In the eye of a superstorm

Tacloban in the aftermath of a superstore

Tacloban in the aftermath of a superstorm

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last November, new JMU graduate Michelle Taylor (’13) was at ground zero. She and 11 fellow Peace Corps workers were holed up in a hotel, listening anxiously as the superstorm pummeled the city.

Michelle had arrived in the Philippines just months before the storm began gathering strength in Micronesia and feeding off a low-pressure system with the right ingredients to brew a monster storm.

Shortly after graduating from JMU in May 2013 with a degree in social work, the Tidewater Virginia native found herself on Biliran, the fourth smallest island in the Philippine archipelago. The island, she says, “has mountains and water. You name it, we have it.”

To navigate the system

On Biliran, Michelle worked with children, youth and family facilitators through the Department of Social Welfare Development, a Philippine government program that gives financial assistance to families. The program requires multiple layers of accountability, such as classes and parental sign-offs.

“Basically, I was doing social work with at-risk populations,” she says. “I worked with needy families in the local villages in helping them support themselves through various forms of livelihood….I kind of walked alongside families to help them navigate the system.”

She also assisted officials who didn’t have social work backgrounds, using skills learned at JMU. She helped them create case studies. The Philippine system has 1000 individuals in the care of every two workers, she says, adding that they are very dedicated people who work 12-hour days. “They taught me more than I could ever teach them.”

When she first came to JMU, social work was not Michelle’s choice of majors. She switched after working with a valley organization that helps refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Her helping out one day a week turned into mentoring youth. Through the process, she says, “My passion grew for international service.” Serving in the Peace Corps had “always been in the back of my mind.” She applied during her senior year, was accepted and enlisted shortly after graduating. Initially, Michelle expected to be assigned to Africa, but she left the United States in July, bound for the Philippines, only months before the arrival of Yolanda, the storm’s Philippine name.

No one knew where

In early November, a tropical depression southwest of the Philippines began churning. It moved westward and rapidly intensified, becoming a tropical storm on Nov. 3. Warnings went up throughout the region. As the storm approached, Peace Corps officials made the decision to evacuate the outlying islands, consolidating their people in Tacloban, the main city in the Philippines. It made sense. Three hours from Biliran, Tacloban had an airport and a large infrastructure.

Unknown-2“Peace Corps Philippines and headquarters in D.C. had the volunteers’ safety as their first priority and needed us to be in a space where we could have access to resources, if needed,” Michelle says. “Downtown Tacloban provided us with the resources we needed to get out even after the storm. The Peace Corps was also in contact with the U.S. and Philippines militaries who were able to provide them with information about our safety after the typhoon hit.”

Michelle and her 11 Peace Corps colleagues were brought to Tacloban. No one knew exactly where the storm would hit. “No one knew how bad it would be,” Michelle says.

The typhoon made a direct hit on Tacloban.

The dozen Peace Corps workers were barricaded on the second floor in an interior, windowless room of a concrete building in the heart of the city. For several hours, as they listened to the storm rage around them, they heard windows blowing out and the floor above them evaporating into the wind. Below them, the first floor flooded completely. Outside whole neighborhoods were being reduced to rubble.

“We could tell when the eye had passed because the wind direction changed. It was an experience I know I will never forget.”

After the storm passed, “I was in the center of the city, so when we walked out, it was a different place. It destroyed Tacloban,” she says.

According to news reports more than 6,000 people died, and three months after the storm, 2,000 were still missing.

Resiliency and strength

Michelle and her friends were on their own. For three days, Michelle says, “My parents knew I was in the middle of it. They were in constant communication with Peace Corps headquarters and were informed of our safety as soon as possible.”

UnknownVenturing out of the building after the storm subsided, Michelle was invited to share a meal with a family of 10 who had a single pot of rice — and a house that was completely flooded. “They didn’t have enough for themselves, yet they wanted to share it with me.” Incredulous, she asked them: “You’re still inviting me to eat?”

They did.

