by Otto Nagengast ’17
During Ekow Edzie’s senior year at Middlebury College, he sent off application after application for internships across the country and abroad. By the time he graduated in May, with a degree in Environmental Studies and Biology, he had accepted three internships in San Francisco. He spent the next year zipping around the Bay Area on his bike going from the Antenna Theater where he researched for an environmentally-focused art initiative, to 826 Valencia where he tutored kids and built programs, and at night he would across the Golden Gate Bridge to Oakland where he taught swim lessons.
Although the work he was doing in San Francisco was exciting, Ekow says that he didn’t see how it was helping him to do the kind of work he really wanted to do. He applied to the Peace Corps, and a year later, he was off to the Dominican Republic. When Ekow arrived in March 2011, there was great political change underway. The president at the time, Leonel Fernández, appointed a new Minister of the Environment, Jamie Mirabal, son of Dedé Mirabal who is a national hero in the Dominican Republic. Part of Jamie Mirabal’s task was to reclaim control of the country’s natural resources that had long been exploited by wealthy land-owners. One of his first steps as Minister was to change the National Forestry School into the National School for the Environment in order to groom a generation of young Dominicans that would protect their country’s environment.
Ekow was assigned to work with the director of the new National School for the Environment. Professor Jon Isham, who spent three years with the Peace Corps in Gabon, raised his hand during the talk to add that Ekow’s assignment is a “dream post” for a Peace Corps volunteer. For two years, Ekow taught at the school and worked to expand programming. In the summer of 2012, Ekow’s high school Spanish teacher and current Director of Curriculum and Program Development at Education First contacted Ekow to explore the feasibility of collaboration with the National School of the Environment.
Education First (EF) is the largest private education company in the world. For 50 years, they have enabled people, particularly young people, from around the world to travel and discover the world. One of their staple programs are student trips. George Stewart wanted to expand EF’s programming to include service-learning trips. Ekow knew that the interest and opportunity were there in the DR, but he didn’t know about the scalability and profitability. He reached out to other organizations, and found several more who were interested in partnering with EF. In May 2013, he was hired as EF’s Program Manager in the DR.
Ekow says that his time in the Peace Corps enabled him to see what his four-year investment of college was really worth. It also taught him key skills of social entrepreneurship, like how to get to know a place by listening to the local people. Drawing upon these skills, Ekow saw that trips built on detailed itineraries, the standard format for EF trips, was not possible in the DR. Instead, he is designing trips centered on themes, like youth empowerment or the environment. Ekow also saw that he may not be able to guarantee that a group can work on a theme because the opportunity may not exist all the time, but he can guarantee that they can learn about it through educational programming while in-country.
Ekow loves that his work not only helps the trip participants to travel and learn, but the trips also help local organizations financially, they creates jobs, and they have a positive impact on pressing issues in the DR. Ekow is transitioning out of his role with EF in order to pursue further studies, but he is grooming the current field director of the DR program to replace him. After their success in the DR thanks to Ekow’s work, EF is now expanding their service-learning programs throughout Latin America.