Although the messages she received as a child from her family were always positive, Hannah Sherman’s decision to dedicate her life to disenfranchised women began at home. “I grew up in a family that is very female dominated,” she said. “I heard growing up that there was no reason I couldn’t go out and get what I wanted.”
As Sherman got older, she saw that the opportunities she had as a bright girl growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. were not available to millions of other girls and women around the world.
When she was 17, Sherman interned for the United Network of Young Peacebuilders in The Hague for a summer. While conducting research on women in Africa, she read horrific firsthand accounts of victimized women in war-torn regions. “It was tough reading these stories while sitting in my comfortable office in The Hague,” she said. “That is when I realized that [helping women] is important to me.”
Halfway through college, Sherman came around to the idea that the best way to assist the world’s neediest women was to give them economic options, specifically by lending them tiny loans, or microcredit, to start or grow their businesses. A 2012 summer volunteer position at a women’s shelter in Rutland, Vt. helped bring her to this insight. There Sherman taught women fleeing abusive relationships how to manage their money. More than any other skill, she says, this was the most helpful in giving the women independence. “I realized that these economic skills were an important piece to their success,” she said. “That’s what got me interested in microfinance.”
Sherman is one of 59 college juniors around the country who have received a scholarship from the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation. Truman scholars are selected based on their academic success as well as their commitment to public service and potential to make a difference. They each receive $30,000 toward graduate school.
Sherman, a Spanish and government double major, says she intends to earn a joint MBA and MA with a focus on international affairs and Latin America. But that’s still a few years away. In the meantime, she talks about how she will pursue an education on women’s issues outside of academia, studying the kinds of concrete tools she believes can most effectively aid women.
This summer Sherman has received a grant from Bowdoin’s funded internship program to work with FINCA International, a microfinance agency. Sherman will be based in Honduras, where her primary responsibility will be conducting interviews with clients who have received FINCA’s small loans to set up or grow their farms or businesses.
Sherman made it clear in her Truman application that she is committed to working in Latin America, at least early on in her career. She first traveled to the region last year, to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, to volunteer at a school and boarding home for destitute children. Although her job as a math and English tutor started as a summer position, Sherman stayed on for an additional five months, taking a semester off from Bowdoin. During her time there, she developed a vegetable garden, increased the organization’s web presence and helped it find long-term funding for its poorest students.
“My time at EDELAC [the school, Escuela de la Calle] made more acute my understanding of the challenges facing the poor in developing countries,” Sherman says, particularly for children and women. “I realized that women all over the world face the same obstacles to empowerment, and it inspired me to focus on one way of alleviating those obstacles.”