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International Co-op Experience Changes Senior's Career Path

January 23, 2013

Bioko island

Amy StoltzfusSenior Amy Stoltzfus always wanted a co-op that would challenge her. While most fashion design students hope to visit Paris or Milan, Stoltzfus was interested in doing something entirely different. So, she went to Bioko Island.

Bioko is a remote island on the West Coast of Africa in Equatorial Guinea. About 260,000 residents live on the island, accompanied by biologists and researchers who value the island as an important location for scientific research. Shaya Honarvar, a biology research associate at Drexel whose work in Bioko was recently featured in Drexel Magazine, became aware of an important need for jobs for the residents of Ureca, a small village on the island. 

Because of Ureca’s location and geography, it is extremely difficult for residents to find work. The village is isolated, detached from the larger island due to a lack of roads and transportation. Any travel to and from the village is done on foot. The men of the village fare better than the women, taking on physical labor and traveling to find work. The women of the village have children to care for and are often unable to do the jobs the island provides.

Using her connections with Drexel, Honarvar developed a program that would draw co-op students from Westphal’s design program. Students would travel to Bioko and work with the women of Ureca to create jewelry that could be sold for income. Stoltzfus jumped on board, excited for an international co-op opportunity that would challenge her as a person and as a designer.

Of all the excitement she faced in preparation for her co-op, Stoltzfus was most looking forward to the opportunity to apply her education to something real, she said. Because of the lack of resources on the island, Ureca is as real as it gets.

Before Bioko, Stoltzfus’ tendency was toward “couture and the artistic side of fashion design.” Once on the island, her materials consisted mostly of found objects available on the island or washed up on the shore, since traditional jewelry-making supplies cannot survive the island’s rain forest climate. Stoltzfus had to use what was available on the island, a challenge that she loved.

“I love using found objects and natural elements so this experience helped me get a better perspective of simplified design—not just in the sense of what’s affordable, but what’s accessible as well,” she said.

Now back in Philadelphia, Stoltzfus is working on the second part of her co-op—developing resources to market the materials she helped create in Ureca. Because of the village’s relative seclusion from the rest of the world, there is very little information available using regular research methods. Part of her responsibility in the village was to gather as much research as possible about the people and their abilities, interests and work ethic to ensure that the program is structured in a way that will resonate with the Ureca residents.

Though jewelry-making was intended to serve as a job opportunity for the island’s residents, Stoltzfus saw its value in other ways as well.

“It served as sort of a creative outlet for them,” she said. “Life on the island is busy, but when the women were working on the jewelry, they were very quiet and focused.”

Stoltzfus explains that the residents like to see the value in the work that they do; if they don’t see the value, they are less likely to complete the job. Jewelry-making reveals its value immediately in the finished product, and this aspect of the job brought the Ureca women a tremendous amount of pride, which Stoltzfus described as “very rewarding.”

Prior to her Bioko Island experience, Stoltzfus likely would have taken her career in the direction of couture fashion design, but her co-op gave her a new perspective on fashion, design and functionality.  She is now looking into companies that focus on sustainability, exploration and functionality. Her goal, she said, is to create designs for these companies, possibly using new and sustainable fabrics or working on designs intended for specific functions, such as hiking or mountain climbing.

Stoltzfus added that her experience—which she described as “beneficial in so many ways—beyond just design,” helped determine the next steps she’ll take in her career.

“Everything sort of builds in your creative subconscious, and for me, it’s been a huge reward to work on something like this.”