth with which this family welcomed us into our home and the appreciation they expressed for our work with them was striking and unforgettable. When the trip was over, it was nearly impossible to leave this family, especially the two youngest girls who had taken to playing icebreaker games with us during free time and posing for all of our photos!

4. How does working for Global Brigades impact your own beliefs and values…or if it has changed you in any way please tell us!

For me, each and every service trip abroad has been a unique learning experience and has provided me with new perspectives on poverty, development, the global community and my position in it. My experiences abroad have awarded me with an ongoing learning experience on how to approach new cultures and communities, how to interact with citizens of a completely different society, and how to represent my own country, culture, and outlook in a respectful and thoughtful manner. Witnessing, living, and working within such poverty will never cease to be saddening and distressing. It is always difficult to grapple with the fact that after one week our brigade will be returning to the safety and comfort of Morningside Heights, while the individuals that we worked with, alongside millions around the world, will continue living in poverty.

However, seeing these under resourced communities and working with them to help provide access to the educational, health, and economic resources that they lack is an incessant source of motivation for me to continue my work with Global Brigades and pursue further work in international development. Working with Global Brigades, I am constantly reminded of what an enormous, positive difference a small contribution, be it a day-long workshop on financial literacy, a community discussion about safe health practices, or a medical consultation, can make in the life of a person living in a high-need rural community in the developing world. It is endlessly inspiring to see the way in which our students, along with thousands of others from the US and across the globe, are working together, week after week, month after month, year after year, to help fight economic and health disparities and work towards positive social change.

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Alexandra Shapiro

Columbia Barnard

Alexandra is a Senior at Barnard majoring in American Studies. While she isn't planning the week's pitches for Her Campus Barnard, she can be found checking her horoscope, listening to college acapella videos, decorating her room with Paris-themed accessories, or trying to imitate Charlotte from Sex and the City. She also loves self-improvement, Indian food, the Kennedys, traveling, and laughing at her brother and sister's jokes. She is spending this semester interning in MTV's Marketing department.
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