Taking the Leap

Posted on March 12, 2013, by Holly D. Wesselhöft

I’m not the first person to leave a comfortable life to move to a developing country in an effort to make a difference — I may be one of the very few people who made this decision based entirely on a line of text in a book.

In 2011, I read Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. There was one sentence that stuck with me in particular; I would hear it repeated in my mind constantly.

But to tackle an issue effectively, you need to understand it — and it’s impossible to understand an issue by simply reading about it. You need to see it firsthand, even live in its midst.

I had spent the past 5 years working in marketing for luxury brands in NYC, living in Greenwich Village and thoroughly enjoying dating the city I love. Life was near perfect, but I couldn’t let go of this feeling that I needed to be a part of what Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn were doing. I knew I had no real excuses, and I had all the support imaginable.

After researching dozens of organizations, I decided to volunteer for The Girls Foundation of Tanzania (TGFT). TGFT sponsors about a dozen secondary school girls’ tuitions and provides housing and a support network for the girls when they are on long breaks from school. For four months, I would live with them in a village near Arusha, Tanzania, and teach them computer skills.

Holly teaches computer skills to two students at the Girls Foundation of Tanzania. 

When I arrived in the country, I immediately felt like I was completely in over my head. Regardless of the rollercoaster of emotions and personal challenges I was experiencing, I sought out to teach the girls how to navigate computers in general and, specifically, how to use Excel, Word and PowerPoint.

I got the girls set up with email accounts and introduced them to the power of the World Wide Web. After about month, most of the girls were learning quickly and starting to explore computer programs on their own. They wrote poems on Word, transcribed their report cards on Excel, and created elaborate slide shows set to their favorite songs. From time to time, some of the girls would interrupt my day (even going as far as to slide over my lunch and plop down the laptop in front of my face!) to ask specific questions. At first I was slightly annoyed, but I grew to love these interruptions. It showed how much they wanted to learn. 

Before winter break last December, each girl gave a PowerPoint presentation. It turned out that every single girl went above and beyond what I had taught them — they had explored PowerPoint on their own and added to their presentations outside of our regular classes. Coming from a corporate background, I had no idea teaching could be so personally rewarding. 

I trust these skills will stay with the girls throughout their lives regardless of how often they are able to get online. Even though personal computers are not common here for most Tanzanians, I trust completely in their determination to propel themselves forward.

I return to New York City in mid-February. I’m not sure what my next step is, but it will not be consistent with my former career. I’d like to say that my experience with the girls has shifted my goals, but it was really just a book that did the trick.

I leave this country knowing that in the lives of a group of girls in Tanzania I have made a small difference. The hardest part of this whole journey hasn’t been being half way around the world from the city I adore, my friends worth their weight in gold, the world’s most supportive boyfriend, a boss and team of coworkers that felt like a family or even a stable electrical grid and consistent supply of running water. The hardest part has been trying to convince the girls of a new truth in their lives: that they will always have me, just one click away.

Read more about Holly’s adventures in Tanzania here.

Have you been inspired by Half the Sky Movement? Share your story