Imagine traveling halfway around the world for an internship in Nepal only to discover you’ve landed squarely in the unknown.
That’s how spring wrapped up for NIU Business alumnus Terry Lesyk, ‘18. At that time, Lesyk was a senior marketing major, pursuing an emphasis in sales and completing the social entrepreneurship minor offered out of the management department. Graduation was fast approaching, a mere handful of days away, as was the mid-July launch of his professional career in the sales department with Schindler Elevator, a leading global elevator and escalator provider.
But the week before commencement, a particular guest lecture altered the course of Lesyk’s immediate future. His inspiration came from social entrepreneur Katie Hilborn, who spoke about the insights she gained from her world travels — insights so indelible that they gave form to her passion to help children and ultimately compelled her to found Global Orphan Prevention as one possible means to fight child trafficking in Nepal. A non-government organization (NGO), Global Orphan Prevention operates independently from government organizations and, like most NGOs, receives funding through donations and help from volunteers.
“I was so moved by what Katie was doing with families in remote parts of Asia, that I had to find a way to be involved,” Lesyk said without a trace of senioritis. “Even if that meant creating the opportunity right there and then.”
That is precisely what he did.
“Here I am in Barsema Hall with a chance to do something meaningful on the other side of the world by using what I learned in my social entrepreneurship classes,” Lesyk said. “I also had three months at my disposal to take action.”
Huddled around a classroom table and just days in front of graduation, the NIU Business senior and the social entrepreneur crystalized an opportunity and began to co-design a one-month internship.
“Before class, I had no idea things would unfold as they did. I’m incredibly grateful Katie was open to the suggestion that I intern for her. Frankly, I jumped at the chance.”
After drafting the internship components, Lesyk completed final exams that week, walked the commencement ceremony that Saturday and then flew to Nepal by himself the very next day.
“I was born in Ukraine and lived there until I was 5 years old, when my family moved to the Chicago area,” he said. “I’ve traveled alone many times, so I’m pretty open to the idea of going anywhere in the world, particularly if I can help create positive change.”
Literally overnight he found himself deep in Southeast Asia with a fledgling organization and in the midst of a vastly different country with cultures, lifestyles, sounds and sights far removed from those he might have been familiar with in Ukraine or the United States. He hadn’t traveled to Nepal or anywhere in Asia before. And he hadn’t yet worked hands-on in the field with an NGO. To a very real degree, Lesyk had, in a matter of a few short hours, become a stranger in a strange land.
That is until he reflected on an earlier message from Hilborn:
“Terry, all possibilities and opportunities exist if we know they are meant for us. Know that you will always be progressing forward as long as you evolve, find your passions and utilize them to make our world a better place. Keep learning and be curious about everything.”
With that advice as a mental compass, he waded more deeply into the unknown. He discovered not only ways to contribute to Global Orphan Prevention, but he also began to learn a great deal about himself.
“It was challenging,” Lesyk said laughing in retrospect. “I was forced to sort through rapidly changing circumstances — much of which happens because of the nature of the country itself. In the West, we take a great deal for granted. We benefit enormously from solid infrastructure and systems and numerous examples of best practices. By contrast, in Nepal that type of formal structure, that type of shared learning, isn’t readily in place. Random change is the norm in Nepal.”
Working through an abstract problem in a constantly shifting environment challenged Lesyk, but at the same time, doing so also informed his thinking. It was through the lens of a chaotic landscape that he saw the need for a solid business framework to guide Hilborn’s passion for Global Orphan Prevention. The questions in his mind then became: How best to go about building structure in the midst of chaos? Where and how to begin? Lesyk followed his immediate impulse and waded in even further with the NGO in an effort to better understand its services and its clients. In order to wrap his mind around the overall environment, he began to look for lessons and inspiration in the community itself as well as in nearby towns.
The village of Bharat Pokhari, home to Global Orphan Prevention, sits on the remote outskirts of Pokhara, which is Nepal’s second largest city located 128 miles away from Kathmandu. Opportunities to generate income in Bharat Pokhari are few and far between. That’s where Global Orphan Prevention comes in. The organization’s broad goal for combating child trafficking is to foster education and social entrepreneurship opportunities. Together these increase the possibility for income generation for villagers so that families can stay together.
“When families have the financial means to send children to school, they become literate and they start to see opportunities open up,” Lesyk shares. “This can help break the cycle of poverty and powerlessness that many families face, particularly single mothers who were abandoned by their husbands, widowed or divorced.”
In Nepal’s social stratification, single mothers fall into the lowest caste. Viewed as “untouchables,” they are treated with disdain by the higher castes. Because of their gender, they are regarded as inferior in their own community.
“If we can help single mothers create financial stability and give them access to education for their children,” Lesyk said. “Then they stand a better chance of not losing their children. Because of their circumstances, these women often fall prey to child and sex traffickers, which is a huge industry here. It really exploits the weak, the poor and the illiterate.”
Currently, Global Orphan Prevention’s education services involve partnerships with two low-caste governmental schools on the outskirts of Pokhara. Lesyk traveled the backroads to Pokhara — about 1½ hours away from Bharat Pokhari — on a regular basis throughout his internship. Intent upon learning more about Nepal’s education system, he soon taught in one of the partnering schools. He also made a point of visiting other government schools and private schools in the area. At the same time, he kept an eye open for any other NGOs or private organizations that had goals aligning with those of Global Orphan Prevention.
During one of his walks through the streets of Pokhara, Lesyk ran into a number of foreign nationals from around the world. Among them: doctors, NGO founders, business people, university students and casual travelers who came to Nepal with hopes of making a positive difference. Fairly rapidly, this collection of volunteers morphed into an informal network of support.
“I met a Hungarian who taught kids at the Maya Universe Academy, a private school located in Pokhara. Maya Universe has a setup similar to Katie’s operation with Global Orphan Prevention. It dawned on me that these two organizations would be a great fit together. From what I saw, the government school system could be improved, but lacks the resources to bring about any meaningful change. Global Orphan and Maya Universe could support and learn from each other.”
This became the central idea to the business plan that Lesyk developed as part of his internship.
“I came to Nepal to contribute. It’s the Wild West in many ways … all of which forced me to learn how to see possibilities in unusual places. Doing so wasn’t easy, but it appealed to me. My mentality is this: Why not tackle the most challenging problem first?”
Easier said than done, even for those who believe that “80 percent of success is showing up.” With this internship experience, however, Lesyk began to understand just what that phrase meant on another, wildly complex level.
“I learned so many things over that one-month period in Nepal. If I had to summarize it all, I’d have to say that I honestly believe I learned more from the children and families there than they did from me. They are so incredible. They have a powerful sense of gratitude, even though they don’t have much in terms of material possessions.
They have an elegant and unwavering dignity in spite of some very real and very hard challenges.”
And if he could describe all of what he learned?
Lesyk said, “It’s really challenging to implement an idea, even a great idea. Success isn’t a guarantee, but passion, vision, a solid framework and a willingness to be open to the world helps. That’s a life lesson that became quite tangible in Nepal. The first time I had heard that idea, it came from Dennis Barsema, who I met as a freshman and who I had as a professor in my social entrepreneurship minor. Mr. Barsema always offered guidance and made me feel at home in the college. His influence on me has been immense. I think it’s really cool that his teachings continue to guide me, even if I didn’t immediately realize it and even half way around the world.”
“That level of impact is something I hope I’ll be able to do for others someday.”