In high school, Laura Noble said she would never travel. Exploring other parts of the world just wasn’t on her mind or agenda. She had her friends, her school’s basketball team and volunteer opportunities wrapped up in a neat little package in suburban Sacramento.

Two short years later, she finds herself in Africa, poking her head out of the open top of a Land Cruiser. She’s on safari, breathing morning-fresh Ugandan air and feeling the warmth of the rising sun against her skin. She’s thinking about changing the world and looking forward with sharply focused hazel eyes.

The landscape is as lush and green as Oregon’s, but marked by distinctly African umbrella thorn trees. The Land Cruiser kicks up dust on its way past giraffes, elephants, wart hogs and antelope. Laura is alongside seven of her best friends and fellow classmates from Oregon State University’s College of Business, and together, they stand in awe of the beauty around them. Aleigha Mattison, a junior, remarks that it feels as if the group fell into a National Geographic magazine article.

But this group isn’t on vacation, and they’re not studying abroad. They’re in Uganda to address women’s health issues through a business lens. The safari is a quick break, a fun cultural experience, in between meetings, strategizing sessions and hard work with a nonprofit organization called Terrewode.

Polly Lisicak, Aleigha Mattison and Laura Noble try on skirts designed and sewn by fistula survivors at the Terrewode offices in Kampala.

The College of Business students hope to provide microloans to the women Terrewode helps — women who are living with an obstetric fistula, an injury that occurs to mothers after a prolonged labor. The injury creates a hole between the vagina and the rectum or bladder. In most cases, the child is stillborn, and the mother is left incontinent of urine, feces or both.

In the West, fistula is easily reparable. But in Uganda, there are 1,900 new cases ever year and about 200,000 women living with the condition. Many Ugandans believe fistula is a curse. Because it causes a foul odor, a woman is often abandoned by her husband and ignored by her family. It’s common for the husband to pay to move his wife into a hut at the edge of her village where food can be delivered to her. She is not visited by friends or family. She loses whatever chance she had at an education or a career. She is alone.

A personal connection

Laura, like the rest of her cohort, hadn’t heard of fistula before this project.

“My mom is a nurse,” Laura explains. “So I sort of expected her to know all about fistula, but she’d never heard of it before, either.”

However, during their conversation, Laura learned that her own birth caused her mother a long and difficult labor — and that she had a tear — which was repaired right there on the table in California.

That simple fact left Laura reeling. It made fistula real to her.

“I realized that if my mom had been here [in Uganda] with a lack of medical treatment, this could have happened to her,” Laura says.

Following that scenario, Laura would have to conclude that she wouldn’t even exist. She would have been stillborn. Her father might have taken her older sister and left.

“My mom would have lost her job, her friends, everything,” Laura continues. “My mom is such a huge part of my life and my heart. It hurt me to think that this could have happened to her.”

Activism starts early

Uganda, Terrewode and fistula are not Laura’s first experience in serving others. At 16, with encouragement from friends and family, she started her own nonprofit, Kids Helping Kids. The organization, run entirely by junior and senior high school students in Sacramento and Santa Barbara, raises funds to help low-income children in California communities and abroad.

Looking back now, Laura says the experience was a stepping-stone to where she is today. Back then, she hid behind her co-director, often deferring to her when members of the media asked for interviews, or if someone needed a definitive answer to a question.

“I’ve struggled with that,” Laura admits. “I’m just beginning to learn that I have a voice and what I have to say has value.”

Choosing Oregon State University rather than an in-state, California school was a big first step in gaining self-confidence. Laura initially debated between majoring in engineering and business.

Enter Sandy Neubaum. Iron-willed and inspirational, she has a keen ability to convince students they can, in fact, change the world. As a program director and professor in the College of Business, Sandy emphasizes experiential learning for developing students’ confidence and skills. Which is how she came to lead Laura Noble and a group of students on a social entrepreneurship mission to Africa.

meeting

Students and faculty from the College of Business learn how to make paper beads from fistula survivors.

Digging deep

When the safari is over, everyone heads back to Kampala, Uganda’s bustling capital. There, they brave traffic and pothole-laden streets back and forth between the Terrewode offices and the organization’s guesthouse.

meeting

The students are impressed by the hospitality they receive from the Terrewode staff during their very first meeting.

The students are impressed by the amount of hospitality they receive from the Terrrewode staff during their very first meeting with the organization.

It lasts for hours, from early evening into the night. Everyone introduces themselves; they talk about the goals of the organization and their financial situation. Sandy encourages her students to ask important questions: What are Terrewode’s existing partnerships? What kind of crafts do you make? How long do they take to create? What do you charge for them? How do you get the word out about the products and about fistula?

