You Can Be the Difference

How One MIT Student is Working to Help Young Girls in Sri Lanka

Last Friday night, I went to an event called “Stand Up” hosted by the Youth Alliance for Leadership and Development in Africa (YALDA) at Harvard University. At the event, over fifty students from around the Boston area listened to the words of student leaders, stood up, and pledged to take action against poverty.

One student leader who spoke to us that night was Alia Whitney-Johnson ’08. Alia came up to the podium with a story — a story about what she saw in Sri Lanka as a tsunami relief volunteer. She told us about a 12 year old girl who happened to have seen more than her fair share of hardships.

This 12 year old girl was pregnant because she had been raped by her father. Alia told us about how the girl testified in court without knowledge of where her life would take her next — a life without a job, without parental guardians, and without anybody to share her pains with.

Alia went to Sri Lanka for the first time with a Public Service Center Fellowship. When Alia saw the harsh realities of life in poverty in Sri Lanka, she could have expressed her sympathy and moved on, but she chose to do more.

Alia had been a jewelry maker since she was seven years old, and on her trip decided to hold a jewelry making workshop to get to know the girls in Sri Lanka better. Soon enough, she realized jewelry making was an idea that could improve the lives of countless young girls in Sri Lanka.

That was the seed that grew into Emerge — a thriving non-profit that Alia now runs. Her organization sends jewelry kits to young girls in Sri Lanka. The profits of jewelry sales in the United States go to help these girls sustain themselves. Emerge has proven to be a powerful tool that empowers and inspires these girls to move themselves out of helpless situations.

This story would not have turned out the same way if Alia hadn’t decided to channel her sympathy into action. Nothing would have happened if Alia didn’t believe that her actions could have an impact on the lives of others. This story would not have been the same if Alia hadn’t tried to learn more by deciding to go on the trip in the first place.

I hope what this story brings home is that each one of us has the power to make a difference. Especially at a place like MIT, each and every one of us has the resources to get started. Though we often don’t give ourselves enough credit, we already have the skill sets needed to solve real world problems. We can change the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves. Will you choose to?

Bhartiya is a member of the MIT Global Poverty Global Initiative.