International Women's Day, Every Day

Get to know the stories, accomplishments and programs featuring our favorite, fearless women

Women are a powerful force for change. We’re one-half of the potential human capital in any economy. In the last 30 years, we've increased the world's workforce by half a billion. Women make up 40 percent of the agricultural labor force around the world and over 50 percent of the world’s university students. When women are empowered, we lead the way in managing the impacts of climate change. When women play an active role in civil society and politics, governments are more responsive, transparent and democratic. And countries that invest in girls’ education have lower maternal and infant deaths, lower rates of HIV and AIDS and better child nutrition.

In spite of all that potential and progress made, gender equality often gets pushed aside. People say that gender isn’t their area, or that gender equality is a “women’s issue.” The truth is, it’s everyone’s issue. From ending poverty to conserving wildlife to bringing healthcare and education to the world, we cannot succeed without women and girls. With GLA's global team led by more than just a few fearless females, to us, International Women’s Day isn't just one day—it's every day.

Here are some of the women in the GLA family who have inspired and led our students every summer for years—in some cases, for up to a decade!—and continue to push for positive social change and empowerment of their peers and sisters in their home communities.

Esther "Mama" Simba, Tanzania

Related program: Tanzania: Children's Education Adventure

Mama Simba, as she's widely and affectionately known, is the Country Director of one of GLA's longest-running and most popular programs. She earned degrees in Education, Linguistics and Music before starting a 17-year career as a primary and secondary school teacher. Mama Simba has also consulted and advised for the U.S. Peace Corps, trained teachers for over a decade and regularly facilitates women's empowerment workshops in her home of Arusha, Tanzania. 

A Tanzania: Children's Education Adventure alum says, "The night that Mama Simba shared her story was so inspiring, I could hardly believe where I was: in Tanzania, asking Mama Simba questions and connecting with her personally." Mama Simba has earned a reputation among students and staff for being not only an icon of leadership but also a motherly figure. She will be working with GLA for the tenth consecutive year this summer.

Dr. Lu Yuan, China

Related program: China: Mandarin Service Adventure

Dr. Lu Yuan is the Country Director for GLA's program in China. Before earning her PhD in International and China Studies from the University of Technology, Sydney, Dr. Lu worked for seven years as a journalist. She has taught Chinese in India, Tibet, minority regions of Mongolia, Ningxia and Yunnan, and Kathmandu, Nepal. Besides working with GLA students, Dr. Lu has overseen a language program for students studying abroad with the School for International Training since 1994.

Dr. Lu is remembered by China: Mandarin Service Adventure alumni as being a patient language teacher who encourages questions and has a wealth of knowledge to share about Chinese culture, history and contemporary issues.

Soraida Salwala, Thailand

Related program: Thailand: Elephant Health & Welfare Project™

While students may not actually meet this world-traveling elephant whisperer, Soraida has directly impacted the Thailand: Elephant Health & Welfare Project™ program experience with her work. She is the founder of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Foundation and the first elephant hospital in the world, where GLA students will live and work this summer. A crusader in a time when women were scarce in the wildlife conservation world, Soraida defied expectations by establishing this organization in 1993. She remains very active in running it, growing it and educating communities around the world about the desperate need for improved elephant welfare. Her hospital has now treated and rescued over 4,000 elephants worldwide from abusive captivity.

Pilar Salazar, Costa Rica

Related programs: Costa Rica: Surf & Sports Service Adventure, Costa Rica: Protecting the Pacific™

Pilar is the grounding energy for Bodhi Surf + Yoga, the surf school that GLA partners with for two of our Costa Rica programs. One-half of the two couples who run Bodhi Surf + Yoga, Pilar has a calm composure from years of yoga practice, and a distinctly pura vida vibe that is evident to all who meet her. Students who join us in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica, this summer for either Costa Rica: Surf & Sports Service Adventure or Costa Rica: Protecting the Pacific™ will have the wonderful experience of learning from Pilar how to incorporate fluid breath, graceful movement and self-reflection into their surfing and their daily lives. 

Together with her husband and GLA International Director Travis, Pilar helps GLA students not only learn how to stand up on their surfboards and ride the waves for the first time each summer, she uses this newfound connection with the ocean as a vehicle for teaching students environmental and marine stewardship. Pilar has done consulting work for environmental nonprofits in Costa Rica, and with the birth of their two daughters Maya and Clea, she and Travis have found even greater inspiration to be better stewards of Mother Earth.

Kelli Rae Soll, Belize

Related programs: Belize: The Initiative for Children™

Kelli, originally a geologist, now leads an organization that facilitates service projects in partnership with schools in Belize to address educational challenges. With a passion for lifelong learning, Kelli is the energetic and positive Local Director for Belize: The Initiative for Children™, one of GLA's most highly-rated programs. Some of the messages she tries to impart to her students include viewing relationships as your number-one asset, the idea of not getting in your own way and how to survive the process of finding yourself and what you're passionate about. The question she advises us all to ask is, "What breaks your heart?" This question allows us to connect with something we truly feel passionate about, and inspires genuine thought. This question also brings to light the mindset that Kelli chooses to believe: The world's biggest problems can also be the greatest of opportunities.

