Jessica Galarza in Uganda

Jessica Galarza in 2019 at Pathways Development Initiative in Uganda (submitted). 

Lehigh Students Win Davis Projects for Peace Awards

Three teams of  Lehigh students are recognized for their work in starting a tutoring center in Uganda, developing a test for autism in Africa and developing a rapid, affordable test for sickle cell anemia in Africa.

Story by

Christina Tatu

High poverty rates and cost mean education beyond the elementary level is out of reach for many students in Uganda, so Chae Eun Kim ’22 and Jessica Galarza ’22 knew they wanted to focus on expanding access to learning after a visit to the country with Lehigh in 2019.

Their idea for a tutoring center for kids participating in a sports clinic at the nonprofit Pathways Development Initiative (PDI) in Uganda’s Bududa District became even more urgent when schools across the sub-Saharan African country shut down in March 2020 because of the pandemic.

Kim and Galarza were able to implement their plan this summer after receiving a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant, one of three Davis grants recently awarded to Lehigh students. The money allowed them to purchase reading and writing materials, pens, pencils, tables and chairs, a desktop computer and a television for the tutoring center. 

“Most schools have been closed and having a tutoring center has been so instrumental for the kids to have space to learn,” said Dezi Natala Zaale, founder of the sports clinic at PDI. “The equipment that has been purchased like the books, TV, chairs and tables also has created more desire to be part of the program.”  

The purpose of the Davis Projects for Peace grants, named after the late Kathryn W. Davis, an accomplished internationalist and philanthropist, are to allow students to create grassroots projects that contribute to world peace.

The two other groups of Lehigh students who received $10,000 grants have yet to complete their projects because of pandemic travel restrictions. Those projects are to design a diagnostic test for sickle cell anemia to be used in low- and middle-income countries, and to develop a culturally appropriate and freely available screening tool for autism in Africa.

Organizing a Tutoring Center 7,000 Miles Away

Kim and Galarza were able to organize the tutoring center remotely this past summer because of connections they made during a 2019 visit to PDI with Sociology Professor Kelly Austin, a trip made possible through Lehigh by a variety of sources, including the Iacocca International Internship Program, a Strohl Undergraduate Research grant and Lehigh’s global studies program. 

Since 2014, Austin has taken 45 students to Uganda, many of them returning for repeat visits.

“For students, it’s an experience that is so transformative,” Austin said. “It’s so important to remind them that we have a unique experience living in a country where you can just turn on the faucet to have running water, or flick a switch for electricity.” 

Lehigh University students Chae Eun Kim and Jessica Galarza

Chae Eun Kim and Jessica Galarza together in Uganda in 2019 (submitted photo). 

During their trip in 2019, Kim and Galarza stayed at the Zaale homestead. Dezi Zaale’s parents David and Elizabeth Zaale and his sisters Olive Zaale Otete and Annette Champney founded PDI in 2010. 

The nonprofit and the Zaale homestead are surrounded by lush green mountains where many of the locals make their living through agriculture. 

During their time there, Kim and Galarza said the Zaales became like family. They would eat meals with the Zaales, sometimes watching them cook local specialties such as  Matoke, a dish made from a special type of mashed banana. For entertainment they would play games and dance in the evenings.

“For me, I really wanted to go back. It’s a very rural village, and PDI has had such a big impact there,” said Kim, a sociology and anthropology major with plans to complete a master’s degree in education at Lehigh next year. “Their mission is to create a more sustainable livelihood for residents, provide education and youth empowerment.”

PDI hosts programs that promote small business and personal finance skills, aim to reduce secondary school dropout rates, and teach environmental conservation, family planning and health awareness. 

But there are many challenges.

In the Bududa District, a majority of households live below the poverty line and a weak education system means 71 percent of children don’t make it past the seventh grade, according to PDI. Youth are also vulnerable to HIV and AIDS and there are high teen pregnancy rates.

With schools closed until next year, kids need the additional support more than ever, Dezi Zaale said. 

Kim and Galarza decided to focus on PDI’s popular sports clinic, launched by Dezi Zaale in 2017, and supported by Lehigh interns. The clinic aims to bring organized sports to youth in Bududa with the goal of teaching them values such as discipline, leadership and sportsmanship.

The idea was to provide before and after sports tutoring for athletes participating in the program.

“I think the students really enjoy it and it’s really appreciated too because now they have some structure,” said Galarza, an anthropology and global studies major. “If they don’t have access to education in regular school, they can practice reading, writing and learn more about health.”

