Ashley van Waes ’13, an international business major with minors in economics and Spanish, started her career path from a passion to help others. She spent much of the past year in Uganda, working with the Women’s Microfinance Initiative (WMI), an organization dedicated to providing capital, training and support services to rural women.
“I am fascinated by the pace and unpredictability of development work and wanted to pursue it as a career,” said van Waes, who grew up in Blair, Nebraska. “I worked as a caseworker for the American Red Cross in New Orleans. I enjoyed the on-the-ground work and wanted to apply it to a low-resource area. Going to Uganda affirmed my love for this work and taught me what it is like to live on less than a dollar a day.”
Her role working at the WMI allowed her to wear many different hats. Ugandan women run the organization and as the only westerner, van Waes played a supporting role.
“My tasks involved offering oversight and projection for our loan hub finances, streamlining operations and reporting mechanisms, acting as a liaison between rural Uganda and the outside world, and creating and implementing community projects. I helped problem solve at every level of the program,” she said.
The loan program charges a small interest rate and membership fees that allow the program to be self-sufficient. Profits go back into the community through development projects.
“The community projects and partnerships are diverse. I worked on solar power initiatives, family planning outreach, financial and computer literacy courses, developing sustainable business plans for the distribution of menstrual cups, organizing health program for cancer and HIV screenings and engaging schoolchildren to learn entrepreneurial skills,” said van Waes.
Other projects included launching a recreational program at the primary school, monitoring and evaluation of ongoing community projects and creating short films and biographies on people who borrow funds from the WMI. van Waes believes she has been taught more from the Ugandan women than she could ever teach them.
“I am constantly humbled by their commitment, humility and strength,” said van Waes. “The world we live in is often two steps forward, one step back. Ugandans take this in stride. I struggle to meet someone here who is not an opportunist or positivist. One overarching lesson I will take back with me is give love to get love.“
van Waes credits both the the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business Administration and her work as a research assistant for the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) as inspiring her to push her boundaries. The classes she took had a direct application to her work in Uganda.
“Courses such as gender economics and social provisioning, development economics and a multidisciplinary focus on international politics and current events through my involvement in E.N. Thompson Community of International Scholars prepared me for success in Uganda. In IAFFE my duties including organizing and attending the 2014 Annual Conference in Accra, Ghana. Those travels galvanized my desire to pursue a career in development,” said van Waes.