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Adventure Draws Willamette Alum

Brooke StearnsAs an undergraduate, Brooke Stearns '99, was Barney the Bearcat, the Willamette University mascot, and spent time whipping up team spirit in a hot, scratchy costume. Today, as the recipient of a Rotary World Peace Scholarship, Stearns is adjusting to life as an international student in Paris, France. In between, she's worked and lived in Washington, D.C., and in Tzaneen, South Africa. For this Willamette alumna, study and travel are synonymous.

"My life has been a series of fun adventures," Stearns writes in an email from her new apartment in Paris. "I've been really fortunate to be able to spend so much time in different countries."

The international studies graduate certainly isn't one to stand still. During her time at Willamette, the honors student used her French language skills as an exchange student in Nantes, France. After graduating, Stearns took the Willamette motto "Not unto ourselves are we born" and turned it into action. For a year and a half, she worked in Washington, D.C., at Grameen Foundation USA (GF-USA), a nonprofit organization that works in partnership with Grameen Bank, a pioneer in providing small loans to the poor to fight poverty all over the world. Stearns says she loved her work with Grameen because it allowed her to combine her interests in microfinance and international politics.

Though she was reluctant to leave GF-USA, the lure of international adventure was too much for Stearns to resist once she won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. She traveled to South Africa to research the relationship between poverty and HIV/AIDS. There she spent an "amazing year" in Tzaneen, a small town in the northwest corner of South Africa near Kruger National Park. This experience, Stearns says, was "life altering. People often ask if I went over there to teach something to the Africans, and I respond that I learned much more from them than they could ever learn from me."

When she returned to the United States in the spring of 2002, Stearns began working for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)'s Africa Bureau Information Center. USAID is the principal U.S. agency to extend assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging in democratic reforms. Stearns writes that her work with USAID enabled her to "learn every day and have constant variety. In addition to developing my interests in gender, microfinance and HIV/AIDS, I also learned about other development issues like education, health, the environment and agriculture."

Wanderlust took hold again when Stearns was selected as one of 70 scholars from around the world to receive a Rotary World Peace Scholarship. Today, she's in Paris at the L'Institut d'Etudes Politiques (commonly called Sciences Po) with 17 other international scholars from Australia, Europe, South America and North America. Studying in France is challenging because she's expected to be well-versed in French politics, history, society and language. She's been boning up with French history books.

"Much of the context they expect us to know, I learned for the United States through elementary, high school and college," she writes. "I have a bit of catching up to do here."

Stearns also writes that she's "figuring out the inner workings of Paris. It's a game and nobody will voluntarily share the rules with you. You have to know the right questions to ask to get what you want."

For now, Stearns is having a great time learning the rules of her new adventure.