Eastern Michigan University
A Humanitarian Emerges
by Jeff Mortimer
At first glance, it's hard to figure. How did an Eastern alumna with a degree in exercise science become, at age 23, the top executive of a nonprofit foundation in Sri Lanka that has nothing to do with exercise? “I’ve always had a strong interest in people and social issues,” says Amanda Van Dort (BS10). “My mother’s mom, who passed away in October, was a political activist who once had her house burned down. Both my mom’s side and dad’s side have a lot of activists, which I’m extremely proud of.”
So bloodlines are part of the answer, and not just that gene for activism. Both her parents are natives of Sri Lanka, the island nation o the southern coast of India where she is the country director of Emerge Lanka Foundation, an organization that teaches business and life skills through jewelry-making to young women ages 10-18 who have been removed from their homes due to abuse. Equipping them with an income and marketable skills nurtures their independence and self-esteem, helping them to escape the cycle of poverty and shame.
Van Dort’s mom and dad met while doing graduate work at the University of Michigan, and stayed in the area to marry, raise a family and pursue their careers. The service-oriented energy of the middle of their three daughters was already evident at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School, where Amanda was captain of both the cheerleading and soccer teams, a member of the student council and a percussionist in the band.
“The leadership positions that I had in high school carried over into college and carried over into my job now,” she says. “Eastern’s great because it allows you to be a leader. I was given so many opportunities, one after another, by my professors.”
Her intelligence, passion, youth and track record fit nicely with the needs of Emerge Global, Emerge Lanka Foundation’s parent organization in the U.S., which is busy establishing beachheads in other countries even as the number of young women it serves in Sri Lanka is growing.
“Emerge is an organization that has been built largely by young people for young people,” says Alia Whitney- Johnson, its executive director, who founded it in 2005 while still a student herself at MIT. Not only that, but “all of our country directors to date have come from varied educational backgrounds, none of which seemed like a ‘traditional’ fit on paper,” she adds.
“We have not evaluated leadership potential through degrees because we don’t expect people to have all the answers when they enter the job,” Whitney-Johnson says. “Rather we want them to be great and enthusiastic learners who are willing to push themselves in new ways and embrace challenges with drive and creativity. Amanda had a great rapport with staff in her interviews and demonstrated a confidence that I knew would go far in Sri Lanka.”
While Van Dort’s duties include those familiar to any manager—supervising staff, finances and programming, and serving as a liaison to the “parent company”—her vision transcends them, both in terms of the organization in particular and her activism in general, which she regards as her true field.
“I don’t want to leave without feeling confident that the Emerge Lanka Foundation is going to be economically sustainable locally,” she says, and that will only happen when “Sri Lankans have an awareness and feel more responsibility toward solving this issue.”
That’s why she spends so many of her working hours away from her desk.
“I don’t want to be a manager sitting at a computer eight hours a day,” she says. “I want to meet new people every day, anywhere people will listen. I’m constantly building relationships; that’s the part of my job that is most enjoyable to me and that I’m pretty good at. Not everybody can give money, but if I tell five people at dinner, and they tell two other people, that’s how we become socially aware. That’s the biggest thing.” Van Dort keeps her own awareness alive with regular visits to the young women served by the program. Most of them have borne children after being raped, usually by a family member or someone else they should have been able to trust, and they’re in protective custody because they’ve been brave enough to press charges against their attackers.
“It takes enormous courage to be publicly shamed and disowned by your family for someone else’s crime,” she says. “Their stories themselves are enough for me to work day and night. They remind me why I’m doing what I’m doing. It’s not a task that I take lightly.” And she takes her thoughts about the task well outside the proverbial box.
“When I go to sleep at night, I think about how many girls are being violated tonight, how many girls are wondering if their uncle is going to come in,” Van Dort says. “At the end of the day, anyone working for a cause has to look at how that trauma occurred initially and what we can do to keep that from happening again.
“I don’t want to take away anything from the Emerge program, it’s an amazing program, any program that tries to help people is noble, but at the same time, if you’re really an activist and looking logically and analytically at a problem, how do we reduce these incidents from happening?” Locally, that’s where spreading awareness comes into play, the kind of awareness that could eventually change cultural norms that put victims in custody while perpetrators go free. It’s also a matter of awareness globally; in Van Dort’s view, its absence is often self-inflicted.
“I get frustrated with people who throw up their hands and say the world is this or that and there’s nothing we can do,” she says. “We can do anything that we put our mind to. One big thing I really see lacking in America is young people taking the time to understand politics. Public policy is what shapes how we live. How do you want to live? The only way you can live in society and contribute to society is to know what’s going on in society.”
Although her degree itself isn’t specifically relevant to her job, Van Dort has no doubt that her overall educational experience at Eastern was invaluable.
“My professors knew me so well that they were able to take my strengths and build off those strengths and shape me into a confident professional,” she says. “They said you’re good at this, you’re good at that, try this, try that, be on this committee, do this research, present at this symposium. I would never have done any of those things. I would have gone to class and gone home if it weren’t for my professors.”
One of the things she did, as a freshman, was found the Exercise Science Organization, a club for students in her major. “We had two members when we started and almost 150 by the time I graduated,” she says. “You’d be surprised how little effort it takes to get people together if you have the right person and the right approach. That’s been one of my skills: getting people organized and motivated and working together toward a common goal.”
Her first meeting with Assistant Professor Shel Levine, coordinator of Eastern’s Exercise Science Program, set the tone.
“When I got up to leave, he said, ‘You know, there’s something different about you. What do you want to do here?’ I said, ‘The most that I can,’ ” Van Dort recalls. “I told my roommate, ‘The head of the department thinks I can be a really great student. He talked to me for 20 minutes. He didn’t even answer his phone.’ She was like, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m going to go for it. If he thinks I can do it, I’m going to do it.’ I believed in myself because my professors believed in me.”
Now she believes in her own youthful charges. “In the long term, change isn’t going to come from me or Emerge Global or any other foreign body,” she says. “It’s going to come from the girls when they leave here.” And what does Van Dort have in mind for herself when she leaves there?
“I hope to pursue graduate studies in the next few years,” she says. “I’m interested in International Relations, specifically Humanitarian Law. Ideally, I would like to work as an international diplomat, or even ambassador. But as long as I’m directly working with social issues and making a difference, I’ll be satisfied.”