How five young technologists changed their communities, the jungle and themselves
Even in the jungle, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
It will also be one of the only times to catch Sara Stifler, Sathya Narayanan Subramanian, Dominic Co, Juan Carlos Murillo and Laura Fulton holding still. It will be where we discuss life, love, technology and the point of it all over eggs, toast, plantains and exotic juices.
Over the clatter of coffee cups and silverware, these five will slowly reveal themselves and their plans to change the world and, in doing so, swiftly dispatch of any unflattering notions I may have had lingering about Millennials. (In fact, their optimism is so contagious, and their capabilities and confidence so comforting, that one day I caught myself humming “We Are the World” while leaving breakfast – entirely without irony.)
Like John Hughes’ coming-of-age masterpiece nearly 30 years ago, this Breakfast Club consists of five young people with seemingly very little in common who are thrust into a situation that will challenge them to the core, and in doing so, change them forever. Unlike the original Breakfast Club, these five have reported to a lodge in the Amazon rainforest, not detention. (Also, as the oldest among them was born in 1991, none of them have even seen the movie, but they politely listen and nod while I explain its premise and cultural importance.)
Months ago, before they shopped for two weeks’ worth of quick-dry clothing and headed for a lodge in South America, these five entered Microsoft YouthSpark’s “Challenge for Change” contest. First, they sent in their (vastly different) ideas for how to use technology to make their communities better. Next, they were named among 20 finalists and then, after a tense period of public voting online, they emerged victorious. They each won a pile of Microsoft technology, $2,500 to help with their projects and a two-week trip to Ecuador to help them boost their leadership skills and galvanize their knack for creating change.
Breakfast is where we will learn that Fulton earned a patent before she graduated from high school (for a synthetic tooth enamel she invented), and that at home Murillo has a parrot named Max that does a spot-on imitation of his mom calling him to dinner, and that Co doesn’t really like ice cream (though his mother runs Dippin’ Dots in the Philippines), and that Subramanian is 100 percent reliable at cracking wise when things get too serious or heavy, and that Stifler spent the summer living in a tent in the woods mainly just to see if she could.
In the span of two weeks, five young adults who started out as strangers armed only with boarding passes and backpacks would become far-flung siblings. In August, they left their homes all over the globe, boarding airplanes bound for a grand adventure. (Technically the destination was Ecuador, not adventure, but from here on out it is safe to consider the two synonymous.)
Stifler, 21, turned up at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport in her favorite skinny jeans, ripped and stained from a recent “gnarly” longboarding accident. While she waited to board her flight, she wrote in her most prized possession (which is actually whatever journal she’s using at the moment).
As Subramanian, 23, walked toward the doors of the Coimbatore International Airport, staggering a bit under the weight of his massive bag, his dad, mom, grandma, two aunts and a sister cheered him on (so heartily, in fact, that bystanders would ask Subramanian if he was leaving India forever).
Some 3,000 miles to the east in the Philippines, 19-year-old Co lugged his orange hiking backpack into the Manila International Airport. Going through security, his belt broke, and his olive-colored, quick-dry, convertible jungle pants started to fall. He was mortified. “But totes Amazon ready,” he would later joke.
Fulton, 18, stepped out of a rented limo in Newark after a three-hour ride from her home in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey (she had to leave punishingly early – too early to ask someone for a ride). Despite her pre-dawn departure, the soon-to-be University of Pittsburgh college freshman was camera-ready, as always, and wearing one of her favorite T-shirts, a blue V-neck that reads, “HOPE.”
In Boston, MIT research assistant Murillo, 22, turned up early at the airport, fastidious in a pink-and-orange dress shirt, ready to fly right over his home and family in Mexico en route to South America.
