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Facing Tragedy, Alumna Gives Back in South Africa
January 13, 2011
Ellie Gunderson (C’10) has turned hardships into hope for herself and others as a volunteer with Hands at Work in Africa, a non-profit that helps local communities care for their poorest and most vulnerable members.
While the organization reaches across sub-Saharan Africa, Gunderson works specifically in South Africa, a nation historically torn by apartheid and now stricken with infectious disease and poverty. “My role with Hands at Work is to help rural villages find community-based solutions to the HIV/AIDS crisis, which has left 2.5 million children orphaned in South Africa alone,” Gunderson explained. Her work empowers the poorest rural communities to build sustainable programs that provide food, education, and healthcare to its members. “On a day-to-day basis, I work alongside volunteers from the villages we serve, assisting them with organizational and administrative tasks for which they have never been formally trained,” she said. “For example, I might help a community-based organization manage their database of the children whom they serve, fill out a monthly report, or search for funding sources.” The resources and skills she imparts, Gunderson added, will have an impact long after her tenure as a volunteer ends.
This is not Gunderson’s first time living in South Africa. As an undergraduate Sociology major, she studied abroad at the University of Cape Town. While she studied, however, she experienced a tragedy of her own—the loss of her friend and fellow Hoya Terrance Davis (C’10), who was swept off the beach and drowned while the two were on vacation. The experience strengthened her resolve to return after graduation and help others dealing with tragedy. “Losing Terrance, someone who loved selflessly and spent every waking moment serving and inspiring others, made me realize that service is not simply an act of kindness, but a lifestyle,” Gunderson explained. “So, despite the fact that South Africa will always be intertwined with memories of trauma and heartache in my own mind, Terrance’s impact on me almost requires that I go back, to give freely what I have received freely.”
Gunderson, who hopes to be a social worker, uses that experience of grief to empathize with and support others in her daily work. “I learned that tragedy can turn into something beautiful. Many of the orphaned children whom I serve through Hands at Work desperately need that light of hope, and it is my responsibility to share it,” she explained.
Her years at Georgetown also strengthened that commitment to effective social change. “Academically, my coursework as a Sociology major with a concentration in Social Justice Analysis challenged me to contemplate societal ills through the lens of justice and social change, while my senior year internship assisting a community organizer helped me to put those intellectual questions into action.” Outside of the classroom, she worked to promote civil rights and address racial inequalities, calmly weathering controversy as the first white president of the Georgetown University chapter of the NAACP. “My experiences as an activist on campus lit a fire inside of me, a hunger to see justice done and a devotion to the cause of equality and opportunities for all,” Gunderson reflected.
Translating her skills from the Hilltop to the international community has been a learning experience, Gunderson noted. “The most important lesson I’ve learned is [about] our personal and collective responsibility to fight global poverty, and our immense privileged status as citizens of this nation.” Gunderson admitted, “I used to get frustrated with people who focused their energies on international development, wondering why they refused to look in their own backyard and see the poverty and inequality that is so apparent in our own country.” Now, she explained, “witnessing the dire poverty in Africa’s underdeveloped regions and understanding the privilege and immense material wealth of the United States as a whole, I have come to understand that we have a mandate to use our power and wealth to lift up our brothers and sisters across the world.”
With this call to serve in mind, Gunderson encouraged other students to consider volunteering abroad after graduation. “Valuable experiences can come in unexpected forms, and if you’re able to remain flexible and make the most of whatever your job may entail, you will gain a breadth of experience that you may never have gotten at home,” she said.
--Jessica Beckman
Photos courtesy of Ellie Gunderson. 
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