Uncovering Research Opportunities with an Impact Beyond the Classroom

As Princeton students, we all know that our classes offer many amazing opportunities for personal advancement, but we often do not recognize how certain classes can grant us opportunities to contribute to a greater community as well. I was fortunate enough to take such a class as early as my first semester at Princeton, when I enrolled in a Freshman Seminar entitled Philanthropy: Can we Save the World Through Generosity? The topic of this course—the work of foundations and nonprofits—was fascinating, and the method of learning was truly unique. In hopes of instilling a passion for philanthropy amongst Princeton students, a generous alumnus gave a grant of $50,000 to our class. He charged us with the responsibility of donating the grant to non-profits of our choice and learning about philanthropy through that process.

Most of the classwork involved researching philanthropic causes, connecting with related 501(c)3 organizations and evaluating the effectiveness of their work. One of my classmates and I chose to research non-profits addressing obstetric fistula, a maternal health condition crippling around 2 million of the world’s poorest women. As the semester progressed and I further explored this topic, I connected with an incredible organization, Freedom from Fistula Foundation (FfFF), dedicated to the eradication of fistula in Malawi, Kenya and Sierra Leone. After hearing about its admirable missions and initiatives, my classmates chose to give FfFF a grant of $11,900.

Doctors and nurses working to heal obstetric   fistulas at a Freedom from Fistula Foundation clinic in Sierra Leone.

This research experience was truly valuable on its own; I investigated a worthy cause, collaborated with a 501(c)3, and helped improve the lives of fistula victims. But why abandon a project I felt passionately about solely because the semester came to an end? I knew I had personally benefited from the class, but the fact that millions of women were suffering from obstetric fistula still remained. I wanted to continue contributing to this cause and recognized this research project as an opportunity to move beyond my work in the classroom and have a positive impact on someone other than myself.

In this spirit, I decided to continue my work with FfFF independently. Since then, I have become increasingly invested and involved with their efforts. I am currently working with FfFF to coordinate a screening of their recently released outreach documentary, Shout Gladi Gladi, on Princeton’s campus in the spring. Furthermore, I am looking into a summer trip to one of their Kenyan clinic locations where I could further my exploration of their work, gain a broader understanding of fistula’s effects and continue to contribute to a cause I care about. Through my continued work with FfFF, I have seen what it is like to be on the other side of the donation process and learned about FfFF’s efforts to raise awareness of their cause. Had I not seized the opportunity to continue my work with them after my seminar ended, I would never have gained these insights nor would I have made a continued positive impact on the lives of fistula victims.

In treating this freshmen seminar as a door to outside discoveries rather than an isolated classroom experience, I became involved in an engaging long-term project and connected with dedicated people doing remarkable work. This experience showed me that sometimes the best research involves some searching; often the most valuable research opportunities are embedded in classroom activities we haven’t fully explored. When designing my schedule for following semesters, I reflected on this realization and tried to pick classes that could open doors to further research projects and contributions to a greater community. I also find value in talking with my professors about how to find potential projects within my academic commitments. It is true: Princeton is a fruitful place. But often uncovering its most rewarding opportunities requires drive, personal initiative and an original outlook on our everyday classroom experiences.

Have you taken a class that inspired you to continue research outside the classroom?  Have you applied Princeton’s courses to Princeton’s motto, “in the nation’s service, and the service of all nations?” Tell us about it.  If you’re using research to make a difference, we’d love to help share your story.

– Emma Kaeser, Social Sciences Correspondent