After spending time in Quito, Ecuador (including a visit to the equator and the Microsoft office there), these five, along with a larger group of young people, took an eight-hour bus ride and 30-minute boat ride to get to the Minga Lodge in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest. The lodge (about 2.5 hours upriver from Coca, Ecuador, as the piranha swims) is run by Free the Children, an international charity that works to help young people become agents of change. Each day of the trip, the young altruists will take time to really think about themselves and their place in the world and discuss tools and techniques for turning ideas into reality, intention into action. Then, after talking about how to change the world, they walk to a nearby village to change it, building a much-needed kitchen for a tiny jungle school.
"I think it’s good to send us to a place like Ecuador where we are given a two-week span of seeing scarcity and hardship, and where we can have time to think about a lot of things, and think of all the things we have,” Subramanian said at breakfast the first morning. “Then when we jump back in, you know, we can push from a place of power. We can say, ‘Wow, we have so many resources that others don’t have, so we should probably make the best of them.’”
For the next two weeks, the lodge was home to the teenagers and young adults as they volunteered in nearby communities, immersed themselves in Ecuadorian culture, explored the tropical rainforest and learned to minga (a local way of saying “many hands make light work”). Though the word was new to them, the five Challenge for Change winners arrived in the jungle well-familiar with the concept.
In the Amazon, when a problem is afoot (whether it’s building a new school, finding clean drinking water or hauling liters of Coca-Cola up from the canoe), each household sends someone to help. Though it’s a brief interruption to whatever they were doing in their own lives, the volunteers come happily, people think and troubleshoot and sweat and toil together, and the problem is solved.
“Coming here helps us understand these problems more deeply, like pollution or people not having clean drinking water or people not having enough food,” Murillo said. “Only when you understand the problems can you use your brain or muscles or technology to solve it.”
After the long journey from Quito, the group arrived just in time: At the Minga Lodge, sunsets are a spectator sport.
Each day before dinner, people pull up plastic chairs on the lodge’s large deck and watch as the day melts like sherbet into the Napo River. As the light fades, an orchestra of birds and insects swells dramatically, as if playing the daylight off stage from its long-winded Oscar acceptance speech.
None of the five have ever been to South America.
“It’s like Pandora, the planet in the movie ‘Avatar,’” Subramanian said. “It’s a totally distinct world, beyond the imagination of metropolitan habits.”
In the morning, after the relative calm of breakfast, the days become a rainforest montage – a blur of volunteer work, field trips, selfies, sweat and yellow, steel-toed jungle boots.
One morning, on a hike through the rainforest, the students chatted about local wildlife as they ascended a hill so steep it’s mostly stairs. Mauricio and Rodrigo, the guides at Minga Lodge, like to say, “If you can’t see any wildlife in the jungle, don’t worry, it can see you.” This, of course, sends a thrill (or a shudder, depending) through the group. The Amazon is, indeed, chock full of poisonous, biting, stinging things (though thankfully, for the most part they tend to avoid humans). There are piranhas, tarantulas, scorpions, caiman, anacondas …
“Wait, so what happens in the movie ‘Anaconda’?” Co said.
“Everything happens!” Subramanian said, laughing.
One of the guides, Rodrigo, stopped the group to show them a golden spider web “so strong you can pluck it like a bass.” When the trail finally reaches the top of the ridge, the payoff is a commanding view of the jungle and the river below. Murillo takes it all in with a satisfied smile.Juan Carlos Murillo
His project, Sin Miedo a la Corriente (No Fear of Current), aims to “remove the fear” of technology from Mexican teenagers and to interest them in computers and electronics engineering, whether it’s teaching them about emerging technologies or teaching them to code.
“In Mexico, the current educational system is lacking a lot of topics related to technology,” he said. “Technology has become a very essential part of my life. Technology helps me be more creative, be innovative, materialize my ideas, and not only help me, but help me in making good for other people.”
Early next year, when he’s done working as a computer science research assistant at MIT, he will return to Mexico to finish his senior year of college, and he hopes to significantly expand Sin Miedo a la Corriente. Over the next decade he’d like the program to reach 100 middle schools and to involve 2,000 students.
