Emily MacDowell '06: International Developer

Emily MacDowell ’06 works to bring education to rural Nigerian children.  by Liz Getman ’09

It was a frigid Saturday evening in November, yet small beads of sweat dripped from Emily MacDowell’s forehead. The young alumna was finishing preparations for an event she’d begun planning in June — a benefit for CORAfrica, the NGO for which she has worked since December 2006.

CORAfrica (Children of Rural Africa) is a nonprofit organization that helps children in Nigeria secure a quality education.  It operates two schools for ages 3 to 17 that offer traditional education as well as agricultural and technological training. As primary coordinator in the United States, Emily handles the organization’s financial accounts, writes grant proposals, researches and contacts potential donors, supervises interns and volunteers, and — of course — heads the benefit and events committee.

The November wine and cheese benefit was her first event for CORAfrica. The recent graduate, who was an anthropology-writing double major, works up to 20 hours a week as the organization’s (so far) only paid employee. “When I was offered the job,” she says, “I was surprised to learn that I wouldn’t be just writing grants, but would basically be running the entire [U.S. arm of the] organization!”

Nine years ago, Peter “Obele” Abue, a Catholic priest born and raised in Nigeria, began building the first CORAfrica school and orphanage in his home village of Idum, in Cross River State. In 2005 Abue formed the official CORAfrica organization with friends Derek Cabrera and Isatou Jack, whom he met while attending Cornell University as a graduate student. Cabrera handles much of the legwork in the United States (Abue spends most of his time in Nigeria).

Last year Emily interviewed with Cabrera for a research assistant position at his company ThinkWorks, but he offered her the CORAfrica job instead — and, Emily says, it suited her perfectly. “Emily was the best candidate by far,” says Cabrera. “She is very detail-oriented, has [coursework and interest in] international development and is passionate about helping people.”

 At the benefit she organized, Emily spoke with IC anthropology faculty members David Turkon, Jack Rossen, and Brooke Hansen. The four began to discuss strategies for starting an exchange program between Ithaca College and Nigeria via CORAfrica.

“I knew Dave Turkon,” says Emily, “and knew of his work in Africa. We both already had the idea for an exchange program in mind and agreed [at the benefit] that we should develop this program together.”

 “Through it,” says Turkon, “students will get international service learning opportunities.” He points out that anthropology students have a research requirement, which could be fulfilled through their volunteer work. CORAfrica offers free room and board for volunteers, which will allow students to travel more affordably.

The students’ volunteer work might include teaching English as a second language, constructing and renovating schools and other related buildings, and writing grant and donation proposals. “It would be a win-win situation,” he says. “The schools would benefit, and so would the students.”

Emily has worked to involve students in nonprofit activities since her high school days, when she cofounded a youth group that provided alternatives to weekend partying. She has also volunteered for the SPCA. Both jobs, she says, were “very rewarding,” because she enjoys “working for someone whose goal is to make a difference, not simply earn money.”

Emily says she will continue to volunteer for CORAfrica no matter where else she works in the future. “There are times when I feel discouraged,” she admits, “but [Abue’s optimism] helps pull me through. We’ve come a long way and have a long way to go — that’s part of being a young organization. But as long as we have supporters, we can make a difference.” 

Learn more at the CORAfrica site.