Heather van Buskirk used to think that getting a college education was out of her reach.
In her early 20s, van Buskirk was eager to get started helping people who live in extreme poverty and joined a service mission in South Africa.
During her five years as a volunteer with Operation Mobilization, she organized skills-training workshops and a small-business training and microloan program that launched a number of successful family businesses in Mamelodi, a township northeast of Pretoria.
“It got me interested in seeing how we could do more to reach more people,” she said. And ultimately, she decided that she was going to need both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree to accomplish that goal.
A focus on international development
The Chico native returned to California in 2013 and enrolled in an accelerated program for working adults at American River College, taking classes on Tuesday evenings and all-day Saturdays while working full time as a legal assistant at a Woodland family law office.
She earned her associate degree in social science three years later, then transferred to UC Davis as a sociology major. She said UC Davis appealed to her because the Department of Sociology in the College of Letters and Science is one of the few offering an undergraduate emphasis in world development.
But she nearly didn’t apply, thinking that she couldn’t afford the tuition and fees. A community college advisor encouraged her to reconsider. “So I threw my name in pretty much for kicks and giggles.”
Helped by scholarships
Not only was she accepted, she also received a prestigious Regents Scholarship, which is awarded based on a student’s academic and personal achievements and covered half her costs to attend.
“I was just floored,” van Buskirk said. “I literally fell to my knees when I got that letter. It opened up a whole new world of opportunity for me here.”
Now in the final year of her undergraduate studies, van Buskirk has received additional recognition for her academic achievements. She is in the University Honors Program and recently received a Marion Freeborn Re-entry Scholarship from the University Farm Circle, a women’s organization created in the campus’s early days as the University Farm to support students.
Hands-on research experience
In addition to taking courses in sociology, anthropology and economics, she has done two research assistantships — one with Assistant Professor David McCourt, an international political sociologist, and the other with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Assets and Market Access at UC Davis (AMA Innovation Lab), funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Food Security.
Her honors project focuses on extreme poverty in sub-Sahara Africa, where more than 400 million people — the majority of them children — survive on less than $1.90 a day per person.
She plans to begin a master’s degree program next fall, studying impact evaluation in the United Kingdom. After she finishes the program, van Buskirk and her husband, Michael, want to return to Africa.
Inspired by South African entrepreneurs
She said she remains motivated by the people she and her husband met during her 2008-13 community development work in South Africa. (The couple’s volunteer work was supported by family, friends and other sponsors.)
She initially worked in an after-school program, then began making home visits to learn from families what services they needed. That led to training workshops in jewelry making, sewing, gardening, computer literacy, basic mechanics and other skills.
After taking the workshops, several people in Mamelodi were able to launch home businesses with $5 to $10 loans that they repaid with interest. (As an incentive, the interest in the microloan program was paid as a bonus to the person who turned the most profit.)
“I met some of the most amazing people who took care of their kids, their community with very few resources. We became really great friends and they are my constant inspiration. They are the reason that I came back to study development and extreme poverty — what works and what doesn’t.”
Working closely with faculty
Van Buskirk, 34, said her life experiences gave her a broader perspective in her UC Davis courses and helped her think more critically — and made her unintimidated about visiting professors during their office hours. “I know every professor I’ve taken a class with on a first-name basis.”
Van Buskirk said taking courses in different disciplines has given her a wider perspective on inequities around the world. “What college has really added to my toolbox is a deeper understanding of the history of these issues — development and poverty, oppression and the legacy of colonization.
“Going forward, I would like to focus on impact evaluation: what works? My goal is to work in the field, learning how people in their communities envision development and supporting them in their efforts to achieve it. I believe in a grassroots approach. I see my role as helping to facilitate their dreams and vision for development.”
Van Buskirk added: “I have learned so much from the people I worked with — about community and caring for others, selfless giving, and what it means to be a good neighbor. We have as much to learn from disadvantaged communities as we have to contribute.”