Wanda O’Brien dressed for an Indian wedding in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Wanda O’Brien

World traveller comes full circle with Me to We

  • April 5, 2013

Toronto native Wanda O’Brien landed in India at the start of this year, ready to begin a new international adventure.

At age 26, she is the new manager of Leadership and Trips Programming in India for Me to We, a social enterprise that offers volunteer trips for young people to developing countries.

O’Brien’s journey did not begin with her job application. The summer after Grade 11, when she was 17, O’Brien went on her first trip abroad. With 21 students and adults, she went to Kenya for three weeks with Leaders Today, the former name of Me to We.

“The trip I went on was the first trip organized with Leaders Today, aka Me to We, with the Toronto Catholic District School Board,” she said.

Me to We was founded by Marc and Craig Kielburger, who also founded Free the Children. The Kielburgers are graduates of the TCDSB.

By the time she graduated high school, O’Brien had an interest in storytelling and social justice, as well as a desire to travel. So she attended journalism school at Carleton University in Ottawa, and the summer after graduating went to work as an intern for two-and-a-half months in Rwanda.

She applied for an internship in Rwanda, where Carleton students could work as journalists in the African nation and Rwandan students could study at Carleton.

“I loved it. I was working for ... Rwanda’s online news wire,” said O’Brien, who had the opportunity to attend a media tour with the World Bank president.

Her French wasn’t very good and she didn’t speak the local Rwandan language, so making connections was at times a challenge, though she advises that being a good listener is always useful in any foreign setting.

“Having the opportunity to work in Rwanda further expanded my world view and so I think that’s a very valuable opportunity to have. And I think there are all types of opportunities that challenge you to think more critically, really help you to progress,” she said.

After Rwanda, O’Brien was returned to Canada looking for a journalism job, knowing she’d like to work in different places around the world. So she applied to the Aga Khan Foundation Canada that offered fellowships for those under 30 to work in specific fields, like media and national development, in a developing country.

“I ended up getting an international development scholarship to work in Nairobi with the Aga Khan University because they were developing a new school for media and communication,” O’Brien said.

While in Nairobi, she applied to do her masters’ degree in media development and communication at the London School of Economics and has recently graduated.

“I’ve always been really interested in Me to We and Free the Children and have had in the back of my mind that it would be a really great opportunity to travel back with them at some point,” she said.

“I saw this opening to be the manager of trips in India, so decided to apply and I was fortunate enough to get it.”

After employee training in Kenya, O’Brien is back in India and working at the country’s Me to We head office in the city of Udaipur.

“We work in the state of Rajasthan because that’s where some of the most marginalized communities in India can be found,” said O’Brien. “Coming on the Me to We trip, they’re getting to participate in the development work that Free the Children does ... very, very, very deep connections that Free the Children has spent a lot of time nourishing and exploring along with community members.”

O’Brien has great respect for the organization.

“Me to We has a great relationship with the Toronto Catholic District School Board and with other school boards... I just have a deep respect for them and that my trip came out of the relationship that they built.”

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