Life in the rainforest is a particular challenge for Juan Carlos, who has lived his whole life with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Sharing a rustic cabin and restrooms with insects, dirt and roommates, working in the dirt and walking in the thick foliage, eating unfamiliar foods – it’s all been tough for him, though no one would ever guess. (In fact, he didn’t mention any of this until after the trip.) One afternoon during a spear-throwing and dart-blowing demonstration, he initially declined trying to shoot a blow-dart, worried about germ-sharing as the tube was being passed around the group. I laughed (I had been thinking the same thing) and offered him an anti-bacterial wipe. He took it, still looking reluctant, but after a few minutes of hovering on the periphery, he stepped up to the line. He wiped off the mouthpiece, took a deep breath, and blew what looked to be a tiny porcupine quill swiftly out of the tube, narrowly missing the target on his first try. High-fives and cheering all around.
Those who spent the most time with Murillo didn’t notice any of this, either, describing instead his warm social skills, bubbly openness, passion for technology and good conversation, and his all-around “genius.” Still, he is a man of care and precision, especially with his words. When I ask him a hypothetical question about what he hopes people will say about him and the life he lived at the end of it, he ponders the question for several hours, returning with the following, written on a scrap of paper: “He was the happiest man on Earth, and he used his crazy energy to push everyone he met, to love his family and friends, and to disrupt and construct a better world.”
It’s almost midday, which means it’s time for the hikers to head back down the ridge for lunch.
“If you guys are done with your selfies, we can get going,” Rodrigo calls to the group.
The next morning, the young occupants of Minga Lodge hop in a canoe and cross the river to visit Miguel Vargas, a farmer who supplies the lodge with some of its fruits, vegetables and coffee. As he shows the students around, giving them a brief taste of the hard labor of hauling clean water from the spring and harvesting coffee and yucca, Subramanian explained his aversion to seriousness.
“Job, life, destiny, settling – it’s all kind of boring. I don’t have to be a stereotype. It’s not about getting stuff, it’s about feeling satisfied with who you are and what you’re doing. If someone said to me, ‘You’re going to die next week,’ at least I know I did something and it wasn’t all just about me,” Subramanian said.
At 23 Subramanian is the oldest in the Minga Lodge group, and it only takes him a couple of days to cement himself as a sort of cheerful, jolly, fun uncle to some of the younger kids. “I’m the one who keeps jumping around reminding people that life is short and to be happy,” he said.
Don’t let this big teddy-bear-of-a-guy, fool you – in high school he became a Microsoft Student Partner, he just earned his master’s degree, and he plans to pursue a Ph.D. soon. He created his project, the Digital Literacy Program, two years ago in the hopes that it would help students in remote regions of India reach their technological potential.
“I basically want to create an impact within the community of underprivileged or people who are beyond the reach of technology, and teach them to use computers, and give them access to the Internet and make sure they make the best use of it,” Subramanian said. “In India, an average of somewhere around 70 percent of the people do have a cell phone, they do have a smart phone, they use it, but the thing is, they don't know how to use it for their betterment like education or self-improvement, or to get something out of it just apart from a phone call or listening to music. So that's the thing which we are trying to impart.”
He’s noticed similarities in Ecuador as well.
“Coke and Fanta have a market in a place where they don’t always even have electricity,” Subramanian said. “Technology can be used for social good, but its access is still so limited. Imagine a world where everyone is technologically superior, where everyone has access to all the resources in the world. People will have the knowledge to discriminate what is right and what is wrong. The lines between haves and have-nots will blur. The world will not be the same anymore.”
Later, when the group piled into canoes and headed upriver to meet a shaman, Subramanian and Co were among the first to volunteer for a cleansing ritual. They removed their glasses and closed their eyes, sitting very still on a bench as the shaman – dressed in a T-shirt and feather headdress – blew a puff of tobacco smoke on each person, then gently patted them with a fan of dried yucca leaves to cleanse their spirits. After the ceremony, I saw Co talking to the shaman with Murillo translating.Co, center, experiences a spirit-cleansing ritual from an Ecuadorian shaman with fellow Minga Lodge visitors.