Michelle has come to realize such generosity is part of their culture — one she has grown to love. “The amazing spirit of the Philippine people — they are endlessly selfless. [It was] easy to focus on the devastation, but I always found something positive…. They have a very strong belief that God is with us,” she says.

“To this day I am still amazed by the consistent resiliency and strength of the people in Leyte and other areas affected by the storm,” Michelle says. “My Peace Corps friend in Tacloban updates me weekly on progress [there]. They don’t stop, every day is a struggle but they continue to appreciate what they have and hope for a ‘better tomorrow.’”

In the storm’s aftermath, Michelle also saw modern day heroes in action. One group of 20 men on motorcycles moved throughout the shattered city, rescuing people and clearing roads. They also found and cooked buckets of spaghetti, she says.

Michelle and friends did what they could to help. They joined the community immediately after the storm to clean up the sewage drains to decrease the flooding.

Realizing they would have to take action to get themselves out, she and one co-worker started walking through the broken city. They followed the helicopters and went to the police station. Eventually, they were able to piece together some communication with the help of a CNN news crew. Through the CNN crew, they learned that the military was bringing in planes filled with relief supplies and taking people out of the city.

The group walked for four hours, making their way through the debris-laden city, to the airport where they flew out on C130s.

What true happiness looks like

After leaving the Philippines, Michelle was sent stateside to wait for reassignment.

Michelle Taylor ('13) and a Filipino friend

Michelle Taylor (’13) and a Filipino friend

“My job is pretty much gone after the storm because the whole area was in a state of emergency. The workers of DSWD (my organization) were mobilized in Tacloban to do relief work in the evacuation center. My counterpart is still working there,” she says.

While waiting, Michelle has taken the Peace Corps message to anyone who would listen. “I had three goals when I joined the Peace Corps,” she says. These were to be a U.S. ambassador, to bring what skills she had to help, and to take what she learned to educate Americans.

“I have learned that you never know what is going to be around the corner,” she says. “Being in the Philippines I have begun to learn what it means to live in the present. The Filipino people have such a strong commitment to community that the loss of material things does not dampen their present joy. They suffer from the loss of their loved ones but rely on their supportive community for peace. I have learned from the people of Tacloban what true happiness looks like.”

She adds: “My hope through sharing this story is to change mindsets of American who only see the devastation from the lens of the news. Tacloban is a happy city. They understand the value of community outside of just the materialistic needs and are beginning to get back into the normalcy of their daily lives pre-Haiyan.”

Michelle will return to the Philippines this spring but to a new area, Bicol, a region on the southern tip of Luzon, the largest island. She will be working with the same department as before but at a center for young children awaiting adoption.

She looks forward to returning. “It’s my family. I was only there for six months but never felt more welcome,” she says. “I have people I want to go hug.”

To learn more about Typhoon Haiyan and its impact on the Philippines, go to an NPR story embedded here.


24 de cure

Final promo picjpegfileI am not sure I have ever met a more determined person.


Everything about him exudes determination. But not the kind that ordinary confidence breeds. It’s not anything like ordinary. In fact, nothing about Navid Attayan (’14) is ordinary. His brand of determination is a gut-wrenching, unadulterated courage to keep going. No matter what.

3000 miles

When I first heard about Navid Attayan, now a senior biology major from Gainesville, Va., he was preparing to ride a bicycle from Harrisonburg, Va., to San Diego, Calif. — 3,000 miles. Along the way, he visited children’s hospitals and met with children battling pediatric cancer. He inspired many — and the children inspired Navid.

His grueling — but successful — ride, ProJeKT 3000, garnered more than 12,000 followers and supporters and raised $20,000 for pediatric cancer research.

Navid is motivated by pain. Not his pain — although he has faced plenty while cycling in 116 degree heat through the Sonoran Desert and ascending the treacherous mountain passes of the Rockies. He is motivated by the pain he sees in the faces of mothers and fathers as they comfort their children stricken with cancer. And he pits his determination against the pain of children enduring rounds and rounds of medical procedures, chemo-therapies and repeated hospital stays.

