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When the bus she was riding on during a service trip to Bolivia drove off a cliff, Sarah Houghton's life changed forever. Six years later, Houghton, the recipient of a prestigious Rotary Fellowship, is emerging as one of the next generation's global leaders.
Sarah Houghton’s parents have reason to be proud.
Houghton has achieved something only 12 others in the country and 59 others in the world can claim to have accomplished. She is one of this year’s prestigious Rotary World Peace Fellowship recipients.
At 25, Houghton is young for such an accomplishment -- especially considering World Peace Fellows are chosen, in part, for their ability to have a significant, positive impact on world peace and conflict resolution.
“I’m interested in helping people throughout the world gain access to the resources they need,” Houghton said. “I want to help empower them to work on solutions to the core problems in their communities on their own, as well -- so that the solutions are practical, easy to maintain, and also a good fit for the region culturally.”
Houghton has spent the past several months in Bolivia, serving as director of a water project, working with engineers and craftsmen to provide clean water to Bolivian families who have wells that are highly contaminated with parasites. She helped to write the grant for the project, design the plan, and engage partners, including an Engineers Without Borders chapter out of Michigan, her home state.
Bolivia holds a piece of Houghton’s heart. Growing up in the small town of Ishpeming, Michigan, was a stark contrast to what she found in Bolivia as an exchange student her senior year of high school. She fell in love with the region, but she also saw poverty and struggle. Etta Turner was another American girl in the exchange program, and together the two young women began grappling with the questions the experience was raising for them.
“It was really powerful. It had been such an amazing, sad, wonderful, and eye-opening experience,” she said. “And then, near the end of the program, the worst happened. We were all on the bus -- some Americans and many Bolivians. It was the middle of the night and we were heading to a town tucked within the Andes Mountains. Etta was sitting next to me.”
Houghton fell asleep and woke up to pitch black, chaos, and pain.
“The bus went off a cliff, and rolled down the mountainside. I was thrown out -- along with about twenty other people,” she said. “It was really dark and there was screaming and lots of confusion. There are parts I remember and parts I don’t. My leg hurt. Someone went around collecting belts and then wrapped them around my leg as compression bandages to stop the bleeding.”
The bus had plunged 200 feet. A small girl next to Houghton clung to her, unable to find her own mother or grandmother in the dark and panic. The grandmother was later found dead, as were five others, including Houghton’s friend, Etta.
“Stranded in the cold for hours, my legs screaming in pain, with that little girl’s arms wrapped tight around me, I felt this profound and lasting sense of a common bond between all humans,” she said. “We had all seemed so very different on the bus. But here, in the dark, in the crisis, everyone bonded together, gave what they could -- blankets, food, and even the belts on my legs -- the belts that saved my life.”
Houghton survived, though she lost nearly half of the blood in her body. She went on to have six surgeries and spent several months learning to walk again.
“The whole time my driving force was ‘I am going back to Bolivia,’” she said. “I knew I needed to go back.”
She did go back -- within a year -- to help establish Etta’s Comedor de Niños, a community center, named after her friend Etta Turner, which now offers both developmental programs and food to children and women. From there, she came to Hamline.
“Hamline was such a good fit for me, and it was the right time for me to be there,” she said. “Here I was, having had this life-changing experience, and now I was able to apply what I’d learned in Bolivia to what I wanted to learn more about.”
At Hamline, Houghton majored in global studies and East Asian studies. She learned to speak Chinese and improved her Spanish. She also received an independent research grant to study in China. Houghton also volunteered as a math and reading tutor for elementary school children, was a Model United Nations teaching assistant and president, participated in mediator training and was a student orientation leader.
“My professors at Hamline were instrumental in pushing me academically, mentoring me, and helping me to reach my post-graduation goals,” Houghton said. “I chose Hamline because I liked the combination of the small school in a big city -- and that’s what I got. I was impressed by the academic programs, student activism, and the access to mentorship.”
Throughout all of her accomplishments, Houghton says her family has been there to share her achievements, to listen to her complaints, and to guide her through the challenges. She feels her parents have played a strong role in who she is today and what she will accomplish in the future.
“There was no TV in our house. My sister and I were encouraged to get out and experience the world. Both of my parents had traveled, and they hoped we would share that experience, too.”
Her parents, Bruce and Katherine, also played a role in her choice of college; they graduated from Hamline in 1974 and 1972, respectively.
“They have been really supportive about the choices I’ve made -- from college to my career -- and about all the traveling I’ve done,” she said.
With her newly won fellowship, Houghton’s traveling is far from over. In September, she will head from Bolivia to Tokyo, Japan, where she will use her fellowship to earn a master’s in public administration at International Christian University.
“I think my parents understand that this is where I need to be right now in my life, and as hard as it is to be far away, they know I’m doing what I love and what I was meant to do,” she said.
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