“I was asking him if he could see my future,” Co said. “He can’t.”
“But that’s totally OK,” he added, brightly.
Co is sweet, optimistic, relatively soft-spoken, though as quietly clever as Subramanian is gregariously funny. After the trip, Co wrote about his favorite parts at length, including the opportunity to stay in the “absolutely beautiful Minga Lodge situated in one of the most diverse jungles in the world, which is the reason I met new insects every day from the comfort of my own bed.”
At first he seemed like he might be the most timid of the group, but contrarily, he was usually the first to dive in. When kids from a nearby village approached him with a soccer ball, he said he didn’t know how to play, but within minutes they were teaching him to head the ball. When a local Ecuadorian band came to play, he tore up the dance floor in a thatched-roof gazebo. He even ate a live, “squirming orange horned beetle grub the size of a Chihuahua.”
“Despite my fears and inhibitions, I wanted to make the best of this,” Co said. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse myself in the culture and beauty of the Amazon.”
He developed his project, Libroko.org, to help young people in his country learn and appreciate Filipino literature. The project stems from some of his own moments of failure in high school trying to read and understand two required texts, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” by Jose Rizal, about the quest for Philippine independence after 333 years of Spanish colonial rule.
“I realized that if only I had this kind of resources available to me then perhaps I could have not failed my classes and would have appreciated why I have to study Filipino literature and history as a way of forming an identity and belonging to a certain group,” Co said.
At breakfast one day, there is a rousing discussion about the perils of limitless technology, the dangers of globalization and what it takes to preserve humanity in an increasingly digital world. Stifler points out that technology is not the villain, and that Co’s project is an example of how technology can be used to not only promote a culture, but to maintain it.
“That’s why I am passionate about my project,” Co said. “It’s a way to understand Filipino literature in the context of history, and a way of helping youth to not forget themselves.”
As a second-year architecture student, spending time in the Amazon rocked his world a bit. Before the trip, Co was considering a specialty in green factory architecture, but after spending time in the Amazon he’s become critical of his chosen field’s “ivory towers.”
“This opportunity of wearing a hard hat and getting my hands dirty in building a community kitchen from the ground up without any form of assistive machinery is totally different from the safe, isolated and technology-laden environment I am used to,” he said. “To get gravel, we had to take a 10-minute boat ride all the way to another island, shovel the material into 300 rice bags, and carry each one of those heavy rice bags almost 500 meters back to the boat.”
As he pushed his physical limits on a project that he hoped would benefit hundreds of children and their families for years to come, blackening his toenails inside his steel-toed boots, he realized he had also unearthed a passion for projects with direct impact. He’d like his new architecture school specialty to be low-cost construction.
“I believe this is the perfect marriage between my job and my passion,” he said.
At the kitchen build site in the sticky heat of mid-afternoon, Fulton is talking excitedly about moving into her new dorm at the University of Pittsburgh the day after she gets home from Ecuador. Then she’ll have orchestra auditions and a full class load, including her chosen elective, beginning bagpipes.
Fulton is whip-smart (she’s pursuing a dual degree in biomaterials engineering and software engineering and again, she has a patent), graceful (she’s danced with the Atlantic City Ballet, and even in rubber boots could demonstrate some of her moves) and, as her fellow winners call her, “phenomenal, brilliant and chill.” Still, Fulton said, she is having a hard time being “disconnected.” There’s no Wi-Fi to speak of at the Minga Lodge, and it’s probably almost the longest she’s gone without updating her blog. She also can’t help but think of the many emails associated with starting college that are piling up, awaiting her reply. That said, she also appreciates the opportunities being disconnected has afforded.
“I've loved just being in the Amazon here. Just being present, not necessarily connected to, like, the Internet or friends that you're used to talking to, you're able to meet new people by just being here, which is amazing. I've been able to use my Spanish and spark conversations with the locals,” Fulton said. “I love playing with the children. Yesterday in the village we were swinging them around and they'd say, ‘Arriba, arriba.’”
