July 31, 2007

Michelle Bright ’90 Assists Domestic Violence Victims in Peru

She spent three months helping them learn trade skills and English

As an undergraduate at Lafayette, Michelle Bright ’90 completed a minor in Spanish and studied in Spain after graduate school. But by the time an opportunity to travel to Peru rolled around, Bright’s skills were admittedly “rusty.”

Still, that didn’t deter the international affairs graduate from signing on with ProPeru, an abroad volunteer organization, for three months. Bright worked with the Kanchay Wasi branch of the group, which in the Quechua language means “house of light.”

“I was attracted by the fact that it worked with women,” explains Bright. “I’ve worked on development programs that focus on women’s health. Improving the status of women is an area I care very much about.”

The majority of the women Bright worked with were victims of domestic violence. They met three times each week to knit, talk about their experiences, and learn English. The goods they knitted were sold at a store owned by one of the women. Bright taught English and spent time learning about their culture and sharing what life is like in the United States.

She also helped create an off-shoot of Kanchay Wasi called the Young Mother’s Project. The goal was to teach the women how to knit so they could earn some money toward health and child care education.

“Absolutely the most rewarding aspect was the work I did with the women of Kanchay Wasi and the Young Mother’s Project,” she says. “The Kanchay Wasi women were so excited to learn even a little bit of English, and the young mothers were really committed to learning to knit so they could acquire a valuable skill. They were also excited by the prospect of learning about various health and child development topics that the program would feature. All the women were so welcoming to me and were very forgiving of my awful Spanish. Seeing the circumstances of these women’s lives, particularly the young moms, was really affecting – it really makes you realize how fortunate you are.”

Like the other volunteers with ProPeru, Bright was placed with a host family during her visit. The family was well-off by local standards, owning a television and microwave. Still, she used an electric shower that produced only a small trickle of lukewarm water.

She credits her years at Lafayette with opening doors for the ProPeru experience and her work on international development, done mostly with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She is now working for a consulting firm evaluating a USAID education project in Africa.

“For one thing, Lafayette really honed my research and writing skills, and I’ve used these skills in every job I’ve ever had,” she says. “On a more general level, my time at Lafayette really opened my eyes to the world, the possibilities of internationally-related work, graduate school, and my own capabilities. I remember June Schlueter [Charles A. Dana Professor of English], who was my freshman English professor, as well as [government and law] Professor [John] McCartney as being excellent professors who made you think, analyze, etc.”

Bright recommends taking a chance on an international experience, and believes the skills and perspective she gained have helped her career.

“If there’s anyone out there who’s thinking of doing something similar, do it,” she says. “Take the chance, sublease your apartment, rent your home, quit your job – it’s all possible. I found it easy to find a new job once I was back. In fact, the time in Peru helped me career wise; up until then, all my experience was D.C.-based. Going out to the field, even for a short time, gave me more credibility. Even if you don’t work in an international field, I think doing something like this shows you’re flexible and open to new experiences.”

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