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Changemaker in Malawi
Posted 08/11/2015 09:41AM

In the summer of 2009, Rebecca Gross went on a Riverdale service-learning trip to Botswana and worked in an orphanage in Bana Ba Letsatsi.

The experience moved her. She felt drawn to Africa, and began to think about how she could return in a meaningful way.  “I connected with the children and the people running the center,” she said. “I just felt like I couldn’t walk away. I felt that if I have had such a fortunate life, I should share it. I should not only be grateful for it, I should use it to help others.”

She graduated from Riverdale in 2010, and during her college years, she continued to expand her worldview: studying local medicine in Madagascar after her freshman year, and working with children in Tanzania after her sophomore year. She spent a semester of her junior year in Belgium, culminating the French studies that she had begun at Riverdale, and then she finished her senior year at Georgetown University in 2014 with a major in economics and a certificate in African studies.

Moving to Malawi last summer, she worked for Goods For Good, an organization that helps community groups start businesses to fund orphan care. She was impressed with the entrepreneurial drive around her, but she realized that many Malawians did not have the financial literacy to execute their ideas.

Thus her idea was born. She developed a financial-literacy curriculum for high school girls called Student-Driven Solutions, and partnered with a school in Lilongwe to pilot the program.

One of the poorest countries in the world, Malawi is also young: nearly 70 percent of its population is under the age of 24; the median age is 16. AIDS has had a devastating impact on the people. Agriculture is the dominant economic activity, and unemployment is high. Few Malawians have bank accounts (only 15 percent by one estimate) or practice basic personal financial planning. English is the country’s dominant language, and Chichewa is spoken widely.

“It was really great to be surrounded by Malawians who are my age and who felt it was their responsibility to help bring their country forward and to see progress happen,” she said. “They had already done such amazing things and were already leaders in their community. It made me think that I should be doing that too.”

During the winter holidays, she came home to New York, and fundraised with families and friends to come up with seed money. Aside from the help she received from her family, most of the donations she received ranged from $20 to $100. A dollar goes a long way in Malawi, she said, with $3,000 to $4,000 needed to implement the program in a school.

She reached out to her former Riverdale teacher, Jay Crosby, who started Riverdale’s trip to Botswana and now leads the Leadership Exchange, which sponsors service-learning trips to Botswana and Haiti. He encouraged her, helped her set up a 501(c) tax-exempt organization, and joined her small board.

Back in Malawi, she attracted a little press, formed connections with the Malawian Ministry of Youth and Sports and the American Embassy, signed on a second Malawian school, and had the curriculum translated into Chichewa. She found local Malawians to run the organization and she returned to New York, planning to continue to fundraise and expand the project while starting her own career. She plans to eventually reimburse her family for their support. 

With her curriculum, she said, young Malawians “can decide for themselves” what to do with the knowledge. “I’m giving them the tools they need,” she said, “and stepping back and letting them do it.”

A Riverdale “lifer” who started at the school in kindergarten, Rebecca says numerous experiences from her formative years contributed to this project: the volunteer tutoring she did while a student here, the interdisciplinary coursework that taught her how to solve problems using multiple vantage points, the relationships with teachers that inspired her learning and stimulated new ideas, and the connections that helped her launch her idea.

“Riverdale was a place where community was very important, “ she said. “When you grow up in an environment where community is so important, and where connecting people is the main way you experience the world, it makes you realize you should bring those connections outside of Riverdale and outside of your own upbringing. The thing I learned is that community can be created and built. It is about mutual respect. That can translate anywhere.  It doesn’t really matter what your backstory is, you can build a community anywhere you go.”


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