Oppenheim speaks to MSU community about international aid

On Monday, March 3, the Leadership Institute, together with the Honors College, hosted a lecture in which Willy Oppenheim spoke about the importance of international volunteering and the founding of an organization called Omprakash. The Rhodes Scholar shared how his personal experiences have shaped his research on education.

Leadership Institute Director Carmen McSpadden said, “We were really excited to have him come here and see the connections that can be made from a lecture like this.”

In an interview with the Exponent, Oppenheim stated that the idea for Omprakash came from “my own experiences … of being in high school and having the sense that I wanted to … do some kind of international travel, but I didn’t just want to be a tourist.” Oppenheim explained, “I wanted to connect with an organization or community and work there in some kind of meaningful way.”

Although he eventually discovered an opportunity to teach in India right after graduating from high school, Oppenheim struggled to find that avenue. Enter Omprakash. While visiting India, Oppenheim saw a communication barrier between local organizations within other countries and people looking to volunteer abroad. So he created Omprakash, a website that lists organizations that are seeking volunteers from all around the world.

The website is simple. A person looking to volunteer abroad can go to the website and search different countries and different volunteering opportunities. That person then can see the different organizations within that particular country and from there contact organizations to apply.

What began as a simple idea 10 years ago has now grown into a large network with more than 11,000 volunteers, 140 international partner organizations, 41 countries and over $2.8 million in donations.

It doesn’t just stop with Omprakash. Oppenheim, who is currently pursuing a doctorate at Oxford, has done much of his research on the demand for girls schooling in Pakistan. At Tuesday night’s lecture he noted that his research “looks deeply into social problems that are at play and asks ‘why are things like this?’”

This idea of questioning reality when providing international “aid” led to Oppenheim’s main point of the night. He challenged people to view volunteering experiences as a mutual learning opportunity, for all involved. Oppenheim noted, “It is not enough to say ‘they needed a teacher in this country, so I went there to teach.’” Instead, he stressed the importance of not viewing giving aid abroad as a “teacher and student model” but to focus on dialogue instead. Oppenheim talked about how through dialogue “the teacher and the student cease to exist … and each becomes jointly responsible for the process in which all can grow.”

When asked what advice he would give to college students, Oppenheim’s response was simple: “Go slowly, and be comfortable with not knowing. Being in college, it’s so easy to get caught up with always looking towards the next thing and needing to know what it will be. But it’s so liberating to be able to say, ‘I don’t know, but I’m going to figure it out.’”

For more information about Omprakash and Oppenheim go to omprakash.org.