Broadcasting change on college campuses

Today we’ve posted an essay by Rice University sophomore Elisabeth Kalomeris, one of five winners of a student competition on raising awareness of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), a group of parasitic, viral and bacterial infections that afflict mainly those living in extreme poverty.

The writing contest and related outreach competition are associated with a Sept. 29-30 Baker Institute conference on NTDs in the U.S. and Mexico. One winning essay will be featured here each week leading up the conference.

The public is invited to attend the Baker Institute NTD conference, but an RSVP is required. Please click here for more information and to register for the event.NTD-Competitions-BlogImage-1

Awareness is only as useful as the action it inspires. Key actors who are committed to change drive awareness. These committed few are like radio towers, broadcasting their cause within their radius of influence, attaining not only more listeners, but also moving others to become “broadcasters” themselves. Many people become passionate about a cause because it has affected their lives personally. Important issues that do not touch our lives directly, like neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), do not have the same network of broadcasters for that reason. Therefore, focusing on fostering a smaller, core group of broadcasters — those who will be most active and committed to spreading change — will be the most effective in raising awareness to a broader network. This strategy will be even more effective because of the personal level on which broadcasters interact. In this essay, I will use an existing organization, Camp Kesem, as a model for creating an NTD-related organization. An NTD-focused philanthropic organization that has independent clubs on college campuses would not only raise awareness to campus-wide groups of young people at a formative age, but also nurtures groups of “broadcasters” who will have a long-term investment in NTDs. These individuals will gain experience with philanthropic organization and fund-raising, learning the skills to turn passion into action.

This NTD-centered organization would be loosely modeled after organizations like Camp Kesem, a network of student-run summer camps with corresponding chapters at universities. When I arrived at Rice University, Camp Kesem had a major presence on campus. While I have never participated in the club, students go through a rigorous interview process to be selected as camp counselors and many go on to be on the executive board of their chapter. Camp Kesem was founded by students, but has since grown to have full-time staff and a board of directors at the national level. While this demonstrates the room for growth with student-run networks, the summer camps are still mainly staffed and organized by college students. An NTD-focused organization that supports college students in their efforts to start chapters at their own universities would allow for rapid horizontal expansion, with little effort or funds for initial start-up costs.

These smaller chapters could host a multitude of events to raise awareness and funding throughout the year. Members could inform their peers about the devastating effects of specific diseases under the NTD umbrella, such as onchocerciasis and schistosomiasis. Bringing awareness about a few of these NTDs in detail will foster greater understanding of the devastating effects of these treatable diseases as a whole. A campus club also has the ability to inform students about the social factors surrounding many NTDs, which are still prevalent primarily because of lack of access to medical care and information.

In addition to continuous fundraising efforts and awareness campaigns for NTDs, an important fixture for an NTD philanthropy would be an annual mission. Chapters could finance a campus-wide scholarship that would select a student to learn more about NTDs over the summer. Many philanthropic clubs are perpetually raising money, but can easily lose motivation. Campus clubs are especially vulnerable when impassioned members, usually the founders, graduate. Having steady goals would be effective while the chapter is active, but provides little structure and few opportunities for growth within the club. An annual summer scholarship fund, no matter how small, is a visible goal that requires commitment and yearlong planning. The students who organize this summer program would gain important skills, as well as deepen their investment in the club. The students who apply, whether it is for an actual program set up by the chapter or for a stipend dedicated to offset independent research or volunteerism, would gain a meaningful summer experience completing NTD-related work.

The most important function of the campus chapters in this hypothetical NTD organization would be to foster a young adult’s passion and ability for action in addressing neglected tropical diseases. Participation would lead to a deeper commitment and understanding of NTDs. This group may attract some broadcasters—students who are already outspoken and attract others to their cause — but its most important function would be to create new broadcasters and endow them with the ability to translate concern for an issue into concrete change. An organization with autonomous chapters would have a ripple effect across the country. Not only would it be one of the quickest and cheapest ways to create an extended presence of NTD-awareness campaigns, but it also would effectively target those with time, resources, and drive to make change possible. College campuses are home to huge numbers of smart, dedicated students who are at a formative age. Not everyone continues to follow the same passions they did in college, but those who do may become some of the greatest agents of change.

Creating a nationwide network of philanthropic college clubs addressing NTDs is an efficient way to raise awareness and create lifelong leaders. College chapters are started and run entirely by students, making them a feasible and sustainable option for ongoing initiatives on campuses. Fundraising events centered around informing students about specific diseases under the NTD umbrella lead to a better understanding of the crippling effect of these preventable diseases and the social issues surrounding them. These clubs will also nurture NTD activists, who will broadcast their message to even more students. Adjustments to the original concept will surely be made, but the original outline is far less important than the broadcasters who will be growing with the organization.

Elisabeth Kalomeris is a sophomore at Rice University studying psychology and public policy. She has spent several summers in Brazil, where she first learned about neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) and their impact. After learning more about the role of NTDs as a barrier to global health, she became involved in the new chapter of the END7 campaign at Rice in the fall.

This essay originally appeared on the Baker Institute Blog.

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