Time seems to be irrelevant, but as the hours pass, the sun sets, and mosquitos begin to buzz through the open door and gather near the fluorescent lights.

Still, Laura is happy just to be in the presence of Alice Emasu, Terrewode’s director and co-founder, who had previously been just a voice through the speakers of a MacBook and a pixelated image on a screen.

“Meeting Alice and her team for the first time in person was kind of surreal,” Laura says. “It was great to sit down, think about the questions we need to ask to develop the partnership, learn about what they’re doing, what their goals are and what our involvement could be.”

Right away, Sandy is impressed, and she wants the students to make some kind of commitment to Terrewode. She knows Terrewode needs financial assistance and a stronger business plan. The women themselves need support. The list of ways the students could help goes on and on.

Sandy challenges the group to dig deep. She encourages them to “make Terrewode a priority and really do something to make a difference in these women’s lives.” She knows this will take action and a long-term commitment.

The answer

The challenge laid out, Sandy leaves the students alone to come up with an answer.

The timing and intensity of Sandy’s challenge doesn’t surprise Abby Dahl at all. A veteran member of the group, Abby graduated in June 2015, but there was no way she was going to miss the trip to Uganda. She plans to stay involved with the students as a volunteer advisor and mentor. Sandy reminds Abby that she has experience working on projects like this. She knows the demands it can place on a student’s schedule, so Abby plays devil’s advocate during the discussion.

Abby says she wants the students to think about what their daily lives will look like during the academic term and how much time they will really be able to dedicate to the mission.

The students seem tentative. Most of them initially want to commit fully, but they have conditions and see caveats. That is until Laura speaks up.

“Either we dig deep, or I’m out,” she says.

Later, Laura admits she’s not sure where the boldness in her statement came from.

“I think I was frustrated with the situation,” she says. “We weren’t getting anywhere, and I thought, maybe if I just say what’s on my mind, we can move forward.”

Slowly but surely, and thanks to Laura’s emerging leadership, the conversation finds focus and eventually, an answer: Yes. Yes to digging deep and yes to committing to a lasting, sustainable and productive partnership with Terrewode.

Making it real

The rest of that week in Kampala, and the final week of the students’ stay in Uganda, is spent meeting the women Terrewode serves.

One of the most moving stories belongs to a woman named Irene, who was pronounced dead after her difficult labor. At the morgue, an attendant noticed she was still alive and sent her back to a hospital. While suffering from fistula, she made several attempts to take her own life before Terrewode intervened.

It’s a story Laura is reluctant to repeat, because it’s still too difficult.

“I struggle with letting myself open up to emotion,” she says. “I block things out; I don’t cry in front of people. But on this trip, I opened myself up more and more, and by the end of the trip, I was wide open and ready to take in what they had to say, and my heart was open for them, too.”

Laura travels straight from Uganda home to Sacramento for a weeklong break before work and before classes start up again in Corvallis. There, she tries to keep conversations light, but reverse culture shock is a struggle, and people close to her notice a change.

“My family and friends told me I seemed distant, which made sense because my mind was somewhere else,” Laura says. “They also say I seem more positive, which is great because I’ve been striving toward that.”

Back at Oregon State for her junior year, Laura says she really is ready to “dig deep” into the Terrewode project.

“Why all of this ‘dig deep’ talk?” Sandy asks rhetorically. The answer is simple, she says, “because that’s what it’s going to take.”

Sandy says that through this trip, College of Business students began to understand what it takes to change the world and that they have the capacity to do it.

Laura Noble works with translators in rural Uganda to read books to children in the community.

“It’s one of the reasons why they join the College of Business in the first place,” she explains. “A lot of people struggle their whole lives to figure out the best way to make the world a better place, but for these students on this trip, they got that.”

Laura agrees. “I learned a lot about myself and about the world,” she says. “I learned how to apply business principles in real-world situations, and that things in Uganda don’t work the same as they do in corporate America. I’m excited to try out and implement more skills as we continue this project.”

The students are spending the 2015-2016 academic year communicating with Alice and the Terrewode staff via email and Skype calls, with the ultimate goal of finding practical ways to help the women suffering from fistula. They will study and refine Terrewode’s business model, looking into Ugandan and U.S. markets for the products these solidarity groups create.

Some students, like Laura, are already looking forward to the next trip. When she finds a moment in her busy schedule, she often sits back and remembers the bright Ugandan sun warming her skin, and the kindness of the people she encountered warming her heart. The experience changed her, and she’s going to keep working hard because of it.

“I’ve never done anything where I felt like I was making more of a difference,” Laura says. “I want to go back. I have to go back.”

group photo of the team

During their stay in Kampala, Oregon State business students made lasting relationships with staff of their new, nonprofit partner, Terrewode.