Malawi: A transforming experience inspires an ongoing relationship

A study abroad experience related to sustainability has developed into an ongoing community relationship between Appalachian State University and the African nation of Malawi.

That's the power of transformative experiences.

Why Malawi?

Through the Walker College of Business, students have made two trips to Malawi near the capital of Lilongwe. They learn how non-governmental organizations, government and communities are addressing economic, social and environmental challenges. They also participate in service projects and stay in the homes of local families.

"I think one of the special things about this university is the fact that we were able to go abroad, but also how much followed us as we came back to campus," said Jesse Pipes, an MBA candidate at Appalachian. He helped initiate Appalachian's academic connection to Malawi through a non-profit organization he and friends started a decade ago, called World Camp.

"Africa has so much to teach us and we have so many resources that we can share... The community solutions the students saw practiced in Malawi can be applied here in the U.S. or any community for that matter."

What difference do students make?

The first group of Appalachian students in 2012 worked with villagers to research the feasibility of establishing a maize mill, including start-up costs, monthly operating costs and projected revenue. They determined start-up costs could be recovered in the first year of operation.

After returning home, the students remained engaged with the African nation by forming the Sustainable Services Initiative Club on campus to explore solutions to community challenges—including collecting funds for the proposed maize mill and for children's school fees.

On the second study abroad, students met William Kamkwamba, co-author of the international best-selling book "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind." The book relates his story of how he achieved his dream of bringing electricity, light and the promise of a better life to his family and his Malawi village of Wimbe.

What impact does Malawi have in Boone?

As a result of the study abroad programs, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind" author visited campus as the keynote speaker at Appalachian's 5th Annual Global Opportunities Conference in April 2013, which had a record 550 attendees. These included visiting classes from Watauga and Avery high schools and Two Rivers Charter School, as well as the campus and larger communities.

Having Kamkwamba on campus to share his message of hope, encouragement, dreams and creativity "served as a segue to start conversation," explained marketing major Deja Borders.

"I share the bit of awareness that I have every chance that I get," said Borders, who participated in the 2013 study abroad program.

"Now that I have experienced Malawi, a country I knew nothing about prior to researching the trip, I have been able to discuss with people everything that I learned. Those opportunities have led to conversations about the intellect, congeniality, national language, education, currency and so many other things that the average American does not know about Malawi."

Will Appalachian continue this relationship?

Yes, a third study abroad program is planned for May 2014. It will be part of a sustainable development and business course. To learn more, contact Meredith Church at churchmm@appstate.edu or 828-262-7727.

"The students gain unique life skills," said Pipes, "and an understanding of how best to use them: critical thinking, listening to others, asking better questions, generating ideas, active collaboration. They learn that by pooling what you know and who you know, you can better support each other."