He is equally inspired by their spirits — their courage and their determination to fight. It keeps him going. My favorite quotation from Navid is this:  “These kids don’t get to quit. So I won’t quit.”

One might think that after pedaling 3,000 miles that would be enough. For most people, it probably would be. After all, cycling 3,000 miles, alone, on two legs and a couple of wheels is a lot.  But not for Navid. I don’t think he’ll ever quit. He’s that committed. That determined.

A campus-wide event

His latest project is 24 de Cure, a 24-hour cycling marathon. On April 29th, he’ll ride his bike, attached to a stationary platform, nonstop for 24 hours. Check out his video on YouTube:

This time, though, he’s not going solo. He has rallied dozens of JMU organizations and hundreds of students to help. “I’ve made this a campus-wide project to bring unique attributes from each organization to unite them for one common cause,” Navid says.

Phi Alpha Delta, a pre-law fraternity will man a table with information on the legal aspects of pediatric cancer research funding. Tri-Delta is planning a flash-mob to encourage fundraising and volunteering. Campus Cookies will provide free cookies, and APO is assembling volunteer help.  The Bhangra dance team and other groups will perform. There will be 24 hours of activities, live entertainment and free food. 24 de Cure will also feature arts and crafts, which will be hand-delivered to children battling cancer.

The April 29th event will take place on the Commons and begin with an 11 a.m. opening ceremony. Cycling will begin at noon and continue until noon on April 30. There will be 24 hours of activities, live entertainment and free food. Arts and crafts, which will be hand-delivered to children battling cancer, will also be a part of 24 de Cure. Navid is currently securing sponsors, including some for a raffle.

All of the money raised — 100 percent — will go to pediatric cancer labs at the National Institutes of Health and to a clinical trial currently underway in Calif. “I’m eating most of the cost out of my own pocket,” says Navid. “All funds raised will go toward the cause and not toward any costs for the event. I stand firmly on that.”

There’s still plenty of time to come out, help out, or ride. Cyclists are invited to cycle for a few minutes or multiple hours for a “per mile” donation. Five bikes will be available at the event. He’s also challenging faculty cyclists. “We’re trying to get faculty involved for a “faculty power hour.”

If you’re on campus or near Harrisonburg on the 29th, Navid wants your help. And you might as well sign on….He’s that determined.


For more information, contact Navid at

Read more about Navid’s cross-country ride at SHENANDOAH LIVING magazine:

You can also follow the event on Facebook:

A diet of cream

happy cowsIncreasingly as a society, we’re going backwards in one way. Think of it this way: Most children learn to read with 1. Picture books, 2.Simple stories with pictures, and 3.Chapter books. In that order. Now, however, through the determined measures of marketers influencing news, we’re going backwards along that continuum. We’re moving from text to pictures. Everywhere.

Marketers have figured out that they can grab our attention more easily with pictures and visual illustrations. They like to imagine, I suspect, that we’ll delve deeper into a subject. But that doesn’t often happen. Instead, they are feeding our nationally laziness, our predilection to gather news through pictures, sound bites, headlines and “quick reads.”

No one “reads long” anymore, they contend. That may be true. But that begs an important question: Should we read long? And shouldn’t institutions of higher learning lead the way?

By presenting news in such an easy-to-digest manner, we are dumbing down our ability to understand complex issues. The New York Times was historically called “the Grey Lady,” a reference to her once text-filled pages. Now her pages are filled with pictures. (Think kindergartners and their picture books.)

The problem arises when people create their opinions and make decisions — political, philosophical, or otherwise — based on limited information, on books, authors and writers they agree with and, even worse, on sensational — and sometimes hysterical — headlines.

Take Flight 370.

The mysterious disappearance of the plane is a case in point. One need read only the dramatic headlines flashed across CNN’s cluttered website to follow the story. The problem, however, is that really understanding the story — or any story — takes more than sound bites and headlines.

Flight 370 is a pretty straightforward story, but what about our obligation to understand a story as complex as the recent Russian takeover of Crimea? Knowing the history, the backstory, the players, and understanding the political and social landscape are all critical to a full understanding of the story.