Fulton created her project, Science for Success, four years ago as a way of reaching out to young women to get them excited about exploring science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). As she progressed through school, taking more and more advanced science classes, she noticed the number of her female peers dwindling.
“I visit groups of younger girls and do experiments with them to help them overcome gender stereotypes and cultural stereotypes that might impact how they perform in the sciences. It's really interesting to see how excited the girls get when performing these experiments, like, ‘Wow, I can make something blow up and see the result,’” Fulton said.
She uses experiments to illustrate how exciting science can be – cloning cabbage, using air pressure to suck an egg into a bottle, building kaleidoscopes, levitating magnets – and helps girls find mentors. She also visits professional organizations to speak on how they can get involved in encouraging young girls and minority groups to pursue a STEM education.
“I think technology has the capability to bring people together,” Fulton said. “One thing I’m really excited about for the future is technology in medical and science applications – contact lenses, prosthetics; it’s almost endless what we can do.”
Behind Fulton, several students moved a pile of lumber one or two boards at a time. When a handful of cockroaches skittered out, half of the students laughed, half squealed. Stifler did neither. In hardhat and goggles, she was deeply focused on the task at hand – moving approximately five times as many boards per trip. After that, she moved on to helping younger kids use saws and hammers.
Stifler is bold, driven and charismatic. She also has the frenetic energy of a bug turned over; the intensity of someone who knows very well she’s standing at one of life’s major crossroads.
“Life direction. Life direction,” Stifler said one afternoon when I ask her what she was thinking about. “Where the heck am I going to go with my life?”
After graduating early with a double degree in French and Spanish, she moved to the woods to “live deliberately,” as Henry David Thoreau once did. Part of her wants to pursue a highly physical job, and she’s been eyeing the military (and training for it with lots of running and lifting weights). She had an appointment scheduled with a recruiter the day after she got home from Ecuador.
Another part of her – a deeply creative part that lives to write, photograph and take video – was fully unleashed in January when she and her friend Connie Gago created their project Journey in Their Shoes. If Humans of New York walks a couple of city blocks with its subjects, Stifler’s website walks a country mile. The friends started collecting stories from and photographing the people they meet with the aim of creating more respect and understanding. Before starting Journey in Their Shoes, Stifler was going through a particularly rough and aimless time, and this project was good for the soul to say the least, she said.
“All of a sudden I wasn't focusing on what I was going through; I was focusing on what other people have gone through,” Stifler said. “The idea is to empathize with people that you'd never normally be able to empathize with. And so that slowly starts to destruct those kinds of judgments and stereotypes. Or just kind of simply not caring, you know, about a person that's not like you. We want you to care, 'cause if you care, there's a lot less conflict and a lot more, like, proactivity towards peace.”
Empathy. One afternoon I ask Stifler what she’d do with 15 minutes of Wi-Fi, considered by the young Minga Lodge residents to be one of the scarcest resources in the rainforest. She thinks for a moment, then said she wouldn’t use it, then thinks a little longer and changes her mind.
“I think I would actually use it, but not for me, 'cause I can get Internet in seven days when I go home. But there are people here that may not ever have Internet, so it would be really cool to find someone and say, ‘Hey, what have you always wanted to know about?’ And just let them use the tablet for 15 minutes and see what the Internet can do for them.”
Spoiler alert: The day she got home from Ecuador, Stifler canceled her appointment with the military recruiter and accepted a video production internship in Seattle.
“I felt that I had so much going on in my life and that I wasn’t ready for two weeks off the grid, but truthfully it was the best thing that could have happened at that time because of the lessons it taught me about service, leadership and love,” Stifler said. “It’s a brilliant move on Microsoft's part, because they don’t just give the winners stuff to reward them for giving back to the community; they empower them with this trip to help them become better leaders, innovators and servants to their communities.”
They may no longer share their morning meals together, but The Breakfast Club still talks all the time, Stifler said.
“We were like siblings by the end of the trip,” she said, “different but yet we had in common our desire to make positive change and truly impact the world. That’s all it takes.”Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft