Mariah Grubb '14 travels to Rwanda to conduct anthropological research

by University Communications,

  • Mariah Grubb ’14

She lived in a cement house surrounded by banana plants. There was no electricity, no running water. Mosquito netting surrounded her bed, and she used a headlamp to find her way to the latrine at night.

But Mariah Grubb ’14 wasn’t complaining. She was where she was meant to be. 

“I adapted quickly,” says Grubb about spending her summer in Rwanda. “I enjoyed the more relaxed pace of life, taking in everything about the village and not worrying about what came next.”

Grubb stayed in the small Eastern African country through the ThinkImpact Institute.

The purpose of the nonprofit organization is to place undergraduate college students in rural villages, where they develop connections with the people living there. Teams are formed, and for eight weeks, the groups work together to devise a business plan to improve life in the community.

By the time she left Rwanda, Grubb not only helped villagers start a business to produce peanut oil, she also conducted an anthropological research project funded by Willamette’s Carson Undergraduate Research Grant.

The focus of her research was to collect stories from people most directly affected by foreign development projects, learn from their experiences and better understand what, if anything, they’d like to see from these organizations in the future.

“What I found is that no one was looking for a handout,” she says. “The people I spoke with believe in working hard to achieve their goals. They just want the opportunity to engage in the global — or even local — market on a more equitable level.”

Living Willamette’s Motto

An anthropology major with a 3.96 GPA, Grubb transferred to Willamette University as a junior, inspired by its motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

“The motto is very much in line with my life goals and philosophy,” says Grubb, who hails from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. “If we all engage, we can strive together for a more just and peaceful world.”

Grubb has lived this motto for much of her life — teaching English for three months in Nepal, earning her wilderness first responder certification, and beginning this year, helping Chemawa Indian School students with their college applications.

Her commitment to service helped Grubb attain a $30,000 Truman scholarship, which aids students in earning their graduate degrees in government, policy, public health and related fields.

“What is amazing is that I don’t have to know exactly what I want to do yet,” Grubb says. “I am so lucky to have so many opportunities, and it is all thanks to where I was born. It’s the luck of the draw, and we cannot take that for granted.”

Developing a Business

In Rwanda, Grubb saw how committed the villagers were to bettering their lives. Not only did they possess a strong work ethic, they gained their strength from the friendships they had with one another, she says.

“Seeing them, I was reminded of the importance and the power of family and community,” Grubb says about the 4,000-member village. “They came together when challenges arose and solved them as a team.”

Grubb’s mission was to help community members become business leaders. After forming a team of nine people, the group worked to identify ways to improve their daily lives. They settled on creating a business that produces peanut oil — since peanut oil was expensive to import and local peanuts were plentiful.

“We weren’t just fixing something or solving a problem. Rather, we were improving upon an experience,” Grubb says. “The ideas all came from them. I really just facilitated the meetings and workshops.”

Still, forming a new enterprise was challenging, Grubb admits. She had to rely on a translator to communicate with her team. Her first attempt at making peanut oil with a mortar and pestle was eaten by rats. And she only had  access to the Internet once every few weeks to conduct research.

Her team had just received a car jack and steal plates needed to make a peanut oil press a week before her departure in mid August. The press was completed the day before she left.

“It was hard to leave before the business was really up and running,” Grubb says. “I wanted to stay and watch them succeed.”

Combating Disparity

The most invaluable part of her trip, Grubb says, was the connections she made and relationships she built.

She found that the people in her community recognize education as integral to improving their lives and are looking for increased government support to aid these efforts.    

“The Carson grant gave me the opportunity to explore my interests in global and civic engagement,” Grubb says. “It’s something that is very intertwined with my future ambitions.”

Grubb’s goal of combating disparity comes as no surprise to her anthropology professors, Joyce Millen and Rebecca Dobkins. Both describe Grubb as someone  passionate about fighting for social justice.

“Mariah has a keen intellect, extraordinary focus and a dogged determination to learn and leave a positive mark on this world,” Millen says. “In my eight years at Willamette University, I have not had a student more poised, focused and capable in her studies than Mariah. She is an outstanding student.”

Dobkins agrees, saying Grubb is dedicated to her intellectual growth.

“Mariah has a deep commitment to finding ways to apply what she is learning in anthropology to real-world issues, in collaboration with communities who are facing challenges,” Dobkins says.

Planning Ahead

For her last year at Willamette, Grubb is serving as vice president of the Mortar Board, an honor society that recognizes college seniors for their achievement in scholarship, leadership and service.

She is president of the African Studies Club and she joined a task force to provide assistance and mentorships to graduating seniors at Chemewa Indian School.

Through her Truman Scholarship, she will intern in Washington D.C. next summer — ideally with either the Environmental Protection Agency or the State Department. After that, she hopes to gain more real-world experience before enrolling in graduate school.

“Ultimately, I am unsure if I want to work within the government,” Grubb says. “What I do know, however, is that I want to be a part of the advancement in social and environmental justice.”