Moments from Malawi: Reflections from student volunteers

Featuring Thomas Mastro, MPA-SSA ’18

Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Partnership
May-June 2017
Tom Mastro, MPA-SAA 2018
 “He handed me a canvas that said “I love you Thom. Feel Freee.” This moment was filled with emotions and will be something that I remember for the rest of my life.”

Part 1: Excitement, challenges and a nervous mom

Never studying abroad before or even leaving the country prior to this trip, made me and more importantly, my mother very nervous! As a CCPA student in both undergrad and now graduate school, I always heard of study abroad opportunities throughout both CCPA and the University as a whole.

Starting as a graduate student this past fall I stumbled upon this program through an email list serve. What attracted me to the Malawi program over others was the sustainability aspect to the project that I saw and heard from students who attended the program last summer.

One of the struggles I faced leading up to this trip was how close my brother’s wedding was to the day that we’d be returning. With my brother’s wedding being in my parents yard a great deal of preparation around the house needs to be done leading up to the big day.

Another challenge…leaving the country has always been a major fear of mine. Being actively involved in student government, I’ve always been very interested in federal politics and international affairs. With everything going on in the world it has always frightened me to leave the U.S. and then have something happen, either here in the  States or abroad.

Two days before leaving for Africa it really hit me. It really came full circle that Malawi was no longer just a thing that I was going to be doing in May, but rather something that was really happening in a few days. Walking into JFK and seeing everyone ready to get on the plane, I became even more excited.

As I sit on the plane right now and look around at all the people from around the world, I couldn’t be more excited and thankful for this trip and all that will come out of it.

Part 2: Unexpected emotion, the shock of educating in poverty and a life-changing friend named “Chimwemwe”

Week one in Malawi, complete. There is and has been, a lot going on in my head throughout this week, much like many of my peers on this trip. Growing up, my friends have always made note that I don’t have “emotions” and if I do, you certainly won’t be seen me showing them in public.

This week, my emotions were tested. I have always had a passion for working with children and in the education arena. Driving up to MCM on Monday this week, my view and scoop on education, children living in extreme conditions and poverty, has drastically changed and changed for the better.

This week, I threw myself into as many activities and opportunities as possible. As a leader of the community schools work group, I visited classrooms and meeting with teachers. This experience was eye opening.

It was difficult for me to follow along with the class lecture because of the shock I was feeling as I looked around the classroom. Conditions seen in this room was ones I’d never seen before. For example, this classroom had no desks, but rather plastic chairs that the students worked at. Supplies for students are minimal in all classrooms and something that was discussed prior to our arrival, but I wasn’t anticipating it being to this degree.

Following my classroom visit, I was walking back to the main MCM building when I heard a voice behind say “Uncle!” This is when I met Chimwemwe. He stood there holding a soccer ball (football), smiling and eager to play. I knew this would be my buddy throughout my stay in Malawi.

Tom with Chimwemwe

We ended up playing soccer every day since. Our soccer games started off as just the two of us and have grown to a large group of boys. I instantly came to the realization that I was not only out of shape, but every time I would get the ball I was reminded that my foot skills were not up to par with Chimwemwe and his friends at MCM!  Chimwemwe, myself and other boys at the school played not only soccer but basketball, baseball and made paper airplanes.

On Friday, Chimwemwe, grabbed my hand and brought me over the arts and crafts area and started drawing me a picture. He used a mini canvas board and shielded what he was writing from me until he was done with it.

He handed me a canvas that said “I love you Thom. Feel Freee.” This moment was filled with emotions and will be something that I remember for the rest of my life.

I am eager to return to MCM on Wednesday after the Lake and enjoy the five days left at MCM.

Tom and the boys. Chimwemwe sporting the Cowboys tee and big grin.

Part 3: Program gratification, the importance of internet access and hopeful plans for the future

This past Saturday was one of my most enjoyable days here in Africa. For the second time, fellow classmates, Dr. Blitz and myself met with MCM’s teachers and administrators dove into the of best ways to teach and educate students who might be struggling with trauma and toxic stress. In my opinion, this was both engaging and informative.

The partnership MCM has with Binghamton University is unique in that the projects and initiatives such as teacher training, soap making or young women’s initiative, to name a few, are all looked at as long-term projects.

From the start, it was understood by all those attending this trip that whatever we provide to MCM with our projects, it needed to be sustainable and able to be continued once we leave. I believe we accomplished that across all our programs. The teachers’ who attended the training showed both enthusiasm and eagerness to learn from us, which was exciting.

Following our three-hour training, myself and my peers immediately started to discuss ways to make trainings such as the one we assisted with more consistent and frequent. We discussed why it would be difficult to provide additional trainings throughout the school year from the U.S.

