Some people will chase a dream for their whole life with a clear goal in mind. As for others, a dream opportunity might fall right into their laps when they least expect it. Zoë Timms falls into the latter category. Twenty-five years ago, Zoë was one of five hundred daydreaming students in a South Asian studies lecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hoping to catch the attention of the students, the professor casually mentioned that he would be opening spots for UW’s Year-in-India and asked whether anyone was interested.
Zoë was surprised to find her hand waving in the air. One year later, she was sitting in a classroom in Hyderabad learning Telugu with seven other intrepid students. The program was designed so that each student would complete an independent study, write a thesis, and then return home. But one thing led to another, and what was supposed to be a yearlong trip turned into an 18-year journey that continues to this day. Zoë’s adventure had begun.
Her initial study focused on measuring the environmental impact and the history of a local river on small farm owners. Initially, the task was daunting. Writing the paper for school required interviewing lots of farmers, which meant gaining fluency in the language and culture. As her language skills improved, she began to fall in love with the stories she heard from the farmers and their families. She knew in her heart that one year wasn’t enough time. Zoë went back to Wisconsin to complete her final semester, and after graduating, she returned to India to manage the University of Wisconsin’s study abroad program in Madurai.
During her time working for the University, Zoë met a young woman who she “could just tell was smart—she spoke five languages, worked a side-job, and shared with me that she dreamed of getting an MBA.” Zoë figured she came from a middle-class family and had the support of her parents since she was so accomplished. But one day, she invited Zoë home to have lunch with her. “We passed through the nicer neighborhoods, and slowly, the houses became simpler, more crowded, and finally our taxi dropped us off at a small two-roomed home. When we walked in, her father was passed out—drunk. In the next room, her mother was sitting on the floor. Due to leprosy, she was unable to stand. My perspective shifted—this young woman was supporting her whole family, and she had no safety net whatsoever.”
It would have been easy to chalk this young woman up as another statistic of poverty, but Zoë did not look away. Instead, determined to help her reach her goal of getting an MBA, Zoë leveraged her network to fundraise a few thousand dollars for a scholarship to a local MBA program. The campaign was a success; the young woman was off to school! But the work was far from being done.
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