Yet we are losing our abilities — and perhaps most egregious, the media is beginning to limit our access to full stories because they don’t “sell.”

Today, marketers in the news business measure their “success” by hits to a website. They can dig down and analyze how long an individual stays with a story or how many times they revisit it. From these statistics, they take the cream and leave the milk behind. Based on their findings, no one likes milk when they can have cream.

But cream alone makes us fat and lazy. In an intellectual sense, we’re leaving behind what makes us healthy mentally, socially, politically and educationally. The media is failing us by giving us less and less deep reading, by following the conventional wisdom that people only “read short.”

Reading deep, though, is essential for a vigorous social fabric, and especially and intelligent society. The oft-quoted President James Madison summed it up better than anyone: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Without arming ourselves thus, we cannot function effectively as members of society. We certainly can’t function at a high or productive level. We can’t, for instance, fully understand the issue of fracking without serious study and debate. Or climate change. Or health care. These are not one-off stories, any more than a political debate about abortion or military incursions or lost planes is a one-off.

Yet the media treats them as such, cultivating our interests only by satisfying our most limited minds — reducing complex issues to their simplest terms and allowing us the luxury (like a diet of cream) of what is easiest and most appealing to form our opinions.

war-to-peace-conference-graphic-655x393This week on JMU’s campus, we were treated to an extraordinary event: Intelligence and the Transition from War to Peace — a multidisciplinary exploration of the decision making process during the Bosnian War. The conference was sparked by the release of CIA documents surrounding the intelligence gathering that took place during the crisis and leading up to the Dayton Peace Accords on Bosnia.

Speakers included Dr. Timothy Walton of JMU’s Intelligence Analysis faculty who was a CIA analyst during the conflict. And Dr. Bob De Graaff of the Netherlands Defense Academy and University of Utrecht and Dr. Cees Wiebes, the retired National Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the Netherlands, who traveled to Harrisonburg to offer their deeply-researched perspectives on the war. And Jan Lodal, an expert on intelligence who has served four American presidents.  All the presenters — including a group of undergraduate students — had thought long and hard on their topics, so their responses to the released documents carried special weight.

The conference, if nothing else, demonstrated the lengths that any educated person must go — is required to go — to reach reasoned conclusions. It is not easy. Such understanding is not cream. It is milk, cream, the blending of both and the consideration of myriad ingredients.

But this is the responsibility of those in higher education.

Until we move away from our sound bite/headline mentality, we won’t make progress; instead, we will stall as a society.

Academics are often disparaged for perseverating on minutia.  Studying, for instance, flatulence in cows might be a little too esoteric, however, on balance studying something deeply is far better than a “quick read.” If educated people, and universities in particular, buy into the notion that “reading short” is an accepted method for learning, we are sunk. We’ve got to read long. We’ve got to study. And as a university, we need to promote it, not feed the opposite.

Without such deep thought, critical reasoning and pondering, we’ll become like children blithely skipping through the news, growing fat and unhealthy on a diet of cream and failing to see the sinkholes of misunderstanding that will eventually swallow us up.

So sell me shoes and chocolate with your “quick reads,” but leave the rest of the media to writers and thinkers who are willing to delve and study and get to the heart of the stories that touch of us all.

Quite enough

232328 The Quad in the Snow-1002Who knew that when we changed the background for this blog to the Bluestone and red-tile-roofed buildings of campus covered with snow that we were previewing a winter to remember — at least as far as goes the snow.

Here in Harrisonburg, we’ve had plenty. More than plenty. Enough to make even the most diehard winter lover long for spring. Enough cold to almost freeze Newman Lake. And (we can hope) enough sub-zero nights to kill the brown marmorated stink bugs that have proliferated recently.

