Senior Government and Theatre Arts major Tamanna Akram.
Photo by David Baldwin.
This column intends to find out what it means to be empathetic, to strive for understanding and to document fulfillment in action by having conversations with students working on Senior Experience Projects at Lawrence on how they are using their studies and passions as tools to create.
There is at least one thing that children’s theater workshops and international NGOs have in common and that is Tamanna Akram. For the last four years, Akram has been using her passions to navigate her path at Lawrence University. Those passions have led Akram to a double major in government with international relations, theatre arts and a minor in economics with a concentration in innovation and entrepreneurship. While this potpourri of academic pursuits might seem daunting, Akram argues that the love she has found in these pursuits has only driven her to do more.
Akram did not start out at Lawrence with her four areas of studies fixed in place. In fact, Akram started off as just an Economics major. As her studies started, Akram quickly shifted gears and began to see government as the best fit for her. Then, during her sophomore year, Akram realized that theatre arts was another passion she wanted to add to her bag. This choice came naturally, as Akram stated, “I started taking theatre classes for fun because I thought I really should make use of the theatre arts department. By the end of sophomore year, I had taken so many theatre classes that I felt like I could pull off the major.”
“I can switch gears however I like and I don’t get bored,” Akram stated as she explained why she values getting to study two vastly different things. Akram went on, saying, “And a lot of times what I’m reading about in my government classes contributes to my theater projects and it works the other way too. There are two different parts of my brain working together, but the two parts also work differently.”
Right now, Akram is using one part of her brain to finalize her research for her government senior experience project, which focuses on non-profits and NGOs working to empower women in Bangladesh, Akram’s own home. The main NGO Akram focused her time on is Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), the largest NGO in the world, which had its start in Bangladesh and now provides service in six different countries.
Akram used her Senior Experience grant to go home last December and travel into different projects run by non-profits to interview individuals in the hopes of gaining an understanding of why programs like the ones BRAC are facilitating are working. Akram explained the value of this trip back home as she stated, “I have never traveled there alone and I didn’t have a smartphone growing up, so it was exciting to back with a camera. I saw my country from an intellectual mind-set. It gave me a newfound love for country.”
The main goal of the non-profits Akram worked with is giving women financial agency, which has the potential to give them more confidence and stability in other aspects of their lives. The non-profits do this by offering women micro-loans. Akram explained that these loans not only give women financial confidence, but that financial confidence becomes a greater sense of confidence in general over time.
Akram was grateful to meet many of these confident women who came to speak to her on their own. Akram spoke specifically of one woman she met: “I met one woman who had gotten married at 20 and since getting married had saved up her money to open her own beauty parlor. She had such limited income but she designed the whole thing by herself. And when we talked to her she had only two or three dollars saved up and she used it to buy food and drinks for us.”
Akram also worked to conduct research for her project by meeting and talking with professors from different universities, people affiliated with different think tanks and UN officials working in women empowerment to gain a variety of perspectives. The process of getting into contact with UN officials was easier than Akram thought as she stated, “I just randomly messaged the UN VP group on Facebook and someone replied from Serbia saying that he went to school in Marquette.”
She continued, “He asked me to tell him about Lawrence and said that we could grab coffee. After we met while I was back home, he told me to come to the UN office and he took me around and introduced me to people. And then I saw this high school friend of mine back home and I told her about my project and she told me her tenant, Simon, works for UN Women and we just went to Simon’s house. The work I did was really a lot about making connections.”
When Akram is not busy making these connections and learning more about her country and how nonprofits work, she is using another part of her brain to put together theater workshops for her Theater Arts Senior Project. Last year, Akram traveled to Sierra Leone where she helped to lead children in putting together a theatrical performance. This year, she will be going to Jamaica over spring break to help oversee a similar workshop.
While Akram prefers to work behind the scenes of a performance, she took great pride in seeing kids gain confidence through performance. Akram stated, “It didn’t matter if they were shy. Everyone gets in there to contribute and to express. At the end they’d come up to us to say they wanted to be actors and that was really rewarding.”
Akram will also be leading a similar workshop here in Appleton at the Boys and Girls Club. She is hoping to assess how children living in communities in Sierra Leone, Jamaica and Wisconsin all interact with these programs. Akram said that there is a “universal language,” to theater that makes her program so exciting.
Akram sees great value in focusing on her projects and passions. These are the things that drive her. She explained this as she stated, “I’m using my past experiences as a tool to refine my skills, to reflect and to see what I’ve learned. This is the whole culmination of what I’ve learned from my first day at Lawrence up until the time I now get do it to bring it all together with these senior projects.”