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Shared Scholarship, Shared Mission

How two Fletcher housemates are helping women out of poverty

Yuki Poudyal, F15, and Alison Erlwanger, F15, grew up a world apart, but now they share utility bills, favorite wines, and late-night conversations about social justice as housemates down the street from Fletcher.

Like many students, they first got to know each other in classes for the MALD program, but their friendship blossomed because they received the same scholarship.

The Robert F. Meagher Foundation covers tuition for up to two entering students each year and provides them with a small living stipend. It also offers other perks, like meetings with members of the scholarship committee, who helped Erlwanger find a summer internship and invited her and Poudyal to a family Thanksgiving dinner. Over the cranberry sauce and the model U.N. discussions, a deeper bond grew.

Coffee and Community

A 29-year-old from Nepal, Poudyal opened a coffee shop in Kathmandu in 2011, two years after earning her bachelor’s degree in sociology and psychology at St. Lawrence University. She started the business in order to create a gathering place for young people, pay local coffee growers fairly, and better use her family’s empty garage, which her parents provided for minimal rent. The shop, called Cuppas, serves local coffee, snacks, and sandwiches, and employs six people, including her cousin and business partner, who has been running the daily operations for the last two years.

While Poudyal doesn’t get a salary—her main perk is free coffee when she is town—the venture is succeeding. She and her co-owner are repaying bank and private loans, the shop is hosting open mic nights and other events, and they are sourcing their coffee directly from a regional farmers’ cooperative.

“I realize you can’t change the world without resources and sustainability,” she says. “With a small or medium enterprise, you can generate employment, promote local products, and connect the community. It’s about much more than making money. You can make that profit bring more meaning and social impact.”

Opening Doors

The desire to make a greater impact led Poudyal to consider graduate school, and she was attracted to Fletcher’s courses and community. But she couldn’t have attended without the scholarship, which was funded through a bequest by Fletcher professor emeritus Robert Meagher. A lawyer by training, Meagher helped found the development studies program at the school, dedicating his career to practicing and teaching economic development and international law.

Erlwanger, a 26-year-old who grew up in the suburbs of Gweru, Zimbabwe, decided to attend Fletcher to learn ways to alleviate poverty for African women.

While a student at Mount Holyoke College, she double majored in chemistry and anthropology and thought she might make a career in developing pharmaceuticals to combat HIV. But she grew frustrated with the gap between the high-tech medicine she could work on in the United States and the lives of Africans who would not benefit from the treatments for many years, if at all. She decided to switch to something with more “direct impact” on poor African women like those she had known back home—women who did not have the resources to forge careers, leave cheating husbands, or protect their sexual health.

She saw too many die of AIDS, leaving young children behind. “Their options are so narrow,” she says. “I want to help change that.” Once Erlwanger heard about the scholarship, she made plans to leave her job in HIV research in Boston and spent the summer before Fletcher studying economics. Without that head start, she says, “I would have been a year behind where I am now.”

My Mother, My Role Model

Erlwanger and Poudyal both credit their mothers with inspiring their commitment to fighting poverty.

Poudyal’s mother worked on rural development for the Nepalese government. “When I visited rural areas with her, women of my age there were locked down with household chores—looking after the kitchen, working on the farm, walking barefoot for long hours for water or fodder for cattle. They were living in survival mode,” she recalls. “It made me feel privileged and made me question how could I use those privileges to help better others’ lives.” More recently, she has recognized how much she also can learn from her father, an elected bank director.

Erlwanger’s parents grew up poor, but her father became a doctor and her mother, who was the first in her family to get a college degree, became an English teacher and now heads a school in addition to running a guest house, a plant-selling business, and some rental properties. Other relatives with less education faced more limited possibilities and “seeing how different their trajectories have been, I know how much investing in education pays off,” Erlwanger says.

This summer, Poudyal traveled to Nepal for an internship in microfinance and to India to study a pilot project in which farmers are growing quinoa to sell internationally. She’s thought about introducing stevia, the plant whose leaves are used to make a zero-calorie sweetener, as a crop in Nepal. But she wants to know more about business and marketing first.

Erlwanger spent the summer in Rwanda at an HIV clinic, analyzing the spending and accounting of women’s cooperatives there. “If they’re not managing their books well, if they’re not effectively anticipating expenses, that will affect revenue,” she says. And boosting revenue will have a ripple effect, since making money can help these women with HIV face down all the other challenges in their lives, she says. “In development, everything does boil down to resources, and access to building your own livelihood.”

She and Poudyal know the importance of money and access on a personal level and are grateful to the dedicated professor whose generosity brought them to Fletcher. “The scholarship singlehandedly opened so much for me,” Poudyal says. “Without it, Fletcher would not have been possible. Now I ask, ‘How can I make myself useful? How can I give back?’”