It’s  been a winter to remember. A winter that forced the university to close for four days — a number not matched since the “Big Snow” of 1962. That year it was worse. Really. That year we had three feet of snow — a full meter up at Big Meadows. Local schools were closed for two weeks. And Anthony Seeger’s parking lot was cleared for military helicopters to land as they flew up and down the valley, rescuing stranded motorists. It was worse, but so what! That was then. This is now. We’re tired of winter. We’ve had quite enough.

wilson_snowWe all need a rest from snow and cold and wind, from chapped lips and cold hands. Students — many off on Alternative Spring Break trips this week, serving a multitude of communities  — are longing for walks across the Quad and hikes across Carrier Bridge from East Campus that don’t involve icy precipitation and winds that threaten to freeze their ears. It’s time for boots to retire and for Keens and Birks to emerge. We’re ready for change. It’s time for flowers to replace snowflakes. For blue skies and sunshine. Kites and beach towels. Tank tops and shorts.

It’s time.

So today — just in case there’s a correlation with our background picture and with a sincere wish for spring — we’ve retired our snowy reminder of winter at James Madison University. For good….or at least until NEXT winter.

What should come now?  What should the next background photo be? What campus image would you choose?

Pain and glory in Ukraine

Since 1992, more than 2,740 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Ukraine. One volunteer was JMU’s Pete Isaac (’05). When his service was up in December 2013, Pete left behind a country in turmoil and people he came to love and understand. As the world watches Ukraine struggle, Pete offers a unique perspective on the conflict…

Glory to Ukraine (Слава Україні)

by Pete Isaac (’05)

Pete with his host mother on his induction day

Pete with his host mother at his swearing in

Ukraine is a very special place for me. I was lucky enough to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the city of Zaporizhzhia in the southeast portion. Reflection has been hard, however, as just before I left the country on December 1st, 2013, the country was dealt a huge blow at the hands of its president. In late November, then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, made an eleventh hour decision to back out of an agreement to join the European Union. This action, for all intents and purposes, serves as the catalyst for what will be etched in Ukrainian history books as a victory of the people.

When I applied to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had no idea where I would be placed. Honestly, to me it did not matter. Location wasn’t the point; service was. Fast forward to my arrival in Ukraine on March 23, 2011. Here, I found myself in a large room, full of people I didn’t know, snow on the ground, and a plate of beet salad topped with mayonnaise and cheese in front of me. The first words out of my mouth were, “So this is what we get to look forward to for two years…”

Like many of my fellow volunteers, we had amazing experiences in what many now consider our second home. As we integrated into our communities, we began to form relationships. We made valiant efforts to learn the local language (which was not always Russian or Ukrainian). We learned where to find the best tomatoes and other fresh produce. We learned which public taxis would take us where we needed to go. We overcame the fear of buying our first train ticket on our own. Some even mastered the local post office (trust me…this deserves a badge of honor). We became parts of our communities, we began to refer to these cities, villages, and towns as home.

This is the Ukraine I remember:  (The original song and video are from two other Peace Corps Ukraine Volunteers.)

Sometimes, the conversations would turn toward a feeling by some Ukrainians that their situation “is what it is.” That there was always going to be economic disparity, corruption was going to run rampant throughout the country top to bottom, any ideas they had would simply be scoffed at, that nothing they did could possibly lead to a change for the better. To sit and hear that come from educated adults and youth is an emotional pain I did not know existed. This is the mindset I and other volunteers set out to change.

Humans are naturally resistant to change. Try this experiment to get an idea of what I mean: Ask a friend, loved one, coworker to raise their hand like they are about to give you a high five. Next, say nothing, and take your hand and push against it. Did he or she push back without you saying to do so? If yes, natural resistance to change. If no…you just gave the strangest high-five ever, congratulations!

Imagine trying to change a mindset that has become woven into a society through the generations. Now imagine the feeling that sets in when you see a group of people collectively stand up to a political regime that has consistently lied to, stolen from, and manipulated the population all while amassing incredible personal wealth while the national economy falls deeper in debt. Enough was enough, and many Ukrainians took to the scene of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), to hold peaceful protests voicing their displeasure with the decision.

