Opeyemi Awe '15, Student Intern with Challenging Heights, 2012

OpeOpeyemi Awe '15, 2012 Grinnell Prize Student Intern


 Anne Geissinger


Opeyemi Awe '15 was awarded a Grinnellink internship to work with 2011 Grinnell Prize winner James Kofi Annan and his organization Challenging Heights. Ope worked first with Challenging Heights' partner organization Hovde Foundation in Washington DC for five weeks before spending five weeks working with Challenging Heights in Ghana.

From Germantown, Maryland by way of Ilesa, Nigeria, Opeyemi Awe '15 (known as "Ope") will split her internship between Hovde Foundation in Washington D.C. and Challenging Heights in Ghana. Ope is an intended chemistry and sociology double major, who is also looking to concentrate in Global Development Studies.

A "Day in the Life" at Hovde Foundation

I have two main responsibilities while here in DC. I am searching for partners for Challenging Heights and other Hovde Foundation partners and I am seeking funding sources. This requires a lot of time sending emails, drafting letters and just seeking any opportunities that might be of any benefit to Challenging Heights. My day typically begins at around 8:30 when I wake up. I take a 30 minute Metro ride and walk 10 minutes to the Hovde Financial / Foundation office which is in Dupont Circle (a lively and thriving part of DC known for its awesome night life as well as its many office buildings). I typically get to the office anytime between 9:30 and 10 am where I immediately check my email. The interns and I typically have a meeting with Jessie where we discuss individual projects or assignments that we are working on. Once a week, we are assigned new big projects with lots of little tasks that pop up during the week. After our meeting, the interns and I either work together in a conference room in the basement or we work at our own desks. At around 12:45 or 1pm I typically go out to lunch and try some of the wonderful cuisine in DC. I typically keep working (which involves hours of sitting and web searching) until about 5pm when I head to the Catholic University housing where I am staying for the summer. Once I get home and chill for about an hour – I typically head back out to discover the city whether it be to have dinner with friends or go see an art show or watch a movie on the Mall, I try to do one cool, new thing a night and I have had a splendid time exploring DC.

Big Moments and Accomplishments in DC

I have learned a lot about myself, the world of non-profits and child / sex trafficking while I have been here. I have learned about how deep the problem runs in so many societies including the US. I have also learned never to take any person or organization at face value. I am learning to challenge ideas and myself and be intentional in my quest to make a difference in my world. Some big moments from my internship in DC so far are .... Receiving responses from emails! It might appear vain or trivial but when seeking partners, it is not rare for me to send out hundreds of emails at a time. It is incredible when I receive – even one – response. Little victories. Other interesting things that I have been working on include helping set up a speaking tour for James Kofi Annan when he visits the US in October and finding an incredible human dignity award for him for which I have begun the groundwork.

Encountering and Overcoming Challenges- Part I

One of the biggest challenges I have faced is trying to overcome pessimism. The Hovde Foundation has done some incredible work with its incredible partners. When I send out hundreds of emails and get no responses, it can be disheartening, in the same way as when I spend hours and hours searching for grants and only come up with one or two possible opportunities. To overcome these, I just remind myself that the work that I am doing is important for the sustenance of our partner organizations and that I am doing them and myself a great service. I also remind myself that I am learning how to be patient.

Another challenge I face runs a little deeper. I see and appreciate all the hard work, energy and effort that these partners put into helping vulnerable children. However, when I begin to read stories and learn how these children ended up in their situations, I find myself hating so many parts of the world. I see all the good yet somehow the evil that I hear about is powerful enough to make me feel like the good is not accomplishing much. I know that this is not true. This is a feeling that I struggle with regularly and truthfully I have not overcome it. I just have to consistently and intentionally remind myself that the work that all these groups are doing is making a difference and that each child that is saved is another potential partner in helping end child / sex trafficking.

A "Day in the Life" at Challenging Heights

My major projects are electronically documenting all the names, ages, and birthdays of all 600 plus students at the school and reviewing an existing policy requiring a specific number of homework assignments per class. However, the majority of my day consists of sitting in classes and interacting with the students. I really love break time because the kids teach me lots of Fantse [the local, native language], cool games, and force me to embarrass myself jump-roping!

This entire experience has really increased my profound respect for educators—especially primary school educators. What these kids are being taught is so essential to their futures but they can be incredibly rowdy and overwhelming, so I truly applaud those who teach for a living—it's incredible and selfless work.

Encountering and Overcoming Challenges- Part II

Challenging Heights is wonderful because it is responding to various community needs through its multifaceted approach. The problem is that there is a lot of need, and so much has to be done on so few resources. Students are learning in half constructed buildings. Some classes have a 60:1 student-teacher ratio, and it can all be very overwhelming. While working here, I am reminding myself of all of the practical limitations I face and realizing that while my final product will not be perfect, it can represent the best and most genuine work that I can do. 

Reflections and What I've Learned

My perspective during my internship in Ghana was colored by my Nigerian heritage. While I loved the opportunity to go to Ghana, experience a new culture and try to do some good – I was constantly aware of my role as the fix-it-American. Ghanaians (and West Africans for that matter) are not looking for pity nor are they looking to be perceived as lesser humans. We are culturally, physically, mentally and emotionally equal to those in first world countries. I became acutely aware and ultra sensitive to many conversations that would occur with some other Americans that I was staying with. No matter how hard I challenged their incorrect notions about Africans – I discovered that the only way that they would see Africans as equals would be if we had the same economic prowess as America or other developed nations. That began to shift my interest more towards understanding how the local economies functioned. Why aren't there major national and international corporations seeking to build factories or open stores in these nations – especially nations with booming economies? What cultural, social, political and economic factors must one consider before investing in a developing nation? It is at this intersection between my personal thoughts and my academic pursuits that I started to be less enamored with my pursuit of chemistry and began to be more interested in economics. If Africans are able to create and maintain stable and competitive economies, we will be able to demand for and invest in institutions that will improve our quality of life. Similarly, it will also put us on the long road to combating the prevailing negative perception of Africans that has been around for far too long.

My sociology and global development studies courses were invaluable in how successful and transformative this internship was for me. Without the background knowledge on the various developmental issues, I would have spent most of my time playing catch-up, as opposed to critically examining my surroundings and asking difficult questions. Likewise, my vocabulary provided me the opportunity to understand and analyze how various sociological concepts such as capital, culture and family, can impact development work. It solidified my intent to pursue a degree in both of these fields. My personal explorations also left open the possibility of pursuing an additional degree in economics. Above all, I valued the opportunity to go to West Africa – the region of development work that most interests me – and daily ask myself 'is this really what you want to do.' While I might not want to end up working at a school in Ghana, I know without a doubt that I want to end up doing development work in West Africa.