Harpur Fellows make a difference around the world

Students lead projects in Bangladesh, Argentina, NYC and Nigeria

Auruddah Antaneel helped launch a computer literacy program in his native Bangladesh. Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.
Auruddah Antaneel helped launch a computer literacy program in his native Bangladesh.
Auruddah Antaneel helped launch a computer literacy program in his native Bangladesh. Photography: Jonathan Cohen.

For Auruddha Antaneel, becoming a Harpur Fellow meant finally being able to give back to his hometown of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

“Whenever I think about helping someone or something, for me the first factor is always money,” he said. “Because if I don’t have the money, I don’t have the mouth to talk about it.”

Antaneel was one of four Harpur College students who contributed to international or national communities in the summer of 2017. The other fellows were Tamar Ashdot, Julie Leung and Mmekom Udosen.

The Harpur Fellows program, now in its seventh year, is made possible by the support of Harpur donors and alumni. It is designed to give undergraduates the opportunity to pursue a self-designed project that will serve a community and contribute to the their intellectual and personal growth. Those selected for the fellowship receive up to $4,000 to pursue their project.

Antaneel, a senior double-majoring in economics and philosophy, politics and law, teamed up with the organization Smallfoot to launch “Smallfoot – Tech for Kids,” an initiative promoting computer literacy for 20 kids ages 8 through 12 in the slum area of Janata Housing in Mirpur, Dhaka.

“We want them to be able to use the internet to acquire knowledge to get themselves in a better place, to grow a bigger sense of understanding of the world – to provide them with opportunities,” Antaneel said.

Smallfoot was created in 2013 by a group of Antaneel’s friends after they graduated from high school. Because Antaneel enrolled in the Bangladesh Marine Academy (before coming to Binghamton University in 2015), he was unable to join their effort until now. The organization pays for nine children living in the slum to attend Time International Academy in Dhaka and hosts hands-on experiences, such as team-building exercises. That is something Antaneel said they don’t get from their curriculum-based education.

“In my country,” he said, “except for some wealthy private schools, most of the education is just: You go to school, you read the textbook, you memorize a lot of stuff and you go write exams. I’m not saying it’s a bad learning process, but it’s not optimum.”

Smallfoot always planned to begin a computer literacy program, but was never able to raise the money. Because of the Harpur Fellows funding, the organization has purchased 10 laptops that are used every Friday and Saturday to help educate two groups of 10 children.

Antaneel was only in Dhaka for the first three weeks of the program, but could already see its potential when he observed an interaction between a soft-spoken 8-year-old girl named Hasina and a gregarious 10-year-old girl named Morsheda.

“I was supervising the other kids, and when I came back, I saw that [Morsheda] was standing right behind Hasina, holding her hands and showing her how to type,” he said. “It felt so good to just see it and know that ‘OK, this is going somewhere.’” — KB

Tamar Ashdot took a melodic approach to learn more about Judaism in Argentina.

“I’m obviously not Argentinian,” she said. “I obviously don’t speak Spanish as well Argentinians, but I love music and I’m going to find people who love music. It became, as cliché as it sounds, the universal language.”

Ashdot, a senior double-majoring majoring in Judaic studies and English, grew up in a secular Israeli-American home and attended a small Jewish day school before pursuing her love of music at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York City.

“I was really living in a small world and then I went to LaGuardia and befriended all of these people that naturally I had never encountered before,” she said. “We all hit it off because the thing we had in common was music.”

For her project, Ashdot spent three weeks in July and August volunteering at the Jewish day school Escuela J.N. Bialik. Although the nation’s capital, Buenos Aires, is home to dozens of Jewish day schools, Argentina’s second-largest city, Rosario, only has one. Ashdot said she chose Rosario because she wanted to go somewhere where her help would be more impactful.

Ashdot, who is fluent in Hebrew and has limited-working proficiency in Spanish, volunteered Mondays through Fridays, primarily in a music class, but also assisted in the English conversation and Hebrew conversation classes. She also spent three nights a week rehearsing at a local synagogue with the Victor Lien Choir, comprised of people ages 10 to 75.

“Culturally, their Judaism was very vibrant and very alive. Everyone lives their happy secular life and goes to Jewish school,” she said. “Everyone just assumes that if you’re Jewish you’ll do Jewish activities. But it’s not necessarily so correlated all of the time. It was amazing to see this flourishing community and how they are literally devoting their time three nights a week to singing Jewish music.”

Ashdot documented her stay though photography and plans to display her work at an art show in November. Although she was in Rosario for less than a month, Ashdot said the project connected her to another side of Judaism and she is excited to return.

“Going for such a short time and feeling like people knew me and I was a part of the community,” she said, “I think that’s really rare.” — KB

Julie Leung decided to take her Harpur Fellows project in a unique direction.

“Most of the Harpur Fellows focus on kids or adolescents,” she said. “I didn’t see a lot of projects focus on the elderly.”

Leung, a senior majoring in Chinese studies and minoring in biology, planned “Chinatown Seniors go on a Field Trip.” The series of summer trips allowed Leung to form a deeper connection with her community.

“I grew up in Chinatown and during my childhood my mom and my grandpa were big influences in my life,” Leung said. “They helped me develop the moral foundations that I have today.”

Raised by her Chinese mother in both Chinatown and Brooklyn, Leung was able to experience Chinatown from inside and outside the community. Leung’s distinct perspective gave her a place to start, but one course at Harpur College actually set the project in motion.