As the protests grew in number, the pressure built on the president to act. The democratic thing to do would have been to listen to the concerns of the people and figure out some way to compromise. Instead, the peaceful protests were met with violence. On November 30, an order was given to violently clear Maidan (one of my favorite places in Kyiv). A peaceful encampment was met with batons, fists, and boots. Men, women, and journalists were beaten…savagely. This only caused more people to show up at the protests. Protests spread throughout the country.

See more pictures of Ukraine at BusinessInsider:

See more pictures from Ukraine at Business Insider:

January 16, 2014 was essentially the tipping point. On this day, parliamentary procedure was thrown to the side and 16 laws were passed to end protests. Among them included police immunity for acts committed dispersing protesters and 7 year prison terms for speaking negatively about a politician. These laws were all passed in less than five minutes using a hand vote that was not even counted. The papers were quickly handed to the president, who in turn quickly signed them. THIS is when it became a revolution in Ukraine. People were essentially stripped of human rights, a dictatorship was created, protesters began disappearing, and people began to die.

This video literally brought tears to my eyes:

Yes, things can escalate quickly, and they did. I have often told my friends and family about just how resilient Ukrainians are, and in the past few months they showed it to the world. Now, there is a new parliament with elections scheduled for May 25th and a fugitive president on the run. Peace Corps is an apolitical organization that does not get involved with politics, so to see the rest of the world show the support it did for the Ukrainian people was amazing!

There really is no better explanation than right here: (two weeks ago, this had less than 5,000 views…needless to say, that has changed)

This is not over yet, there is a lot of work to be done. Like I said, people are naturally resistant to change…yet change is inevitable when people are passionate and driven by more than greed. I can’t help but smile in the past few days when I break news to my parents about what is happening and I like to think that, along with the over 2000 other volunteers to serve there, I may have somehow helped. Not sure how, but it sure is nice to think!

Ukraine has a call-response chant that is commonly heard. The past three months have brought new meaning to “Слава Україні! Героям Слава!” (Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava) or “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to her heroes!” Glory indeed…

Reversing a trend

Marissa Halpert ('14)

Marissa Halpert (’14)

One of the fastest growing and most important employment sectors involves computer science. Every industry from art to zoology uses computers in multiple ways, making it a field with a limitless future. Yet between 2000 and 2011, the industry saw a 64 percent drop in first year undergraduate women choosing computer science. And in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Education, women graduating in computer and information sciences made up only 18 percent of all undergraduate degrees.

Marissa Halpert (’14) wants to see those trends reversed — and the computer science major and educational media minor from Richmond, Va., thinks she knows how.

Marissa got hooked on computers early, but it was her experience as a student at the Center for Information Technology, a specialty center program offered through Henrico County’s Deep Run High School that convinced her to pursue computer science in college. The center, she says, offered “very rigorous honors level courses,” where she learned Java, SQL, HTML, and coding. “I love making a computer work, seeing what’s under the hood.”

During her senior year of high school, Marissa received the 2010 National Award for Aspirations in Computing from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, one of only 32 young women recognized. As a JMU sophomore, she was invited to the White House event, Champions of Change: Women & Girls in STEM, as one of six award winners chosen by Ruthe Farmer, NCWIT’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, to represent NCWIT at the event.

“She exemplifies the caliber of young women in the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing program, and is a great role model for other young women interested in the field,” Farmer said of Marissa. She stayed involved with NCWIT’s outreach efforts and since the award she “has become a strong spokesperson for the program, and has been instrumental in establishing a regional Aspirations Award for the Virginia/DC area, [and] has helped us spread the program nationwide,” Farmer said.

The need to interest and involve women in computer science is acute, Marissa knows. According to NCWIT, “In 2003, only one-third of women with a computer science bachelor’s degree were still employed in a science, engineering or technical (SET) job two years after graduation….Seventy-four percent of women in technology report ‘loving their work,’ yet these women leave their careers at a staggering rate: 56 percent….”

But the value of women in the field is well documented. “Studies show,” Marissa says, “that women are better problem solvers.” Because of this, women versed in computer science are highly sought after by business and industry for their savvy problem solving skills.

