Study Abroad: Nepal Edition

Author: Emily Olson

Emily O In Nepal 2

As a design major at Notre Dame, I find myself always in search of things that will inspire or inform my projects. This process of enhancing the imagination has taken me to places beyond my wildest dreams but has also brought me closer to home. To me, that ability to study, work, and live in a plethora of places is what makes Notre Dame so priceless. The experiences I have attained have considerably altered my path, as my eyes have now been opened to the possibilities through travel.

Notre Dame's campus is a safe haven with many doors to the unknown. Whatever your interests may be, there is always a door to where your passions may lead you. For me, this past summer, those passions led me to Kathmandu, Nepal. As a small country wedged between India and China, not many people have heard of Nepal outside the context of Mount Everest. And the only reason I ever knew any better before really looking into it was a documentary I had watched about the Sherpa tribes that lived in the treacherous landscape. But in my junior year of college, I decided to take a leap of faith and apply to the international service and learning trip to Nepal, to work and design at a fair trade organization in Kathmandu. When I found out I had been accepted to the program, something clicked for me. I now had an opportunity to create meaningful change in my global community, something I never thought was a real possibility. My site partners and I, who ultimately became my lifelong friends, lived and worked with artisans for ten weeks after a semester's worth of preparation. Despite our prep, it was nothing I expected.

I traveled a fair amount as a young person. I had lived abroad before, and I thought I knew the ins and outs of acclimating to new cultures. I thought this experience would be just that, but it was so much more. Nepal, despite its challenges as a developing country, became home. Despite barriers in language or cultural normalities, I lived and loved as a member of their community, far beyond just being a tourist for a few weeks. I experienced a new side of my spirituality, created familial bonds with people that taught me great pearls of wisdom about life, and fostered memories that will inspire me for a lifetime. Even in the simplest of ways, like never seeing color the same way ever again. Kathmandu is an incredibly vibrant place, where people aren't afraid of bold, bright colors and clashing, glittering textiles. Every day I would walk to work, I would step into this kaleidoscope of color that flooded the streets and cloaked the other people moving around me. 

My biggest take away from my work experience in Kathmandu was the symbiotic relationship I had with the people I worked with. Not only were they teaching and inspiring me to create beautiful products, like furniture or jewelry, but I knew my experimenting and work inspired and helped them too. My time there made me realize that I also have a significant impact in this world. The transferring of skills that happened in those studios will help us both create more innovative solutions for those who need it most, far more than I could have done at a sizeable elite company back home. The moment I realized I could make an impact, I started to really examine the reality that I can design for social change. Notre Dame gave me the chance to see that social design is real, the people it helps are real, and I am not too small to enact innovation that will improve the quality of life for people globally. The products that we all created that summer will support their business for years to come, enhancing and stabilizing the lives of the artisans that work in the association. It will also bring Nepali tradition and craftsmanship to the broader global community through international trade shows and commerce.

You may not be a designer, or have any interest in creating fair trade products in Nepal. But here at Notre Dame, my story of lifelong learning and unique experience is something everyone has a chance to access in their personalized way. You can do anything and everything, from working at a maternity ward in Ghana to chemistry in Ireland. You can build homes in Appalachia or work at a think tank in San Francisco. You have the agency to access your own unknown door. All you have to do is bring your passion for unlocking your unique opportunities.