Where junior Tavia Vitkauskas worked over the summer, local kids would call her “the white one.” For some, she was the first white person they had ever seen.
Vitkauskas interned in the South Asian country of Nepal for five weeks. She worked with a company called Adhunik Agricultural Cooperative Ltd., which assists small local farms.
When Vitkauskas started her internship, she could say “hello,” “thank you,” and “My name is Tavia,” in Nepali. To complicate communication further, the only English-speaking employee was not there for the week.
After much confusion, Vitkauskas figured out that she was supposed to write a profile for the company in English. She finished it in a couple of days and turned it in.
“They were so surprised,” Vitkauskas said. “They had thought it would take me the whole five weeks… Now the question was, what else was there for me to do?”
Vitkauskas took initiative and proposed research as to how the member farmers were benefiting from the cooperative. Her project was approved, and Vitkauskas toured farms with a translator to give surveys to the farmers.
“The culture is so different,” Vitkauskas said. “The people are Hindus, and they worship animals. My host family owned a cow, which is the most holy animal. It had its own shed… I wasn’t allowed to touch the cow because I’m not Hindu.”
Vitkauskas added that the family she lived with also worshipped crows.
“No one was allowed to eat till the crows ate,” she said.
Vitkauskas found the internship through the international volunteer organization Cross Continental while searching the internet for opportunities.
“I am addicted to traveling, so I knew I wanted to be abroad for the summer,” Vitkauskas said. Though she initially wavered between Nepal and South America, she decided to come to Nepal because she knew next to nothing about the country and its culture.
While Vitkauskas’ parents John and Marjorie said they were a little shocked when their daughter said she was going to Nepal, they were also proud of her.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for her to see some of the parts of the world she’d had no exposure to,” John Vitkauskas said.
Vitkauskas’ parents agreed that traveling overseas to intern in Nepal was an idea very much in keeping with their daughter’s character.
“She’s very self-reliant, very interested in doing different things,” John Vitkauskas said.
Tavia Vitkauskas focused on microfinance, “an approach to alleviating extreme poverty by providing small loans or other financial services to individuals,” according to associate professor of economics Michael Clark.
Such loans are important to the rural farmers in Nepal.
“For a poor farmer, $100 can be the difference between you pulling the plow or a donkey pulling the plow,” Vitkauskas said.
The cooperative also offers other benefits to members, Vitkauskas explained. Members can buy and sell directly, rather than through a middleman, allowing farmers to sell at higher prices and buyers to purchase at lower prices.
After her survey, Vitkauskas wrote up an eight-page report on the company, with two main suggestions for improvement.
Vitkauskas’ first suggestion was to host educational seminars for the farmers who were members of the cooperative. She said a lot of problems could be fixed if farmers could work more efficiently, such as by growing different types of crops instead of just one.
Vitkauskas’ second suggestion was investing in a truck and door-to-door service. “I would travel sometimes two hours to see a farmer,” Vitkauskas said. “It was inconvenient.”
Both of Vitkauskas’ suggestions were seriously considered. Vitkauskas said that the company has already started having educational seminars, and they are saving up money to invest in a truck.
“It’s amazing that I, a 20-year-old college girl, could do this for the company,” Vitkauskas said.
Despite differences, Vitkauskas said the Nepali people were welcoming and helpful. But one thing she does not miss about Nepal is the food.
“Every day they had dal bhat, which is rice, curry, and potatoes,” Vitkauskas said. “We ate it all the time. It was good…but hard for three meals a day!”