Women are also driven by having a support network — and this, Marissa knows, is a key to involving more women in the field. Mentoring other women is an important ingredient in expanding their presence in the field.

Alyssa Berman (‘17) would agree. Alyssa and Marissa met during JMU’s CHOICES, one of several opportunities for potential students to interact with the university — and an event Marissa, now a senior, never misses. “I volunteer at every CHOICES and Open House for Computer Science,” Marissa says.

Alyssa, from Boca Raton, Fla., was looking at JMU, when the two met. Alyssa was a NCWIT South Florida regional winner, and instantly the two women formed a connection. Marissa was a big part of Alyssa’s decision to enroll at JMU.

“It’s those connections that are critical to expanding the field for women,” Marissa says, and it’s why she is so involved with advocating for women in technology. She does this through JMU’s Women in Technology club and NCWIT. “The organizations come with a community of girls just like you,” she says.

As President of WIT, Marissa brings that passion to JMU’s campus. WIT is open to all students in any major or minor. Club members include students studying computer science, computer information systems, integrated science and technology, engineering, mathematics, geographic sciences, information analysis, and more. “We are non-exclusive,” she says, “which sets JMU apart from other colleges and universities.”

Marissa has spearheaded multiple events on campus to expand this community of women. One of those events was D.I.G.I.T.A.L.

“I had this crazy idea,” she says, laughing. “Why not introduce local middle school girls to computing?” She applied and received the Symantec Student Seed Fund Grant from NCWIT. With strong faculty support and help from Katie LaPira in JMU’s Outreach and Engagement, Marissa and the WIT club created D.I.G.I.T.A.L.: Dukes Inspiring Girls Into Technology Across Limits — an acronym they had fun coming up with.

The free workshop — student-organized and student-run — brought 32 local middle school girls to campus for a day of exploring computing. “They got to play with Google Glass, CSUnplugged, Scratch, and Finch Robots,” she says, and they heard speaker Kimberly Mahan, entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Maxx Potential, a Richmond-based IT solutions company. “Our goal was to inspire these middle school girls to pursue their interest in technology and to want to learn more about technology,” Marissa says.

In October, Marissa presented a research poster about D.I.G.I.T.A.L. at the Southeast Women in Computing Conference. There, she also led a “Birds of a Feather” session about the JMU WIT club. “It was awesome to hear other people’s reactions to things we are doing here at JMU.”

In celebration of Computer Science Education Week, Marissa pitched the idea of bringing’s Hour of Code event to JMU. Last December, the Computer Science Department opened their computer labs to students, faculty, staff and the public interested in exploring computer coding. Hour of Code is part of a national push to “demystify” the computer science field, which is seeing declining numbers of graduates nationwide.

Currently, Marissa is an instructor for JMU’s College for Kids. The enrichment program through Outreach & Engagement introduces youngsters to topics that they may not have access to otherwise. Marissa leads the “Explore Computer Science” track for elementary-aged children. “Through hands on activities and real world examples, we are discussing many different areas within technology-hardware, history, Internet safety, security, 3-D printing, software, problem solving, programming, and robotics.”

Marissa’s plans after graduation this year are not set.  She does know, though, that she will be working in technology. No matter where she ends up, two things are certain: Marissa will impact the field of computer science — and she will continue to invite women to join her.

Why she flew back

Sara Jo and new Daraja graduate Leila

Sara Jo and new Daraja graduate Leila

Before Sara Jo Malinske (’13) graduated from JMU last May, her plane ticket was bought, her after-graduation plans solidified. She was headed back to Kenya.

The prior summer Sara Jo had studied abroad through the university’s international program, “JMU in Kenya.” During the two-week volunteer opportunity at the end of her Study Abroad, she connected with Daraja, a school for girls, located near Nanyuki. Landing back at JFK afterward, her immediate thought was “how do I get back to Kenya.”

So with diploma in hand, Sara Jo headed back to a place and people she had come to love.

Daraja, a word in Swahili meaning ‘bridge,’ is a four-year old secondary boarding school for young Kenyan girls. Here bright, young girls are given what Sara Jo calls “equality of opportunity.”

The culture of Kenya, like so many places in the world, values boys above girls. It’s cultural — and it’s deeply embedded, Sara Jo says. Education is also highly sought in Kenya and expensive, particularly secondary education. When a family manages to scrape together money for a child to attend school, most often a son is chosen. Even when a family of all daughters finds the money for education, they will often opt to send a neighbor’s son instead of their own daughter.

Daraja is trying to change that.

The school, a nonprofit, offers full scholarships to 26 girls each year and is funded entirely through donations and fundraising. To find the right girls, the school’s administrators tour the country looking for girls with academic promise, leadership skills — and no other way to attend school.

“They take the girls who fall through the cracks,” Sara Jo says.

Daraja's Class of 2013

Daraja’s Class of 2013

Many of these young girls come from traumatic circumstances, often suffering poverty or abuse. “They all have stories that will break your heart,” she says, “but in the end, they are just teenage girls.”

Sara Jo’s favorite part of her Kenyan time was hanging out with them every chance she had. And learning to know the girls was her catalyst for returning to Kenya.  On her first night in Kenya, she was told that some visitors come and see the poverty, the problems; others see the connection. “I was one of those,” she says. “I had a real pulling feeling.”

She was amazed by the girls she met. They love school, she says. “They’re in classes all morning and afternoon, and additional forums in the evening, but they will wake up at 4 a.m. to study.”

“You realize how important it is to have a book and learn.”

Despite the obstacles these girls face, they see their circumstance as “just the way it is,” but not a roadblock. “Their identity is their triumph,” Sara Jo says. “They’re very happy.”

And they are successful. At the end of their education at Daraja, every girl — in fact, every student in Kenya — takes  the KCSE exam, a grueling three-week long examination that covers every subject they have ever studied. Each subject, Sara says, has three parts, and each part takes up to three hours to complete.

For those students scoring exceptionally high, the Kenyan government pays their university tuition. Others apply for scholarships.  Of the first group of Daraja graduates, eight are enrolled in Kenyan universities with full financial support. One of those, Leila, “is brilliant. She is studying in a bio technology field,” Sara Jo says.

Empowering girls like the Daraja girls is something Sara Jo is passionate about. It’s why she flew back to Kenya just after graduation as an intern. Returning, she wanted a part in encouraging the gender equality and opportunity for these girls, and girls elsewhere. Having studied gender equality as a sociology student at JMU, she believes that the best way to achieve such is for people like Leila to show the world what she can do.  Such social change takes time,she knows, but showing others what’s possible for girls to achieve is a good, solid step.

On top of Kilimanjaro

On top of Kilimanjaro

As a volunteer, Sara asked Daraja’s founders how she could help. What they needed most was to get the word out to others, so Sara Jo used social media and email to tell others about Daraja and to recruit partnerships.

“I read once that if you have a great idea, you need to talk to everybody you know and 5 percent will care.”

Among her successes was creating a connection with United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative.

Since returning in December from her second trip to Kenya, Sara Jo, who says of herself “I never stop,” is working to promote fair trade through Harrisonburg’s Ten Thousand Villages. She’s also working with the National Coalition of Girls Schools, a Charlottesville-based nonprofit.

And she works at Massanutten Resort feeding her love of being outdoors, a love she managed to satiate while in Africa. In addition to scaling Mt. Kenya and Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro, she whitewater rafted on the Zambezi River and hung off the edge of Victoria Falls in Zambia.

But it was the girls who changed and inspired her. “They are bursting at the seams to change the world,” she says. “Every chance I had, I hung out with the girls.”

Before coming to JMU, she had no idea she’d end up scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro or supporting the changing lives of Kenyan girls. “When I came to Springboard,” she says, “I had no idea.” But two Alternative Spring Break trips, one to Honduras and another to the Florida Keys, plus her transformative Study Abroad changed all that.  Studying Abroad in Kenya “gave me focus,” she says.

And now her focus is again on Kenya — and how soon she can get back again.


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