• Two students win grants from Davis Projects for Peace

    Alex Ding and Sujata Singh win $10,000 to implement grassroots summer projects

By Mary Abowd
Photo by Robert Kozloff
Originally published on April 10, 2015
April 13, 2015

Two UChicago students have won $10,000 grants from Davis Projects for Peace, an initiative that encourages students to design and implement grassroots summer projects that promote peace and address the root causes of conflict.

First-year master’s student Sujata Singh will travel to Nepal to teach computer skills in Alad, a remote village in the far western region of the country, where currently there is only one computer. Singh, who was born and raised in Kathmandu, plans to spend her grant money purchasing 10 computers that will serve 300 students at Shree Bhairab Secondary School.

She will help train the school’s 13 teachers, then provide a four-week computer course for ninth- and 10th-graders. “Going into this project, I thought ‘How can I make sure that these students have the world open to them?’” said Singh, a student in the Harris School of Public Policy, with a focus on women and poverty. “Computers and the Internet are such a big part of that, especially in today’s global world.”

Singh says the 10-year civil war in Nepal may have ended in 2006, but the country is still without a constitution and remains politically deadlocked. Rural villagers like those of Alad were traumatized and remain cut off from their society and the world at large—with little opportunity for education and jobs. “One of my main goals is community building from within,” she said. “Through education, the students can find ways to make their community stronger and give back to their society.”

“I’m excited to go home with something to contribute." 
— Sujata Singh

Singh has not been back to Nepal in three years. During her stay, she plans to live among Alad’s villagers. “I’m expecting a bit of reverse culture shock, but I’m really looking forward to it,” she said.

Alex Ding will return to Pelel Kindessa, in southwestern Senegal, for 10 weeks this summer to help establish community gardens, dig a freshwater well and build hygienic latrines. A first-year in the College, Ding spent seven months in the village last year after graduating from high school. There, she learned the local language, Pulaar, and came to a profound understanding of the villagers’ most basic needs.

Two months into her stay in the village, Ding’s host mother, a woman in her early 30s, died following the birth of twin girls. The death was attributed to chronic malnutrition and untreated anemia. “It was a preventable death,” Ding said. “They have a word for that in Pulaar that means ‘stupid death.’”

Through conversations with villagers, Ding learned that while access to medical care was an urgent need—the nearest hospital was nearly two hours away—access to basic nutrition might have prevented her host mother’s death. “They subsist on a diet of rice and corn,” Ding said, “and they understand that what they’re putting into their bodies is not enough.”

This summer Ding will use her Davis Prize grant to create a 2.5-acre year-round community vegetable garden that will provide the community with nutrient-rich foods. The idea came from the villagers themselves who already have taken leadership roles to make it happen. She also will work to promote better access to drinking water and better hygiene and sanitation practices through the construction of a freshwater well and improved latrines. Currently, the village has no running water or electricity.

Ding said the community is tightly knit, and neighbors come to each other’s aid. Nonetheless, hopelessness exists about their collective fate. “My ultimate goal is to challenge the ways Pelel residents relate to their condition, self-narrate their lives and imagine their futures,” she said. “I hope this project will empower them to tackle future challenges more effectively and inclusively.”

Now in its ninth year, Davis Projects for Peace was founded by international philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis, who donated $1 million on her 100th birthday in 2007 to start the program. The scholarship is open to undergraduates who are affiliated with Davis United World College Scholars Program partner schools and International Houses worldwide. Singh applied through her affiliation with International House at the University of Chicago, where she is also a recipient of a 2014-2015 residential fellowship.