By: Jocelyn Rheem
While I was growing up just outside of Washington D.C., my parents and all-girl’s college-prep school instilled a strong sense of service that has followed me throughout my life. I was surrounded by confident and accomplished women personally and academically who inspired me with their achievements. I decided then and there to work my buns off at whatever I set my mind to. At the ripe age of 18, I had yet to figure out my passion(s).
In college, at Denison University, I became the student leader of the legal assistance group. Most of our cases revolved around advocating for families and children who could not otherwise afford legal representation. I was their main volunteer, clocking in 10+ hours a week, and helped to coordinate other volunteers to assist the lawyers. It felt so good to be able to go to this office and see that, even with limited funds, we could do our best to help the women and children that needed our help the most. I was more focused on my volunteer work than I was on my academics because I was excited about our mission. Despite my best efforts, I graduated with double major in political science and history and a minor in women’s studies.
After college, I continued studying women’s rights issues around the world. I became particularly interested in women’s rights in the Middle East after reading the biography of Zainab Salbi: Between Two Worlds. When I finished her book I felt this profound sense of purpose. I knew I had found what I was meant to do. I couldn’t stand by while horrible atrocities are happening domestically and internationally--I had to act. My new personal mission was to positively impact one marginalized woman’s life in the world. I had to set a small goal for myself because I find the issues of poverty and human rights to be completely overwhelming. How can we possibly protect all of the young girls that are forced out of their homes because of conflict? How can one person make a positive impact all the way around the world? I read articles about women who were ostracized by their family and community after a divorce and were left with no means to support their children. I became intrigued in finding ways to be able to help these women get back on their feet and support themselves and their families without fear of persecution or starvation.
I realized that, if I wanted to connect with these women, I was going to need to speak their language. This led me to begin my Arabic studies, which I chose to do in Morocco. By the end of the 8-week intensive program I was able to read, write, and speak Arabic at an Intermediate level. The Arabic language is no joke. I was able to learn a completely new alphabet, grammatical structure, and vocabulary in 8 weeks. And it was fun! I was so inspired by my program that I wanted to continue my language studies at the graduate level which led me to the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
All of my experiences thus far have made one fact abundantly clear to me. If you want to truly connect with people, it is all about the immersion. You have to dive in and learn from people willing to talk about their language, culture, and day to day life--always with respect and awareness of our own cultural lens. A great example of this idea in practice is the nonprofit Women for Women International whose mission is to “support the most marginalized women to earn and save money, improve health and well-being, influence decisions at home and community, and connect to networks for support. By utilizing these skills, knowledge, and resources, she is able to create a sustainable change for herself, her family, and community.” Relationships and personal connections are a fundamental part of Women for Women’s model. My favorite example of this person to person connection within their organization is that individuals can include letters of encouragement with their donation to support women in conflict areas. There is a back and forth interaction where women can come together, from all over the world, and help each other through trying times. It’s amazing. It all goes back to my personal goal of making a positive impact on one woman’s life. It is an achievable goal that we can all work on and I challenge you to try in your own way!