She and Kim held a lot of Zoom meetings with Dezi Zaale this past summer to develop a plan for the tutoring center.

Since June, the tutoring center has added a reading and writing program, debate and agriculture clubs, sex education classes and educational entertainment such as documentaries, movies and sporting events, Dezi Zaale said. The money also went toward “care packages” for students, specifically girls, that included feminine hygiene products.

It’s a real testament to our abilities that even without travel there can be significant accomplishments that can happen on the other side of the world. The Projects for Peace align with Lehigh’s interdisciplinary globally focused work.

Bill Whitney, administrative director of Lehigh’s Office of Creative Inquiry.

A Long History at Lehigh

As a member of the Davis United World Scholars Program, Lehigh has been participating in the Davis Projects for Peace for 12 years. There are 99 colleges and universities in the program, and each year, 125 projects are chosen as recipients of the Projects for Peace grants, which award $10,000 per winning project.

Since 2009, 14 Lehigh projects organized by 54 students have been recognized. The countries served by those projects include Sierra Leone, Honduras, Tanzania, Ghana and Kenya.

“They are projects that are faculty mentored, but really student driven, and each of them has a goal of social impact in a low- to middle-income country,” said Bill Whitney, administrative director of Lehigh’s Office of Creative Inquiry, which helps manage Projects for Peace submissions. “What we ask of students is that they pick a project that really gets them excited.”

Students working on the two pending projects will likely travel to Sierra Leone this summer to complete their work, Whitney said.

Last year’s winner was a project to design a diagnostic test for sickle cell anemia to be used as a screening device in low- and middle-income countries. The students participating in that project are Dream Intarachumnum ‘22, Thomas Perillo ‘22 and Tiffany Pang ‘22. 

Students Jannah Wing ‘18, Ashleigh Crawford ‘20, Olivia O’Donnell ‘20, Thomas Schwarz ‘20, Paola Lopez (Nicaragua) ‘20 and Maria Lancia ‘21, also participated in the project but have since graduated. 

Jaro Perera ‘22 has since moved on to another project, said Xuanhong Cheng, the students’ professor. 

Sickle cell anemia significantly reduces the lifespan of those in low- and middle-income countries, but neonatal screening and early detection has been shown to significantly reduce mortality rates, according to the students’ report.

Despite the benefits, the test is not commonplace in sub-Saharan Africa because it is expensive and requires processing in a lab with reliable electricity and supplies. To address the need, the students are designing a rapid, low-cost diagnostic device to test for sickle cell anemia.

The goal is to eventually test the device in Sierra Leone, which has a mortality rate of 140 per 1,000 for children under 5.

The second Lehigh project to receive a grant in 2021 is to develop a culturally appropriate and freely available screening tool for autism in Africa. The students involved in the project are Theodore Renz ’22, Kelsey Johnson ’22, Kathleen Bauer ’25 and Alyssa Blasko ’25. 

Grace Enriquez ‘22, also participated in the project but decided to pursue other opportunities when the group was unable to travel this past summer, said Kristi Morin, the students’ professor. 

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disability characterized by deficits in communication and social skills and the presence of restrictive, repetitive behaviors. It has no cure or known cause.

Although diagnostic instruments have been developed to identify individuals with autism, many of these tools were validated in the United States and can pose challenges when used in other settings, such as cost and cultural differences, the students’ report says.

In sub-Saharan Africa, very little is known about autism with only 120 published studies. In Sierra Leone, many people believe the condition has supernatural causes. Children from such families are often shunned and lack access to necessary resources, the report says.

The students’ long-term goal is to distribute an appropriate diagnostic tool throughout countries in sub-Saharan Africa, hopefully dispelling commonly-held beliefs about people with autism.

Projects for Peace and Lehigh’s Global, Interdisciplinary Agenda

Kim plans to go back to PDI next year.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “I think there’s a great potential for the tutoring center to be sustainable for years to come. I definitely don’t think the project would have come together as quickly without the grant.”

The new tutoring center has been a “game changer” in the Bududa community, Dezi Zaale said. The nonprofit plans to continue the reading and writing program, and hopefully extend it into surrounding communities.

The fact Lehigh students are getting Davis Peace Projects grants every year is a testament to how many interdisciplinary, impact focused projects are happening around campus, Whitney said. Kim and Galarza’s project proves that global collaboration can happen even in the midst of a pandemic.

“It’s a real testament to our abilities that even without travel there can be significant accomplishments that can happen on the other side of the world,” Whitney said. “The Projects for Peace align with Lehigh’s interdisciplinary globally focused work.”

Story by

Christina Tatu

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