by Pam Chamberlain, submitted 2010
Sometimes, one decision made during an undergrad program can change the course of a student’s life. Fiona Cavanagh’s decision to take part in Augustana’s Rural Development Exchange (RDX) Program, which took her to live and study in Mexico, has influenced every aspect of her life since.
Since graduating, Fiona has worked in community development, human rights, and social justice. She participated in a Canada World Youth (CWY) program that took her to Bolivia to work in the federal government’s Department of Biodiversity and Sustainability. There, she studied social issues associated with development and environmental protection and developed an environmental education program for indigenous Bolivian communities.
Fiona returned to Canada for graduate work at the University of Alberta, earning a master’s degree in education policy studies with a specialization in theoretical, cultural, and international studies. During grad school, she remained involved in CWY, which led her to meet her future husband, Pedro Rodriguez De Los Santos. The couple lived in Uruguay for six months before returning to Edmonton, where they are raising their six-year-old daughter, Lucia.
Since 2004, Fiona has been Program Manager of Education and Public Engagement with the Change for Children Association (CFCA), an Alberta-based charity working locally and internationally to support sustainable community development in Latin America and Africa. CFCA also offers global education programs here in Canada. Fiona’s Rural Roots program, for example, provides leadership and global education opportunities to young rural Albertans.
“I’m thrilled to see the effect our work has on local and international communities,” Fiona says. “I’ve heard firsthand the stories both of need and how our projects have changed people’s lives.” Recently, Fiona visited Nicaragua to see the impact clean water and a school can have on a community.
Fiona enjoys the challenge of working for a charity: “It’s fast-paced, and I’m constantly learning new skills and managing new projects.” She’s learned skills ranging from financial management to grant writing to event planning. She also works to influence government policies on international development. “Each day brings a new challenge and a new opportunity to be creative,” she says. “It’s exciting and rewarding.”
Fiona doesn’t underestimate the significance of her decision to go to Mexico or, in fact, to attend Augustana. “If I hadn’t taken classes from particular sociology professors like Dr. Kieran Bonner, I might not have gone to graduate school,” she remarks. “They prepared me to be successful by teaching me to challenge ideas, develop critical analysis, and set high academic goals.” She also credits Dr. Dittmar Mündel, who led the RDX program, with introducing her to participatory action research and experiential learning, philosophies that have shaped her career and life path.
“The foundation I received at Augustana,” she says, “led me to travel, learn languages, be a leader in my community, integrate disciplines, value community, want to have a positive impact in the world, and to meet an amazing group of friends and colleagues. My life simply would not be the same if I hadn’t attended Augustana