Villanova Undergraduates Impacting Communities in Madagascar

A group of Villanova University students spent the summer in Madagascar working with CRS.

In partnership with international humanitarian organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS), a group of Villanova University students spent the summer in Madagascar, using cutting-edge technology to help provide lifesaving aid to poor communities where the effects of climate change have devastated recent harvests.    

CRS provides humanitarian aid around the world—supporting the poor and vulnerable overseas by responding to major emergencies and assisting with food security and healthcare access issues, along with other sustainable development initiatives. Today, the organization reaches more than 120 million people in more than 100 countries on five continents.

Villanova University began its partnership with CRS in 2005 and, since that time, has worked collaboratively with the organization on key educational initiatives, research, advocacy and service. In 2015, the University expanded upon its work with CRS by partnering with the organization in Madagascar to improve conditions with respect to water, sanitation, food security and hygiene.

This summer, following a prolonged drought that left tens of thousands of people in Madagascar without enough food to eat, 10 undergraduates spent eight weeks there sharing the skills and knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom to contribute to important projects benefitting local communities throughout the country.

“Our participation in projects such as the Madagascar project enables us to develop a model of research and direct action whereby our students and faculty can work with communities to determine ways we can match skills and resources with the needs of people in local villages,” noted Barbara Wall, Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Villanova University.

Four students from Villanova’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and two each from the College of Engineering, College of Nursing and Villanova School of Business went to Madagascar, where they worked in various capacities:

  • Engineering students: worked on design solutions for clean water and sanitation systems.
  • Nursing students: contributed to health clinics and health promotion activities.
  • Business students: provided guidance on business plans and financial management strategies.
  • Students from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: French and Francophone students translated important documents for engineers and others in the field. Students in Geography and Environmental Studies worked on GIS mapping projects to capture and analyze important geographical data.

"Regardless of their academic major, the students gained an appreciation of the complexity of international development work," said M. Frances Keen, D.N.Sc., RN-BC, an associate professor in the College of Nursing who accompanied the students during their eight-week stay in Madagascar. "Clean water, sanitation, food security, cultural beliefs and practices, micro-financing, sustainable agriculture and a multitude of other factors all work together to affect the health of a nation. The students were able to see this first-hand in one of the poorest countries in the world."

In addition to the 10 Villanova students in Madagascar, three other students from Geography and Environmental Studies worked this summer with CRS headquarters in Baltimore.

“The partnership is a unique opportunity for undergraduates to directly observe and engage in international development,” said Dan Griffin, Director of the Villanova University Partnership with Catholic Relief Services. “We are excited to be able to provide this experience for Villanova students and faculty, and to explore the full potential of this collaboration.”

Some of the newest work by Villanovans in Madagascar involves GIS mapping. Many people associate GIS mapping with applications such as Google Maps, which assists drivers with directions and finding the fastest route in getting from point A to point B. In other parts of the world, however, GIS mapping projects can play a vital role in better understanding and analyzing food security and other vital issues.

Beginning this summer, Villanova students began assisting CRS on GIS mapping projects aimed at impacting food distribution services by optimizing the placement of food distribution locations to minimize the travel distance to receive aid; identifying water resource needs by getting a better understanding of water flow, flooding patterns and irrigation; and providing information on the most ideal locations for mobile health clinics for the greatest access.

“Being in Madagascar for the whole purpose of improving the lives of the Malagasy people was extremely rewarding,” said Villanova student Kristen Black.My GIS work consisted of tracking and plotting rice fields of a village in Mananjary to determine its value so a canal can be built which will then drain into those rice fields. The canal will then be used to help feed a massive amount of people, allowing farmers to make a living for themselves and their families.”

“Working for CRS has truly been a life changing experience,” added Ashley Seyfried. “I've been able to experience first-hand a unique and beautiful country and culture, meet and work with remarkable people, and see unimaginable sights, all while using my GIS skills to make a difference in the world.”