Martin Straathof
Martin Straathof

Most people wouldn’t think twice about getting into a pair of swim trunks and finding a quiet spot to enjoy the weather on a nice sunny day in May. But for third-year U of G international development student Martin Straathof, this scenario led to an embarrassing moment for him in Botswana.

“One day I decided that after work I’d take some time to relax and enjoy the sun,” says Straathof, who is spending three months in Gabarone working with World University Service of Canada (WUSC) as a scholarship management program assistant. “It was above 25 degrees, and I wear pants and a dress shirt all day long, so it gets quite warm. I found a nice secluded spot to sit and read; then all of a sudden a man walks by wearing what looks like an insulated sombrero, a sweater and jacket, heavy pants and work boots. He shouts to me that he thinks I’m ridiculous for not wearing a shirt in ‘winter,’ and that it’s so cold. I tried to explain, but he just laughed and walked away shaking his head. I was left feeling a little silly.”

Seasonal wardrobe choices aside, Straathof doesn’t feel silly about his decision to gain some international experience and solidify his commitment to his studies. He arrived in Gabarone in May and will return to Canada in August.

“At Guelph, I’m in a program where a lot of my peers have done international development work, but I hadn’t,” he says. “I felt like I was sitting on the sidelines. So despite the financial challenges I’ve overcome to get here, being able to work to Botswana and gain experience I can apply to my last year of study is incredible.”

In Botswana, he has immersed himself in more work and learning than he ever imagined. He’s also taking pleasure in applying the lessons he has learned at Guelph to assist his employers.

In the WUSC office, Straathof is responsible for pre-departure orientation planning with students who are studying in Canada. He also liaises between WUSC offices in Ottawa and Gabarone and handles some administrative duties. In addition, he’s volunteering with Ark ’n Mark, an organization that runs psychosocial therapy nature camps for orphans to help them work through the trauma of losing their parents.

“Their methods of rehabilitation have been so successful that the government has contracted them to teach its social workers their therapy methods. Right now, I’m helping them review and prepare a funding proposal that is being submitted to the European Union.

“They’ve also asked me to update their marketing and promotional tools and create a strategic five-year marketing plan. I have no experience with marketing, which I told them, but they have faith in me. What a huge learning curve.”

Straathof is also helping to organize a campaign launch for Stepping Stones International, which offers an after-school program for AIDS orphans. The campaign aims to raise awareness of sexual abuse against children in the small town of Mochudi.

“There are a significant number of reported cases of rape there, he says, “and of course, there is typically an even larger number of cases that go unreported. This campaign is going to try to break the silence of these acts of violence against women and children.”

The organization has strong support from the American embassy, says Straathof, who is now attempting to secure additional political and financial support from other international embassies, including those in France, Germany, Russia, China and Sweden.

“My days are very, very busy. I’ve learned a lot of things from this experience already, and I’m only one-third of the way in. This experience has certainly helped me get one step closer to figuring out what type of a career is right for me. It has opened my eyes to more possibilities for careers in international development.”