When Leung took Confucian Ethics with Distinguished Teaching Professor Zu-yan Chen, things just seemed to click. Chen recommended Leung for the Harpur Fellows program, and Leung drew inspiration from his class for her project.

“That course made me aware of my cultural background, which helped me choose the Chinatown community,” she said.

Once she found her topic, Leung decided to focus on the senior residents who live in Confucius Plaza, an apartment building in Chinatown.

“I wanted to supplement their current program by giving them a rare opportunity to go out on trips and explore the city and the culture of New York City,” she said.

Though many of these seniors were born and raised in New York City, quite a few of them had never explored the city.

“One of the seniors told me that they had never set foot outside of Chinatown,” Leung recalled.

Leung planned trips to local landmarks, such as the Bronx Zoo and the Oculus, for nice days, and she scheduled movies and karaoke sessions for days that were too hot.

“My whole project timeline and agenda was very detailed but that definitely was not the case,” she said. “When it came to doing it, a lot of things were adjusted and I learned how to adapt to different settings.”

Even though Leung was often adjusting her project on the fly, the program paid off.

“One of the seniors said: ‘I’m so happy that you’re doing this for us. No one has ever done this for us before,’” Leung said. “Her gratitude really touched me.”

The project also gave Leung some insight into her future working as a nurse practitioner.

“I’m interested in doing geriatric care with the elderly Chinese population,” she said. “Working with the senior citizens this summer exposed me to how these interactions are in the real world.”

Leung said that everything — her career aspirations, her Harpur Fellows project and even her daily actions — boils down to what she learned in Chen’s Confucian Ethics class.

Four core values of Confucianism — human virtuosity, ritual propriety, righteousness and filial piety — now influence all of her actions.

“You don’t just learn those things in textbooks,” Leung explained. “You apply them in your own daily life.”

Chen’s influence went above and beyond the classroom, which is why Leung became a Chinese studies major.

“Back in middle school I had instructors who instilled discipline and a strong work ethic in me, and I saw that again when I took a few gen-ed Chinese courses,” Leung said. “These professors really care about their students’ well-being.”

By introducing Leung to the Harpur Fellows program, Chen empowered Leung to share her vision with her communities, both on and off campus.

“Students are so busy focusing on classes that they don’t bother exploring the campus and seeing what resources we have,” Leung said. “I was fortunate enough to be introduced to this program by the faculty.”

As Leung looks toward her future helping underserved communities, she leaves one piece of advice behind for students.

“Take advantage of the resources that are offered,” Leung said. “Especially at a great institution like Binghamton University.” — JC

Mmekom Udosen is empowering the next generation of strong women.

Udosen spent her junior year planning her workshop, “We Are Iban Ifiok: Raising Queens of Tomorrow.” Iban ifiok means knowledgeable women in Ibibio, a language spoken in her mother’s hometown of Uyo, which is in Akwa Ibom, Nigeria.

“I could’ve called it ‘We are Knowledgeable Women,’” Udosen said. “But I wanted to infuse it with culture as well.”

Udosen, a senior double-majoring in Africana studies and integrative neuroscience, wanted to use the Harpur Fellows’ resources in a personal and meaningful way.

“I knew that I wanted to work with kids or my peers,” Udosen said. “And I noticed that I was really good at talking to girls and giving them advice.”

Once she narrowed down her audience to adolescent girls, Udosen decided to hold the workshop in Uyo, and began to draw inspiration from the strong women around her.

“My mom had to endure a lot and had to jump through a lot of hoops to get where she is now,” Udosen explained.

“Same thing with my mentors; they didn’t just get there like that,” Udosen said as she snapped her fingers. “They worked hard.”

And Udosen worked hard, too. She crafted her workshop carefully, ordering school supplies, sanitary products and souvenirs for the girls, all while reaching out to keynote speakers and panelists.

“I had to make sure that what I was doing also made sense to them, because I was born and raised [in the United States],” she said. “I didn’t want it to seem like I was the American coming in and telling them what to do. I’m not trying to take away from their sense of identity.”

In an effort to make her workshop inclusive, Udosen reached out to other women for their advice.

“I created a Google form for anybody who was interested and they each wrote a message on what it means to be a knowledgeable woman,” Udosen said. “I put a message in each gift bag for the girls.”

After putting in months of hard work, Udosen finally got to share her workshop with 75 girls.

“It gave them insight into what tomorrow could be, and what they need to do in order to get there,” she said. “It’s hard being a student and trying to achieve your goals, but if you don’t have the resources, or the faith in yourself, it’s even harder.”

Udosen, who was raised in Queens, N.Y., is proud to be a Nigerian New Yorker.

“I’ve had my culture instilled in me since day one, and I’m glad I get to bring that to the borough,” she said. “Being Nigerian has a lot to do with what I believe, my work ethic and my desire to help people.”

Though she has already helped many people in her 21 years, Udosen is nowhere near finished. She plans to become a doctor after graduation.

For Udosen, being a doctor isn’t just about making money or collecting data: It’s about improving her community.

“I want to open up a free clinic for people in Akwa Ibom once I have the funds,” she said.

With a long road both ahead and behind her, Udosen knows that she is already a powerful woman.

“Success isn’t just money,” she said. “It’s about how you feel when you wake up in the morning, how you make yourself feel better when you’re down.”

Although she’s still wrapping up her fourth year at Binghamton University, Udosen is already setting her next plans in motion.

“I’m not really sad to leave,” she said. “I’m ready to leave because I’ve been well-equipped.” — JC

Posted in: In the World, Harpur