Rose, Community Health Nurse, Ghana

Related programs: Ghana: Foundations of Global Health™

We unfortunately don't have a great photo of this modern-day superhero, as she's constantly on the move. Rose is a Community Health Nurse who serves the Dzita region of Ghana. Students joining Ghana: Foundations of Global Health™, a Medicine & Public Health program, will have the opportunity to meet and shadow her as she does rounds through the village, checking on the health of every individual. Dzita's local residents all know when Rose is here, and look to her for answers to their questions, solutions for their health concerns and portable malaria tests or vaccinations, which she administers periodically. 

Rose is especially passionate about maternal, prenatal and neonatal health, and talks openly about issues that are debated or traditionally taboo in rural Ghana, such as breastfeeding and family planning. She recognizes the power of breaking through stigma and treating the root, indirect causes of poor public health—faltering health systems, repressive health culture, the importance of prevention—and will share with students this summer about her experiences as Dzita's caretaker.

The women of Awamaki, Peru

Related programs: Peru: Service in the Sacred Valley™

Students traveling for this first time to Peru this summer with GLA will be wowed (as we all are during our first steps into the Sacred Valley) by the beautiful weavings made by Peruvian women. The techniques and even patterns have hardly changed since the times of the ancient Inca. Peru's traditions and stories are literally woven into the fabric of society, and this highly-skilled, world-renowned and commercially successful work has women's fingerprints all over it.

In Peru: Service in the Sacred Valley™, students will assist with the construction of a crafts center for Awamaki, a women's weaving collective. This group is located in the community of  Willoc outside Ollantaytambo. The new center will be an improved facility for women in the artisan collective to use as a design and production studio, and a place to display their works. The Awamaki collective brings together eight different artisan cooperatives of rural Andean women to help market the weaving products and also provide training. The objective of Awamaki is to make the sale of artisan products a more reliable source of income for its weavers, increasing their families’ quality of life and well-being.

Patricia Fekema, South Africa

Related programs: South Africa: Social Change Project

Every so often you meet somebody whose sheer determination, dedication and passion is so admirable, you can only nod your head in support and do your best to keep up with her. That person is Patricia Fekema, or "Mama Fekema." Just over ten years ago she started the organization Zusakhe in DuNoon, an impoverished township outside Cape Town, after she lost her daughter to AIDS. Patricia's organization started out small but ambitious, first simply supporting HIV-positive women, then growing into an early childhood education center for their children. Today, Zusakhe supports the community of DuNoon through providing various services: childcare, schooling, after-school care, home care and connecting residents with a variety of support groups.

Patricia is simultaneously known for her discipline as well as her warmth and kindness. Students on our South Africa: Social Change Project program this summer will listen to her speak, learning the way she has mastered communicating with conviction to champion her social change cause. Aspiring social entrepreneurs can emulate both the power of Patricia's persuasion as well as her fierce compassion for others. Over the years, with the help of others and under the leadership of Patricia, Zusakhe has professionalized, registered as an NGO and recently opened a large new facility that will serve as a safe haven for children enduring challenges at a young and vulnerable age.

Crystal Bernal, Dominian Republic

Related programs: Dominican Republic programs

As right-hand woman to the the small but mighty team at 7Elements, GLA's longtime partner in the Dominican Republic, Crystal brings energy, passion for social justice and an ability to connect with youth to our DR programs this summer. Crystal is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer with a long history of working in social services and environmental education both in the United States and Latin America, and she'll be sharing with students the knowledge she's acquired on what sustainable development means. She encourages students to consider how they can also view their home communities through global lenses. Crystal has devoted her life toward motivating and empowering youth of all socioeconomic levels to creating positive social change, and will be ushering in GLA's tenth consecutive year working in the Dominican Republic this summer.

Jessica Miller, Executive Director, GLA

Related programs: All GLA programs!

Jess, as she's known in the office and to our staff around the world, is the mother of all GLA programs, our boss lady, GLA's Employee #1. Like so many of the other women named here, she humbly backs away from the spotlight even as she works tirelessly behind the scenes to make the magic of every GLA experience happen. 

Jess's passion for leadership development and initiating personal change was incepted even before she took the reins at GLA over a decade ago. She is proud to be a first-generation college graduate with degrees in history, anthropology and Spanish, and her passion for international education and social entrepreneurship stems from various experiences studying, living and working abroad. Since then, that passion has only grown with years of experience operating and managing international programs in developing countries for GLA. From her first GLA summer—in which just under 150 students traveled to three programs—to her tenth, in which GLA's student community was thousands strong, Jess has maintained the belief that genuine inspiration and transformation of the next generation happen through authentic, international learning experiences abroad.

Thank you to all our strong women and allies, including the girls and women among our student and parent communities, who continue to work toward a more equitable and compassionate world through service-learning and cross-cultural experiences. We (literally) wouldn't be here without you!

To find out more about GLA programs, safety, how and when to enroll, give our Enrollment Specialists a call at +1-858-771-0645.