On Building People: A Story of International Development
by S. E. Vidrio, Field Staff, Uzbekistan
International development work is an interesting field. Some choose it based on a passion for a particular region or culture – dreaming for years of equatorial jungles or a nomad’s tent. Others choose it from a passion for a particular type of work – poverty alleviation, accessible medical care, or environmental causes, to name a few. Some, like me, are somewhere in between.
I chose to study engineering because I desired to make a measurable positive impact in the world. I picked mechanical engineering specifically because I had no idea what I wanted to do, and mechanical engineering is a broad enough discipline to provide many open doors. I always loved travel and wanted to work internationally, vaguely interested in Western European history, a sort of curiosity with parts of North Africa, and a very strong fascination with Russian language, culture, history, and influence.
I discovered REI my last year of college. Although I still hadn’t really selected a career path, I did know I wanted to work somewhere that allowed me to, as I often phrased it, “invest in and build up individuals, so they could invest in and build up their own communities.” When I learned how REI was about “building people to build nations,” of course I was interested and headed to Indonesia as an apprentice in the summer of 2021.
In many ways, the next two years were an amazing experience. The country is beautiful, the people extremely friendly, and the veteran REI field staff an exemplary showcase of many of the things that, to me, make REI such an extraordinary organization. From the early emphasis placed on language acquisition and acculturation to the structure of factory operations, it is clear that the work of REI is not only about international development in the sense of sending resources from the “developed” world to a place of need, but also about developing internationally – that is, letting who we are and what we do be informed by the community we are seeking to serve: not neglecting the true strengths and holistic development vision we offer, but humbly seeking to truly understand the local context and being willing to be truly changed by it.
That said, in some ways the last two years were also a hard experience. To be changed is not easy and rarely comfortable, and like most worthwhile work the things REI staff take on are often very difficult. But once one has begun this process there is no going back: one can dig in one’s heels and resist, or one can change willingly but one way or another there is change, there is development.
Building people to build nations is of course primarily about intentional investment in the communities we serve, but we must acknowledge the way in which we are building each other as people is with an ever-increasing desire (and hopefully increasing skill and humility) to build ever-more nations. So, having left Indonesia upon the completion of my apprenticeship, I plan to transfer to REI’s Uzbekistan team.
As mentioned, I always wanted to travel, work internationally, and have a positive impact in the world. While REI certainly affords the opportunity for all that, it also provides more: the opportunity to take a variety of interests, skills, and backgrounds, then walk alongside a community of fellow workers as well as locals to make that impact—to invest in long-term projects of real worth in ways that can shape communities long after your contribution is passed from memory.