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(July 2009) — Olin College's mission statement talks about producing engineers who "engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world." Students in Assistant Professor Caitrin Lynch's "Saving the World" class took that mission quite literally in their work with a Boston area nonprofit that helps immigrants and victims of exploitation and domestic violence.
The class grew out of a presentation made in Lynch's fall 2008 Globalization class by Carol Gomez, director of MataHari, an immigrant advocacy and assistance group. Moved by Gomez's stories of victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, one of the students, Boris Taratutin, came up afterward and asked "How can I help?" The "Saving the World" class, offered in the spring 2009 semester, was the answer.
The class, which included five Olin students and three from Wellesley, learned about MataHari's work through readings and guest speakers. The "deliverables" for the class included improvements to the organization's website and a "mapping," or documentation, of the process through which MataHari (the name means sun, literally "eye of the day," in Malay) works with people in crisis.
As part of the class, students heard heart-wrenching accounts of domestic violence, exploitation and modern day slavery, such as the story of Naseem, a housekeeper from India working for an Omani family in the Boston area. Hoping to earn money to send to her children, she was paid only a few dollars per month while working 14 hours a day taking care of three children. Seeking help, she got in touch through a friend with MataHari and its Trafficking Victims Outreach and Services Network (TVOS). TVOS provided legal, safety and planning support, ultimately helping her to win a settlement and return to her family in India.
The class gave many of the students new perspectives on issues with which they had had little direct contact.
"I had no previous exposure to the issues of domestic violence and trafficking, and honestly, I was not aware the extent to which these two issues are prevalent in the U.S., especially within the immigrant communities," said Kate Miroshnikova, who graduated this May. "Organizations like MataHari provide a support system for these people and ensure that their human rights are not violated—their work is really priceless."
MataHari Director Carol Gomez noted that the engineering students brought fresh insights to the work of her organization.
"I found it very interesting to work with engineering students, who come at problems with a different set of skills," said Gomez. "They dealt with organizational issues in a very scientific and logical way. We have clinical and people skills, but we're not strong with the technical piece—these students came up with useful practical questions."
As to the value of the work, Gomez says it "lays a foundation" for documenting the nonprofit's work in a much more systematic way, which will help make the organization more effective.
Lynch, too, was pleased with the work of the students. "They definitely responded to the tangible nature of the class. They knew they were delivering something that would be used by a real organization right away, and they knew that what they were doing would be good training for their own concrete future socially engaged work."
Miroshnikova, for one, is looking forward to more of that kind of work.
"After taking this class and having first-hand experience in the field, I feel that I can, in fact, contribute and be useful—I am planning on getting involved in San Francisco, which is where graduate studies will be bringing me next."
More information on MataHari can be found on the organization's website: http://www.eyeoftheday.org/index.html