Muhlenberg graduate works in Sierra Leone on Princeton in Africa scholarship
Olivia Charendoff ’20 is working with the International Rescue Committee to help support business development, health initiatives and women’s empowerment in the African country for the next year.
From: Sarah Wojcik
Monday, August 8, 2022 3:16 PM
Olivia Charendoff arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone in July 2022.
Olivia Charendoff ’20 has spent the years since graduating from Muhlenberg helping peacebuilding efforts in Africa from afar. Internships with Search for Common Ground and Centers for Civilians in Conflict, two DC-based organizations focused on strengthening peace efforts and protecting vulnerable civilians on the continent, were enriching and impactful.
The only thing missing was experiencing these efforts on the ground, alongside the people she learned from, worked with, and helped support.
That all changed this summer after Charendoff secured a place on the Princeton Africa Fellowship. She and 27 other fellows will spend the next year working alongside 17 organizations in 13 different African countries.
Princeton in Africa is an independent, non-profit organization affiliated with Princeton University and seeks to develop future leaders dedicated to African business. Charendoff is the first Muhlenberg alum to earn a scholarship with the program.
A graduate in French and Francophone Studies with minors in political science and anthropology, Charnedoff is living in Freetown, Sierra Leone, for the next year. She works with the International Rescue Committee, where she will write grants and support projects to support in-country business development, health initiatives and women’s empowerment.
Charendoff thinks it’s essential that people who support positive change in countries like Sierra Leone spend time there themselves to understand the culture and the people.
“One of the reasons I chose this opportunity was because I had done so many remote assistance programs…I really wanted to gain experience living and working in one of these countries “Charendoff said. “We tend to forget that not everyone lives like us and that not everyone is always interested living as we do. I hope this year will give me the knowledge and experience that will make my participation in international development more ethical.
When reflecting on how she came to the bustling port city on such a competitive scholarship, Charendoff’s mind immediately returns to her Muhlenberg experience and how she was encouraged to broaden her academic interests to every turn.
“There’s so much mentorship and so much one-on-one attention given to your journey and the support you need,” Charendoff said. “What definitely got me to where I am now was that whatever interested me, I was allowed and encouraged to explore it and tie it into what I was already doing.”
Originally interested in theater studies, Charendoff said she was captivated by French and Francophone studies early on. Over her years, she found herself drawn to political science and anthropology and, more specifically, how the fields approached concepts from different points of view.
But it was her studies in French, Charendoff said, that helped propel her into her postgraduate opportunities, where her fluency in the language and her translation skills were in high demand.
“French and Francophone studies have opened so many doors for me. I am so grateful for this major,” she said.
So far, living in Freetown has been humbling, Charendoff said, as she learns to navigate a very different world than she is used to. Unable to use the internet to get the answers she needs, Charendoff found an unexpected compromise: immediate entry into a welcoming community.
“And that’s something I’ve learned that so many Americans take for granted – we have so much information at our fingertips that we don’t have to interact with people in our community,” he said. she declared. “But if I need something here, I have to get it by word of mouth. And so these social relationships here are totally different. People here operate with much better assumptions of faith in people they don’t know.