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Trip to Tanzania a ‘life-changing’ event for NIU students

Jennifer Mejia recalls the moment her trip to Africa “got real.”

It wasn’t going on safari, listening to hyenas while she and other Northern Illinois University students slept in tents in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

It was approaching the shore of Iriga, an island in Lake Victoria, and seeing fishermen at work and children at play.

“You could immediately tell a lot of the kids were very malnourished,” she said. “You could definitely see their ribs and their big, puffy bellies. I saw the conditions these people were living in, in shacks made of palm trees or sticks with a little laminate for a roof, and it humbled me.”

Mejia, who this month completed her master’s degree in public administration, traveled to Tanzania with a group of NIU students for a four-week study-abroad course this summer with Kurt Thurmaier, professor and director of the Division of Public Administration at NIU. Thurmaier is also the founder of Tanzania Development Support, a DeKalb-based nonprofit that raises money in the U.S. for development projects that support education, especially for girls, in Tanzania.

The students were joined midway through the trip by a group of the DeKalb nonprofit’s volunteers, and together they worked with community members and contractors in the village of Nyegina to begin laying the foundation for a library and community resource center.

“We are working in one of the poorest districts of one of the poorest countries in the world,” Thurmaier said. “And I make sure they see abject poverty. You can go to the south side of Chicago and see poverty, but this is several rungs lower than that poverty. This is people living in stick huts with no toilet facilities, no running water, not even a well.”

Thurmaier and his wife, Jeanine, started Tanzania Development Support in 2008 after spending their 25th wedding anniversary in Nyegina, where a close friend is the head of a Catholic high school. Thurmaier met his friend, a Tanzanian Catholic priest, when they were studying public policy administration at NIU in the early 1980s.

The nonprofit’s priority was to build a girls’ dormitory at the school. With that building completed, the group has turned its attention to the library, which is being built on the grounds of the school but will be a resource for everyone in a five- to 10-village area.

Students and volunteers were inspired by the people they met. Several members of the party fell ill and had to go to a clinic, said Rachel McBride, a nutrition student beginning graduate school this fall. Their medications cost about $3.50, an amount out of reach for many Tanzanians.

“I’m not struggling. There are real struggles going on in the world, and the ups and downs I have, those are not struggles,” Simpson said. “People are going to great lengths to get things we take for granted, like water, and they don’t feel sorry for themselves.”

On the Web

For more information about Tanzania Development Support, its projects, or to donate, visit

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