Concordia buildOn treks to Malawi with other colleges

“Education is a basic human right, yet those who need education the most – children living in poverty – are the least likely to attend and complete school,” according to the website for the organization buildOn.

Jim Ziolkowski, founder, president and CEO of buildOn and best-selling author of “Walk in Their Shoes,” was inspired by his own experiences during his time of travel to some of the most impoverished countries in the world. While traveling, he came across a village in Nepal that was celebrating the opening of a school. He realized that the people within the village had hope and courage that was centered around education. 

Going back to his job in corporate finance was a difficult task for Ziolkowski. He could not shake the images of poverty he saw through his travels. For this reason, he quit his job to start the organization buildOn. 

His goal and the buildOn mission statement “is to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education. We empower urban youth to transform their neighborhoods through intensive community service and to change the world by building schools in some of the economically poorest countries on the planet.”

In 1992, his first trip took place in Misomali, a village in Malawi. There the organization built their first school that would provide access to education for 150 students. 

He returned to the U.S. and decided he needed to build programs that would involve urban youth in a more profound way. To do so he moved to Harlem and spent three years living in a neighborhood known for being the worst drug trafficking neighborhood in the city according to the New York Times. During his time living in Harlem, he became aware that urban youth do not want to escape their inner-city environments; they want to transform them.

Ziolkowski returned to Misomali in 2012 and the village has built four more schools on their own to hold more than 1,000 kids in total compared to 150 kids. 

“We’re not a charity, we’re a movement,” he said.

According to the buildOn website, “buildOn’s curriculum explores critical issues, such as youth violence, hunger, and poverty, and shows students how they can take action on challenges that face their local and global communities.”


Ziolkowski spoke at the 2017 Symposium here at Concordia. Amanda Breu, the faculty advisor for buildOn, said, “After his presentation, I knew I was called to be involved. I love everything about buildOn’s mission – it speaks to me personally and professionally – so I knew we had to have a club at Concordia.”


There are currently four members. Sarah Anderson is president, Sophia Jalil and Vy Tat as co-vice presidents and Anh Nguyen as the treasurer. 

“Basically, buildOn’s philosophy is they want an entire community helping another community,” Anderson said.. 

In May 2019, Breu, Jalil, Anderson and Christine Miller went on a mixed college trek to a Masasa village in Malawi, Africa. The trek team size goes up to 15, but since there were only four members going, they combined with a couple of other colleges.

There they spent six days helping the men and women of the village build the Dwankhwali School. They stayed with a host family who spoke little to no English and they had no running water or electricity during their stay.

At each work site, a translator was provided. The group did things like carrying sand and water to the site, mixed sand with the concrete for the foundation, cleared bricks, dug the foundation, and laid bricks. 

However. it was not only hard labor the entire time. The group also participated in cultural activities, which involved talking and learning with the people in the village and playing with the children.

Before Anderson left her host family, they  said to her, “If you come back to Malawi, you have a home here for as long as you want or as long as you need.”

According to Breu, the trek last year was a little over $4,300. This goes towards materials for the school, in-country costs, and airfare. Students can pay this through fundraising or out of pocket. 

In order to go on the trek, every participant has to fundraise $2,000 that will go towards materials for the school. These materials include cement, desks, windows, doors, paint, and anything else the village cannot supply. They also have to raise $900 that covers food, transportation, lodging, translators, mosquito nets, and other supplies provided by buildOn while students are on the trek. 

“I am much more aware about my water consumption. Going on Trek in Malawi made me realize how wasteful I was being with water. I now take shorter showers and don’t let the water run unnecessarily,” Breu said.


She is more conscientious about her own consumerism and thinks about “need versus want” before purchasing something. 


As of right now Concordia buildOn will be at the Global Expo and are currently planning on doing volunteer work in the Fargo-Moorhead area. 

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