My College Story: Winning the Chegg Contest to Volunteer in Ecuador

Denise Croote tells a story about winning the Chegg Foundation #givebackandgo contest to volunteer in Ecuador.

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Denise Croote, a senior at Brown University, is one of 10 winners of the Chegg Foundation’s #GiveBackAndGo contest joining Me to We on a volunteer trip to Ecuador. These students have been awarded service-learning internships through which they will become involved in the culture and community.

Denise’s school, Brown University, is the seventh-oldest college in the United States. This independent, coeducational Ivy is home to 6,200 undergraduates from more than 115 different countries. Among its alumni are actress and activist Emma Watson; creator of CNN and TNT, Ted Turner; President of the Education Commission of the States, Frank Newman; and former President John F. Kennedy’s son, John F. Kennedy Jr.

Photo portrait of Denise Croote

Denise Croote

Q. What inspired you to do humanitarian work?

I have never really thought much about why I do humanitarian work; I think it is simply just the right thing to do. We are part of this society. This country protects us and offers us all of these services, and I think it is our responsibility as citizens to give back and help others in whatever way we can, however much we can.  

Q. How did you become involved in Habitat for Humanity?

Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that helps families in need by providing them with safe and affordable homes. In my time at Brown, I have helped to build three houses and I have watched as three families began their new lives in homes that were, for once, truly theirs. I have seen children race up the stairs to claim their new bedrooms and mothers stare in awe at their new stainless steel kitchen appliances. I have watched a 40-year-old man, just presented with the keys to his new home, break down and cry, gasping to catch his breath before saying that all he has ever wanted was to give his family a home. Words cannot really do justice the pride I feel knowing that I painted his child’s bedroom, installed his towel rack, and sanded his dining room table.

I became involved with Habitat for two reasons. Firstly, I am really passionate about this idea of a home, and that’s what Habitat does: It builds homes and new beginnings for deserving families. I have been incredibly fortunate to grow up in a loving household and supportive community, and I believe that everyone is entitled to the laughter and happiness that are forever trapped in the walls of a home.

Secondly, I knew that I wanted to volunteer in an active manner and I was looking for an organization that would help me develop practical skills. When I came across Habitat, I realized that it was the perfect fit. Volunteering with Habitat has taught me how to work with power tools, install kitchen appliances, repair bathrooms, and insulate basements. It has been an empowering experience because I know that these are skills I will carry with me for life.

Denise Croote helping to build a home with Habitat for Humanity.

Denise Croote helping build a home with Habitat for Humanity (Denise Croote)

Q. How do you feel this work compares in value to your studies?

I think it is really easy to get caught up in the academic atmosphere when in college. I think that it is easy to forget that you are still a young person and not solely a student. I will openly admit that I am a hypermotivated individual when it comes to school. I am very passionate about my studies and I definitely have had times where I’ve gotten so engrossed in my work that I have forgotten that I have a life outside of the walls of the library.

I have always valued my volunteer work because it reminds me that there are things in life that are more important than my Spanish quiz tomorrow. It has grounded me and brought me into contact with people in my community that I normally would never have met.    

Q. And now to the good part. How do you feel about being one of 10 chosen from thousands of applicants for the Me to We project in Ecuador?

It honestly hasn’t really set in yet. I can’t quite wrap my mind around the fact that I was actually chosen, which is crazy because I have started filling out the paperwork and looking at flights, so it is very real at this point.

But overall, I am so thankful. I will be graduating in May and I wanted to do something that was both impactful and outside of my comfort zone. I have come to realize that perspective is one of the most valuable skills a person can have, and I am eager to see how this trip will mold my perspective.

Q. Can you tell us more about the trip?

Denise Croote painting a newly built home with Habitat for Humanity.

Denise Croote painting a newly built home with Habitat for Humanity (Denise Croote)

Me to We offers individuals the opportunity to travel and volunteer with its charity partner, Free the Children. These organizations are designed to lift villages out of poverty by addressing poverty from five different angles: education, clean water and sanitation, health, agriculture and food security, and alternative income and livelihood. These organizations realize that poverty is a very complex issue and recognize that there isn’t really one solution. Through their “Adopt a Village” model, Me to We and Free the Children send teams of volunteers to communities all over the world to make sustainable changes. I am not sure which pillar my team will be working toward, whether it will be education, health, etc., but I am excited to work side by side with the other students going on the trip and the individuals in the village in which we will be volunteering.    

Q. What advice do you have for other students?

When it comes to searching for jobs and internships, apply, apply, apply! Always apply, even if the odds are incredibly slim. Sending out applications takes a considerable amount of work, and sometimes nothing comes of them, but other times you end up with opportunities in places you never imagined you would. Last year, I sent out 22 job applications for summer internships and I only heard back from four employers, but I took one of the offers and had an incredible summer interning in a hospital in NYC.

My advice would be to always try for jobs, internships, and scholarships and to never let rejection or likelihood slow you down. When you search and put yourself out there, opportunities start to fall into place. I have always loved the quote, “The world is your oyster.”

Q. What do you plan to do upon returning from Ecuador?

I will be starting at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in August. I have been accepted into their PhD program and I will be working toward a PhD in Neuroscience. I hope to study neuropsychiatric disorders, like PTSD, OCD, or depression, and I am really excited to be studying at a very clinically focused school!

View Denise's video entry for the #GiveBackAndGo contest here:

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