By Mandira Banerjee
When Meagan Malm was a freshman at the University of Michigan, she had to choose a language requirement. She didn’t want to do Spanish like she did in high school, so instead she chose Swahili, a language widely spoken in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda in Africa.
Malm says taking Swahili changed her education path at the university. She traveled to Tanzania with Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates in her sophomore year, went back to Tanzania as a Fulbright Hays student the next year, and it inspired her plans as the next recipient of the Wallenberg Fellowship.
The award is given each spring to a graduating senior with exceptional promise and accomplishment to service and the public good.
The fellowship will provide Malm with $25,000 to carry out an independent project of learning or exploration anywhere in the world during the year after her graduation. She plans to go to Tanzania and live in Dar-es Salaam and Mtwara and study the role mobile phones play in reducing poverty.
“I want to gain an understanding on how the mobile phones are used and do they serve as resources to alleviate poverty,” she said.
Malm is hoping the year in Tanzania will provide her with valuable information to launch herself as a social impact entrepreneur in East Africa, using technology for social good.
“It will give me a chance to uncover nuances and build on relationships and friendships,” she said.
Nyambura Mpesha teaches Swahili at U-M and leads GIEU students in Tanzania. She has worked with Malm since her freshman year and agrees that she is great at building bridges and connecting with the distant voices.
“She worked with her fellow students with firmness and compassion,” Mpesha said. “She is challenging herself not only to study those disconnected but also to find ways to assist them gain visibility.”
A year is a long time
When Malm went to Tanzania for the first time in 2015, she thought two months away from home was the longest time in her life.
When she went back the next year as a Fulbright Hays student, she felt three months was short.
“It’s all in the perspective,” Malm laughed.
Now as a Wallenberg scholar she will spend a year in Tanzania and she is excited as well as a little nervous.
“I will be essentially on my own there. But I have a good network of friends,” said Malm, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Business Administration from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
She said that she saw differences between the cultures in the United States and Tanzania, but also tremendous similarities, and hopes to build on some of those experiences during her year as a Wallenberg Fellow.
Malm is also acutely aware of how little people know about Africa.
“People have asked me if ‘they’ have internet or how do ‘they’ live?” she said. “So I talk to people and show them my pictures of my friends and cities in Tanzania.”
Malm will share her experiences through a blog and other social media channels in the hopes that it will showcase some of the information and make the gaps smaller.
The Wallenberg Fellowship honors one of U-M’s most illustrious graduates — Raoul Wallenberg, who graduated with a degree in architecture in 1935.
As a Swedish diplomat during World War II, he saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary, using safe houses and creating special passports for them.
Malm said it feels great to be connected to Wallenberg and the fellows who have come before her.
“I hope to imitate his incessant receptiveness for discovery in order to grow as an individual and accept the challenge to help others,” she said.