Volunteering with nonprofit life-changing for CMC student | PostIndependent.com

Volunteering with nonprofit life-changing for CMC student

Kate Lapides
Colorado Mountain College
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Colorado Mountain College students Anna Hoffman (left) and Richard Wojan prep for an October photo shoot off Independence Pass. Wojan, who had a life-changing experience as a volunteer in South Africa this summer, will be among more than 100 students graduating at Spring Valley May 5. Photo Kate Lapides

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – When Richard Wojan signed the dotted line for his volunteer stint with Embrace Dignity a year ago, he confesses that initially he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

But the summer he spent with the South African nonprofit ended up being life-altering for the Colorado Mountain College student.

“In my 10 weeks volunteering, I was exposed to stories and people that have changed my entire perspective on life,” Wojan said.

Embrace Dignity (embracedignity.co. za) strives to eliminate prostitution by working with the South African government to create legislation that can help men and women exit from prostitution – and punishes the clients instead.

In South Africa, as in many other countries, prostitution is a socioeconomic problem closely tied to human trafficking and to the lack of options created by intense poverty. Wojan spent nearly three months with the organization last summer, volunteering his business acumen and marketing skills.

Wojan was among more than 100 students taking part in Colorado Mountain College’s graduation ceremonies at Spring Valley on Saturday.

If the second-year Spring Valley business student looks mildly familiar, it may be because he took part in a campus photo shoot last October, and his smiling face now graces the college’s brochures and advertising all over the mountain region, including larger-than-life-size posters in the train stations at Denver’s airport.

Wojan used the same good nature he exhibited in the campus photo shoot to find success in his work in South Africa. During his 10-week stint, he initiated relationships with government departments to gain support for Embrace Dignity’s programs, and established partnerships with South African for-profit businesses to create training and employment opportunities for the nonprofit’s clients.

Since his return to the U.S., he has researched the South African trucking industry to find materials that can be used to educate truckers and the general public about the relationship between prostitution and the spread of HIV.

Wojan’s volunteer work in South Africa helped him solidify his career direction. Though he always knew he wanted to work in the business world, his work with Embrace Dignity opened his eyes to the social entrepreneurship potential in impoverished countries.

“After graduating from college, I hope to be in a developing country where I can work as a social entrepreneur,” Wojan said. “While in South Africa, I saw so much potential in small business. So many families make a living off their corner shops, barbecued food or crafts. Obviously these people have skills that are being underutilized.

“Citizens of developing countries do not have the same access to education as we do here in the states, but that does not mean they cannot succeed. Using my education and business skills, I plan on helping rural populations start businesses and create a steady, sustainable income for themselves and their families,” he said.

Asked if he would encourage other CMC students to take part in a similar volunteer opportunity, Wojan answered with a resounding yes.

“If I answered this question a thousand times, I would say yes a thousand times!” he said. “The way I immersed myself in the culture and the volunteer position made every day memorable. It doesn’t take a trip across the world to have a life-changing experience, it can happen at any point: Just be open to change and doing new things.

“My advice would be to say yes to an offer to volunteer, to tutor or to help a friend throw a party. You never know what it will lead to or who you may meet.”

Wojan has taken his own words to heart during his two years at Colorado Mountain College. He volunteers with student government, PEAK Performance (a club that promotes a healthy lifestyle through health education, nutrition and physical activity), Student Ambassadors and Phi Theta Kappa, the national honor society for two-year colleges.

He and fellow student Thomas West of Gypsum were recently named to the 2012 Phi Theta Kappa All-Colorado Academic Team. When he learned of his achievement, Wojan said, “I was very surprised and so honored.”

Wojan said he had always thought about going to a community college for his first two years of school, but couldn’t seem to find the right one until he found CMC. He will transfer to a four-year university to finish his bachelor’s degree, where he plans to run cross-country while earning a business degree with an emphasis in social entrepreneurship. After graduation, he hopes to work for a nongovernmental organization or nonprofit working to prevent human trafficking.

“My volunteer position with Embrace Dignity was invaluable in guiding me to what I have a newfound passion for,” Wojan said. “I took many things away from my time volunteering in South Africa: the ability to see beyond my own problems, working to create change that will last far longer than me.”

He added that through the work he did with government agencies, businesses and other nonprofits, “I know that the progress I made will continue long after I am around. I was able to work with others to create a better life for fellow human beings, something I will always be proud of.”

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