Educating the future leaders of South Africa, Ryan Ruggiero is learning, requires a multifaceted approach.
Ruggiero, who earned a B.A. in journalism from Lehigh in 2009, works with the Peace Corps in South Africa on a project called Stars of Tomorrow. She is assigned to a village in the province of KwaZulu-Natal that has an HIV rate of 36 percent.
The project’s original goal—to educate youth about HIV transmission and prevention—has expanded to include life, computer and business skills.
Convincing kids that the project is meant to help them, says Ruggiero, can be difficult.
“They have seen AIDS destroy their family and friends, and they are used to hearing government departments talk about assisting them, but they never do,” she says.
Mobilizing youth to take charge of their lives
Stars of Tomorrow takes a special interest in out-of-school and unemployed youth.
“I want to mobilize youth to take control of their lives and improve their community,” Ruggiero says.
Ruggiero first traveled to South Africa in 2006 with a Rutgers University program that taught her how to create her own nongovernmental organization. After hearing a Peace Corps member talk at Lehigh her sophomore year, Ruggiero knew she wanted to join. She applied and was selected to return to South Africa.
“I am in love with the people here, the dancing and the spirit of humanity,” she says.
Ruggiero has been in South Africa for two years. She wrote about her experience in February for The Press of Atlantic City, N.J., in a column titled “After 50 years, the Peace Corps’ values still inspire.”
“I have learned patience is a virtue and will get you through the hardest times,” Ruggiero wrote. “You may not change the world overnight or in two years, but that does not mean you should not try.”
Ruggiero loves working with kids and watching them grow.
“Many of them aren’t proud of who they are because they never had a job before and had no meaning in their lives,” she says. Ruggiero takes the time to help their community so the youth can begin to see the value in their life and see that they have more potential than they think.
“I truly believe that you begin changing the world by changing one person at a time. That is what motivates me to do my best to improve the lives of those around me.”
A dance with the heart
Ruggiero recruits youth volunteers and, in exchange for their services, helps them write resumes, apply for jobs and complete computer typing classes.
“The response has been amazing,” she says. “After seeing how a little attention to detail can help the youth find jobs, I knew I had a much bigger project on my hands.”
Ruggiero plans to extend her service in South Africa for a third year. She is raising money to help ensure the future of Stars of Tomorrow.
“Africa,” she says, “has a way of getting into your blood and dancing its way into your heart.”
She attributes much of her success to her Lehigh experiences, including her service as vice president and president of the Global Union.
“My favorite part was getting to know all the global clubs [more than 40] on campus,” she says. “It was a wonderful way to learn more about the world right on campus.”
For more information on Ryan Ruggiero's project, visit the Simunye Youth Development Project website.