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Alyssa Smaldino '07: Passion for Social Justice Takes her Global

Alyssa Smaldino '07 has 64 stamps on her passport, so many that they spill over to a second book. And she earned them far from the tourist trail in some of the poorest places on earth.

Consider her whirlwind trip to Africa. First she flew to Nairobi, Kenya, to visit an organization that teaches teens in the Viwandani slum about sexual health through theatre. She befriended the staff before watching teenage girls sing and dance.

Then she headed to Kisumu in western Kenya to meet a group that counsels HIV patients working at or near a sugar factory. The group members had never seen an American before, so they bonded with the five-foot-two-inch Smaldino and asked her about President Obama, whose grandmother lives close to their village.

Next Smaldino boarded a bus to cross the border into Uganda. She thought it would be a quick trip, but it took 12 hours. No matter. Smaldino has learned to roll with unexpected travel complications in her job as the director of partnerships at GlobeMed, an Evanston, Ill., based nonprofit that partners college students with grassroots organizations in developing nations. "I have become very flexible. I wasn't beforehand," she said with a laugh.

Driven by a passion for social justice and public health, the 25-year-old Smaldino has visited about 50 communities in the developing world over the past three years. She travels in intense six- to eight-week bursts. In the fall of 2012, she traveled to Africa, and the following year, crisscrossed Latin America with stops in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador and Peru. This past fall, she toured Asia, visiting GlobeMed partners in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal and India.

In keeping with GlobeMed's philosophy, she doesn't swoop in to "fix" problems with Western solutions. Instead she listens to the needs of community organizers, who often tackle issues such as women's health, youth empowerment and water purification.

"I listen before I speak up," she said. "Here in the United States, we have a very direct communication style. When we ask a question, we imply an answer. 'Do you want to do this?' That is not how the rest of the world works."

Smaldino cites as examples groups that have tried to force large-scale mechanized agriculture on small organic farms – an approach that has often backfired. "The assumption is, 'We are Americans. We are industrialized. We have advanced solutions.' But we are shaping a different kind of international organization. We talk to partners and open up our minds."

Smaldino, who was active in a GlobeMed partnership with an organization in Rwanda as a student at George Washington University, was the first person hired for the position of director of partnerships.

Bianca Nguyen, the former director of development at GlobeMed, said Smaldino has flourished as she has forged her way.

"As a young person at a young nonprofit, it is very difficult to find your own path," Nguyen said. "But Alyssa has done it. She has some guiding light she follows. She is very resilient and very open and curious. It is difficult to have people trust you when they have never seen you before. But people just respond to her. They invite her into their home and community."

Even as a little girl, Smaldino, the oldest of a family of four in Butler, Pa., had a big heart and a fearless streak. "She would bring the stray dog home," her mother Karen said. "She would later help her girlfriends with boyfriend crises."

She would go on every crazy ride at Kennywood and Disney World, despite her mother's worries that she was too tiny. Her sense of adventure grew over time. "She went whitewater rafting on the Nile on her 21st birthday," Karen said.

Smaldino attended public elementary schools, and in eighth grade, her mother suggested she transfer to Shady Side Academy. On the ride to Fox Chapel for the tour, the teenager said she didn't want to leave her friends. But after the visit, she flashed a huge smile and said, "That school is so cool."

She became her own person at Shady Side Academy. "It all started clicking for her," Karen said. "She soared there. She loved the teachers."

A swimmer who competed in the freestyle and breaststroke, she learned more than efficient strokes from Senior School coach John Landreth. "He did a great job helping swimmers with time management," she said. "Swimming is intense. So is the workload of Shady Side."

"I always attribute so much of my success to what I learned at Shady Side," she said. "I always say that I learned how to learn from Shady Side. I learned how to live at George Washington University."

In college, she majored in public health. During freshman year, she joined the university's GlobeMed chapter, which
was the young nonprofit's ninth chapter. The organization opened up her world. "I learned how poverty and health are all connected. GlobeMed gives students a new lens on issues they might not get in class."

As co-president of her chapter, she worked on a partnership with the Rwanda Village Concept Project. After graduation, she spent two months working with women in Rwanda's rural Huye District, where the infant mortality rate is 64 deaths per 1,000 births. GlobeMed helped to refurbish a health clinic with running water, electricity and a new waiting room. In addition, Smaldino and other students worked on maternal health and income generation programs for 150 mothers in order to combat infant malnutrition.

Five days after returning from Rwanda, she started her
new job as GlobeMed's director of partnerships, working with student leaders of university chapters who raise money for projects implemented by community organizers and often travel overseas for internships to assist. Founded in 2007 by students, GlobeMed has grown to a network of more than 2,000 undergraduates at 57 universities. Each chapter works with one grassroots health organization in one of 18 countries.

A year later, Smaldino began her ambitious goal of traveling the globe to meet every partner organization. (She only has a handful left to check off her list).

Every time Smaldino returns from one of her far-flung trips, her mother breathes a sigh of relief. She can't help but worry about her oldest daughter. But then again, she knows her daughter is driven to help people in the most remote corners of the world. "If anyone can do it, Alyssa can do it," Karen said.

"She finds every train, plane and everything in between. She goes anywhere and everywhere."

Along the way, Smaldino has made lasting friendships.

Peter Mokaya, who founded the group U-Tena in Nairobi, called Smaldino "my role model."

In November 2012, she visited his organization, which uses music, dance, puppetry and theatre to teach residents of the Viwandani slum about HIV, sexually transmitted infections and reproductive health. Smaldino and Mokaya talked about the group's future and clicked immediately.

"She is one of the most influential young people I have ever met," he said. "She has been to Kenya twice, and she knows everyone in the office. She knows my family. She supports us and she supports the kids. She has that charisma."

"She knows who we are and our strengths and weaknesses. She believes in using local knowledge and local people to make positive changes."

Smaldino left that visit wowed and impressed by the theatre- based health education program. She stayed in regular email contact with Mokaya, and three years later, during this past March, GlobeMed flew him and his colleagues to Chicago for its annual summit. "We remain close friends," said Smaldino.

This May, Smaldino traveled to Uganda for a forum of all of GlobeMed's African partners. While she was there, she made an important announcement. She has been named interim executive director of GlobeMed. "I am very excited. I've seen the power of GlobeMed firsthand as a student, intern and staff member."

Often in her travels, Smaldino feels saddened by the sight of children begging on the streets without the most basic health care. Yet she is optimistic about working toward a future without such basic inequities. "I have the hope that as we become more globalized, we will start to feel a greater sense of commitment across the world and have more cross-cultural relationships. It helps me see a future where kids begging in the street doesn't happen."

by Cristina Rouvalis | Photography provided by Alyssa Smaldino
Published in the Summer 2015 issue of Shady Side Academy Magazine