Graduate profile: Valerie Hengemuhle to help students have meaningful experience abroad
It is not a stretch to say that she has made a habit of serving others.
She has volunteered with the Art Therapy Association of New Jersey, worked with the Language and Culture Institute at Virginia Tech as a conversation partner to help Saudi Arabian women learn English, rebuilt homes damaged by Hurricane Katrina, coached Special Olympics, and spent the last nine years serving meals at the Salvation Army during the holidays.
But it was an education abroad trip that taught Hengemuhle about herself, and impelled her to make a difference where she saw a need. She spent four months traveling the world with other Virginia Tech students, learning new things – things like: trains always leave when they say they will; Nutella tastes good any time of the day; and lions are much larger in person.
That last bit of knowledge came when Hengemuhle and eight other students traveled to Kenya to work with the Bambakofi Academy, a boarding school in a town called Malindi. Hengemuhle and her classmates stayed at the school for 16 days, teaching children social lessons, such as dealing with HIV/AIDS, coping with stress, time management, relationships, peer pressure, and understanding emotions. Each night they held dance and skit time to demonstrate what the kids had learned in school that day. On the last night, they surprised the kids with a bonfire.
Hengemuhle said, “While I was in Africa I learned more about myself then I could have ever imagined. This experience not only taught me about myself, but also taught me never to take anything for granted.”
With the guidance of David Brinberg, the Robert O. Goodykoontz Professor of Marketing in the Pamplin College of Business, Hengemuhle and the rest of the students who traveled to Kenya created a non-profit called The Taaluma Project, a name which means education and profession in Swahili. The project raises funds so that the students they met can continue on to secondary school. The members have set a goal of raising $60,000 per year to cover the costs of four years tuition for each child currently at Bambakofi.
Now, as Hengemuhle plans for life after graduation, she says she isn’t ready to stop serving the kids that had a major impact on her life. During the fall 2013 semester, Hengemuhle will travel back to Kenya with Virginia Tech on a new study abroad titled, “Creating Sustainable Social Change.” She’ll be there for five weeks visiting the Bambakofi Academy, and teaching other Virginia Tech students how to help others on a global level.
Hengenmuhle has embraced the intercultural experiences that foster understanding, developed the personal relationships that are the foundation of community, and offered her service as a responsible citizen of the world, in the spirit of the university's motto: Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
Hengemuhle said, “I came into college with an open mind and promised myself that I would never let anything stand in my way and that I would be a risk taker.” Her advice to fellow students as she prepares for graduation is, “Never live your life in fear of what you may not accomplish.”
Valerie Hengemuhle poses with the children of the Bambakofi Academy in Malindi, Kenya.