I believe the biggest issue and difficulty is the poor internet and Wi-Fi in Malawi. Hosting an online video training from the U.S. would be challenging.

Exciting for both the partnership between the University and MCM is the possibility of bringing Malawi educators Phoebe and Henock to the U.S. for an education conference in New York and a visit to the Binghamton area.

This opportunity would allow them to attend a professional development conference surrounding education and meet like-minded educational professionals. Bringing Phoebe and Henock to the Binghamton area to visit local K-12 schools would be an amazing experience.

Watch for more Malawi Moments, sharing the first-hand experiences of Binghamton University student volunteers in the Malawi Children’s Mission (MCM) Program.

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Moments from Malawi: Reflections from student volunteers

Volunteers who work with the Malawi Children’s Mission Partnership (MCM) repeatedly say they come away feeling they have received more important life lessons than they delivered.

Beginning with our next post, we’ll be sharing thoughts and experiences from student participants in a new series:

Moments from Malawi: Reflections from student volunteers


About the Malawi Children’s Mission Partnership (MCM)

This partnership is a collaboration between a local businessman and members of CCPA that helps students from a broad range of disciplines address the profound intergenerational cycle of poverty in Broome County and the far-flung African country of Malawi.

More at Malawi Children’s Mission Partnership (MCM)

My Philanthropy Journey Continues: Reflections on the Youth Philanthropy Connect Conference

I first became interested in philanthropy and grant making through Professor David Campbell’s Philanthropy and Civil Society course, which I took during the spring semester of my freshman year. I left the course with a passion for philanthropy but no true “next step” in applying the concepts and critical thinking skills I had learned. Volunteering at a local non-profit and attending several MPA information sessions confirmed my interest in making a career out of philanthropy, but I found myself, a year later, still with absolutely no idea how to make that happen. Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to attend the Youth Philanthropy Connect Northeast Regional Conference on June 14th. Alongside my fellow Philanthropy and Civil Society alum, Nick Doran, I headed to the Centre for Social Innovation in New York City with the hope that I would connect with other young people and adults who could provide me with a “next step.”

Upon my arrival, I was immediately impressed by the energy of the other conference attendees. I knew that I was surrounded by a truly special group of people, united by the common goal of promoting youth philanthropy in our region. The day’s program offered sessions for both young people and adults, with the adult sessions focusing on increasing youth civic engagement in our communities.

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The conference itself was not very large, with maybe 50 to 60 people (young people and adults) in attendance.  However, this made it much easier to get to know the people that we would be spending our day with.  Most of the program, including presentations on philanthropy models from some of the foundations and programs represented at the conference, and a presentation on philanthropy in New York City, included all attendees.  However, there were breakaway sessions in which we could choose what small group discussions we wanted to take part in.  I chose to attend a workshop about the relationship between social justice and philanthropy, in which we discussed the importance of supporting organizations that get to the root of social issues, rather than simply providing temporary solutions. Additionally, I participated in a discussion about careers and futures in philanthropy where I learned that there is not one set path that will lead me to a successful career in philanthropy. Listening to the life stories of various philanthropic leaders inspired me to identify the causes I care about and to decide how I want to become involved with those causes.

The most beneficial aspect of the conference for me was definitely the smaller discussion groups.  These groups allowed me to network not only with impressive figures in the field of philanthropy, but also with inspiring youth philanthropists.  Some of the young people had started their own nonprofits, while others, like Nick and I, had participated in grant making courses at their own schools.  One of the adults who was running the conference had actually participated in a course funded by the Learning by Giving Foundation during her time at Tufts University, so it was interesting to compare our experiences!

We ended our day by giving away microgrants based on research we had done and grant proposals we had received and reviewed prior to attending the conference.  We went through a process similar to that used in the Philanthropy and Civil Society course, although this process moved much faster than our class’ did.  It was exciting to hear how other young people had approached a process like this in the past, and I enjoyed working with them to come to a consensus.  We ended up giving $2,500 to The Possibility Project, a youth-led program that puts on musicals inspired by the teens’ own life stories, and $2,500 to Youth Communication’s Intensive Summer Writing Program, which provides workshops to inner-city youth and allows them to share their stories and develop critical writing skills.

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Overall, I found the conference to be an excellent way for me to rediscover my passion for philanthropy and to connect with other youth philanthropists who share my passion!  Although I still do not know exactly what my future in philanthropy holds, I now know that I am a part of a larger network of young change-makers, and that my “next step” is to stay connected with these leaders so we can work together to change the future of philanthropy.

Martha Engle

Binghamton University, Class of 2017

B.A. Psychology and B.A. French Language and Linguistics