In May, as USC Dornsife graduates boxed up their belongings and left campus for their new ventures, 13 boarded a plane for Africa to make good on a promise.
Two years ago, the members of USC Africa Health Initiative (AHI) vowed to raise money to construct a 300-meter long bridge in Sikoro, Mali. This summer, they returned to the village and helped the work move forward.
Standing before the concrete structure under construction, they felt a rush of emotions.
“It is all so overwhelming,” said Cathy Sherman, a USC AHI co-leader who earned a bachelor’s in history and a minor in Middle Eastern studies from USC Dornsife. “It offers a sense of accomplishment and reminds us that there is a lot more to be done.”
Providing the community with a bridge was the brainchild of Lauren Ciszak, a student in USC Dornsife’s Post-Baccalaureate Premedical Program from 2007 to 2009. During her overseas studies in Mali, she was approached by villagers who shared their desire to build a bridge over an area that flooded each year during the rainy season. Too deep and far to cross by foot and too shallow for boat transit, the village had been severed from access to the middle school, health center, road and market for three to four months until the water subsided. Villagers attempted to raise the money themselves to build a bridge by selling mud bricks and bundles of sticks, but needed help.
After her trip, Ciszak returned to campus and launched USC AHI in 2009 and brought other students onboard. She researched fundraising methods, developed a partnership with a Rotary Club in New Jersey and contacted the nonprofit Bridges to Prosperity for their guidance. USC faculty also helped spread the word to students.
That same year, 17 USC AHI members across various disciplines and USC schools arrived in the village. They established a community garden with funding provided by the USC Institute for Global Health and spent their days working beside the women villagers planting vegetables.
Receptive to the community’s needs, group members arranged for an instructor to lead literacy lessons for women of the village. Using flashlights late into the night, the women spent their evenings learning to read and write in the local language, Bambara.
For USC Dornsife alumnus Adrian Au, who earned a bachelor’s in neuroscience in May 2011, his trips to Mali have reinforced the importance of the group’s work. He served as the organization’s co-leader this past year.
“My commitment to this initiative and the cause has grown indefinitely,” said Au who recently returned from the group’s two week-trip to Mali. “Seeing the bridge in progress was amazing. After working really hard to raise money, finally seeing the beginning of the project is exciting.”
During their last year at USC, Sherman and Au led the group’s fundraising efforts. Members sold items made in Mali on Trousdale Parkway, held a benefit auction and launched a letter campaign. Since its inception, the group has contributed $13,000 to the completion of the bridge.
Villagers welcomed students with open arms once again this summer. Several times a day they were approached by men and women thanking them for their contributions.
During their stay they met with the mayor, a member of Mali’s parliament and village elders. They also worked alongside the villagers planting banana trees and laying new concrete in the schoolhouse.
But there is more to be done. USC AHI raised enough money to cover a portion of the bridge; however $16,000 is still needed for completion.
Now as USC Dornsife alumni, Au and Sherman are passing their leadership roles to USC AHI’s current members. The organization will proceed with its goal to complete the bridge by next year’s rainy season, June to September.
Although he will begin graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, pursuing a career in medicine this fall, Au hopes to continue to raise funds for the bridge and to return to Mali.
Sherman, an aspiring child behaviorist, plans to do the same while teaching in Nashville, Tenn., through Teach for America.
“We are going to ensure the bridge is finished one way or another,” Sherman said. “These people are too amazing and it is something they need. If I can help provide it I am going to.”
For more information on USC Africa Health Initiative, visit uscahi.com.