Twenty Years of buildOn:Nicaragua Inspires Alum Helena Pylvainen to Fight Inequality

buildOn alum Helena Pylvainen thinks a lot about social inequality. She strives, in her day job as an educational program evaluator, to facilitate changes that might level the global playing field. But her career path has also partially been an attempt at understanding the source of existing socio-economic imbalances. “Most of the programs we evaluate,” she told me, “have some kind of public funding or outreach mission. A lot are trying to get minorities and girls interested in careers where those groups are underrepresented, like engineering and science. But there’s a lot of questions about why those disparities exist in the first place.”

[pullquote]”I’d really like to work for a government agency some day and be part of the ‘change from within’ process.”[/pullquote]

There was striking passion and confidence in Pylvainen’s voice as she discussed injustices that so many others have taken for granted. And behind that passion and confidence is a burning curiosity that demands answers. “Why are some people so poor and others so rich?” she interjected at one point during our conversation, then adding: “I’d really like to work for a government agency some day and be part of the ‘change from within’ process.”

One has to wonder where this outlook came from. As a teen, Pylvainen attended Michigan’s renown International Academy, and was exposed early on to the nuance of hardship both in the United States and abroad. But thinking back, she attributed much of her current perspective to her years with buildOn. “I first heard about the organization when I was in the 9th grade at IA,” she commented. “A student a few years older than myself gave a presentation about her school building trip. And that got me interested.”

Pylvainen joined in the 10th grade with the hopes of going on a school building trip herself, and was selected as part of IA’s second international excursion ever, to Porto Banco in Nicaragua. “It made a huge impression on me,” she claimed. “I was 14 years old and had never been to a developing country before.” She still remembers discussing the future with a Nicaraguan 8 year old and realizing for the first time the randomness of socio-economic privilege. “He said he wanted to be a doctor,” she recalled. “But his school didn’t even provide classes past the 8th grade. So I started thinking about all these challenges that this child would have to overcome in order to become a doctor versus my own, and there was a huge disparity.”

[pullquote]As president of her school’s program, Helena raised awareness of the diversity and inequality in Michigan’s own backyard.[/pullquote]

After witnessing poverty in Nicaragua, Pylvainen felt ready to ask some very tough questions of her homeland and herself. “I got really upset in Nicaragua, learning about their civil war, and how the US was involved. We spoke to people in the village who had fought in that conflict and were missing limbs. And the communist government ran a really successful literacy campaign in Nicaragua, despite the United States’ attempts to take them down. It’s unfortunate that we can’t acknowledge the success of conflicting political ideologies.”

With her political convictions blossoming, Pylvainen returned to the States, and continued her participation in buildOn with renewed passion. As a senior, she eventually became president of her school’s program, and orchestrated fundraisers and projects that would raise, along with money, awareness of the diversity and inequality in Michigan’s own backyard. “IA’s a very ethnically diverse school. One project I remember well was our multi-cultural cookbook. We put the whole thing together and sold it. It made a ton of money, which really surprised us.”

Pylvainen would go on to study international relations at Wellesley College, and has just been accepted to the Harvard Kennedy school to study public policy. “I still talk about my trip to Nicaragua,” she said. “I wrote about it in my application to Harvard Kennedy. I learned how easy it is to make a difference in your local community at buildOn. The more you think about disparities that exist globally the more you start to think about them in your own country. Coming from Michigan, from the suburbs, it’s obvious what inequalities there are.”

Indeed, the relationship between a worldwide perspective and the motivation to act in one’s own neighborhood is a crucial one, and Pylvainen’s advice to current buildOn students speaks to this. “One of the great things about buildOn is the way it ties together the local and the global,” she explained. “Often some of the best ways to help are in your own local community and you don’t need to go on a big glamorous trip to help out. Inequality happens everywhere.”