Steve West ’53 has always liked to think big. After earning an MBA degree and serving in the military, he joined his older brother in managing the West Baking Company, which by 1965 was baking buns for McDonald’s. Now that West is busy with philanthropic efforts, his focus is giving people resources to address complex issues—including public health, poverty, and education—in developing nations.
For decades, West was involved with his family’s foundation, which supported health and education initiatives in Africa, Latin America, and India. As he approached his 50th Reunion at Carleton, he and his wife, Phyllis, saw a chance to give students a firsthand understanding of the many complicated and interrelated challenges faced by developing countries. “We wanted to give service learning opportunities to students who might want to go into these fields in the future—as diplomats or leaders of nongovernmental organizations, for example,” West says.
The Wests started with a $1 million gift in 2003 to fund the Initiative for Service Internships in International Development. The fund, which is now providing grants to nearly two dozen students each year, allows students to travel to developing countries to volunteer for organizations that focus on literacy, economic development, and other essentials. Competitive grants support students for at least five weeks as they gain understanding of a country’s most pressing issues. By working through established organizations, students are able to provide services that are both valuable and necessary.
The internships were an immediate hit. Students have worked in orphanages in Tanzania, taught English in India, and helped farmers in Nepal. Each year, they write enthusiastic letters to the Wests to explain how the work changed their global perspective—and in some cases, their lives. They often express a desire to pursue the issues they touched on in their internships in graduate school and in their careers.
The success of the internship fund spurred the Wests to think about other ways to contribute to students’ learning about and commitment to the developing world. In 2007, with an additional $500,000 gift, they created the Phyllis and Stephen R. West ’53 Endowed Fund for Off-Campus Study in Developing Nations to support the College’s efforts in creating off-campus seminars based in developing countries. Faculty members are currently at work on new programs, including a course in biodiversity conservation and development in Tanzania and a course on sustainable agriculture in China.
Elizabeth Ciner, associate dean of the College, says the opportunities provided by the Wests serve as a launching pad for students, affecting their lives after Carleton. “Programs like these give students the tools they need to return to these countries on their own,” she says. “We think the programs offer enormous potential.”
West encourages others to think deeply and widely about how they choose to give their money. “Many philanthropic advisers suggest that you should support something you’re already interested in—orchestras or zoos or museums,” he says. “But there are global neighbors out there who are suffering. Even if you don’t know a lot about it, do you not have the responsibility to find out who can help build sustainable communities?”
West sees these internships and study programs as a starting point in helping students to do just that. As students explore the world around them, he hopes they will begin to think just as big as he does about the increasing gap between the world’s “unseen” and the “un-reached” in more developed nations.
Learn about students' service internship experiences
See the World, Change the World
A service internship in Costa Rica helped Amenah Babar '05 choose a career in public health
From Idealism to Action
An internship in Bolivia gave Olivia Jee '08 a new perspective on poverty and health care