Sustainable impact: Former student recounts lessons learned at Penn State

Stefanie Tomlinson
October 16, 2014

When he came to Penn State in 2009, Erick Seo brought with him a heartfelt passion for humanitarian work. Throughout his teenage years, he had traveled on several short-term mission trips. Seo explained, “Most of my volunteer service had been religious oriented, so when I came to Penn State, I wanted to find out if there were other avenues I could explore.”

He was introduced to the Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) program by an upper-class student who had shared his experiences from a recent journey to Kenya. Seo said, “After we talked, I started attending classes through the HESE curriculum.”

In no time, Seo came to realize the intensity of the program.  He traveled to Kenya for three weeks during the summer of 2012 and saw firsthand the impact of HESE projects. He explained, “I was on the field for the venture Mashavu, meaning ‘chubby cheeks’ in Kiswahili. It represents healthiness and growth. Mashavu is designed to combat the inaccessibility of primary healthcare. Because primary healthcare is so expensive and time consuming, people weren’t able to fully get treatment without risking financial instability. They would have to take off work and travel far distances, only to find that their ailment was a common cold.”

In order to confront this, Seo and his team designed a system of entrepreneurial community health workers who provide pre-primary health services in rural areas. He was able to witness the traction this kind of service offered and the appeal to the community. “Every day, between one and two-hundred people came to utilize this service. Not only did this experience highlight the impact it had on the recipients, but it also benefited the local Kenyans that operated the venture. They were punctual and eager, clearly showing they were excited to be a part of something meaningful.”

Seo said all of their ventures were partnered with the Children and Youth Empowerment Center, located in Nyeri, Kenya. Though he wasn’t able to see all of the projects’ fruits of labor firsthand, he was able to deduce, just from the excitement and the participatory attitude of the Kenyan coworkers, that the impact of the HESE projects was tremendous. “The experience in Kenya radically changed my opinion of what it means to be humanitarian, and I saw how a well-planned project with a sustainable business plan can yield significant results.”

Not long after his return to the United States, Seo decided he wanted to go back to Africa. He recalled, “The Peace Corps seemed like an excellent option. I applied that fall, which also happened to be the first semester of my senior year.”

Putting his studies on hold, Seo returned to Africa, where he remains dedicated to promoting sustainability. “Khanjan Mehta, director of the HESE program, emphasized the importance of sustainability more than anything else. This is the most crucial piece of knowledge I learned from him and the program, and I have been making that my mission for every project I work on.”

He is currently designing a community college in Namibia. Seo said it’s the first of its kinds and is very unique, even in the vastness of Peace Corps projects. “My site is the Tate Institute of Technology. The project was initially designed as a school for the deaf and disabled however it soon evolved into the Glowdom Community College.”

The project has been visited by Namibia’s president, Hifikepunye Pohamba, and by Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon.

Seo said he sometimes regrets that he never completed his bachelor’s degree. “I am considering taking classes through Penn State’s World Campus to finish.”

For now, he continues to hold wishful thoughts for the future of his projects. “HESE classes equipped me with the appropriate mindset to achieve success. I feel I must give credit where it is due, so I want to thank Khanjan for his tutelage.”

Erick Seo was born and raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia and graduated from the North Penn School District. During his time at Penn State, he completed classes in the Smeal College of Business, the College of Engineering and the Eberly College of Science. A video showcasing his concepts for the Glowdom Community College can be viewed at

Last Updated October 19, 2014