A Lifelong Journey of Service: How one University of Michigan Alum Found Inspiration Through His Summer Global Experience

“My baseline has changed.”

David Witte, U-M 2010 alum, says when talking about re-entry after his years in the Peace Corps. “Re-entry had been kind of a whirlwind. People say going into the Peace Corps and adjusting to the local culture is hard, but you adjust quickly and it becomes your new norm. Coming home, it can be just as hard to adjust.”

While at U-M, David was a Wallenberg Summer Travel Award recipient. These awards allow selected students to take part in a community service project or civic participation anywhere in the world. They are modeled after Raoul Wallenberg’s experience travelling to observe and learn from people of all kinds, and shape a lifelong concern for human dignity and humanitarian values. Wallenberg is one of U-M’s most heroic alums, saving 100,000 Jews during World War II.

For the experience, David was paired with “Un Techo para mi pais-Argentina,” an NGO that works in the slums surrounding Buenos Aires, Argentina. Their aim is to provide basic housing for people living in unstable shanties, while providing social and economic programs to improve the quality of life in the developing neighborhoods. “This was my first time abroad and the experience had a profound influence on my worldview. I not only learned about a different culture, but was able to see first-hand the living conditions of impoverished neighborhoods in a developing community. The fellowship lit a fire that still burns today.”

He continues, “When I went to Argentina, it impressed on me what a privileged life I have. Just by being born where I was, I already had so much. I want to use what I’ve learned to make the world a better place, whether through building a physical space or being a channel of important information for people who live in a more desperate situation.

Two years later, David volunteered with the Peace Corps. He lived in the Northern Andes of Peru, working with the local health post and high schools to teach about the importance of proper hygiene, environmental stewardship, and improving access to clean water. “The Peace Corps has changed my life’s perspective in ways that I am still discovering today,” he says.

His time at U-M sparked a lifelong journey of service. He describes, “While the Wallenberg Fellowship was only 2 months of my life, I have no doubt that it eased me into the 2 year service that I just completed in Peru. The spirit of humanitarian service is present in both organizations and I consider myself very blessed to have been able to continue the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg, which I hope to continue through Public Interest Design work.”

Opportunities for engaged service at U-M are increasingly prevalent, and David’s advice for students is, “While searching for volunteer projects, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of different opportunities, but it’s ok to just pick one and see how it goes. Don’t feel like you have to start from scratch. There are so many organizations out there that are fighting the myriad of problems in the world. There is no wrong choice – any way you help out, you’re making a difference. “

Now a junior architect in Seattle, David is trying to find a balance between his passion for service and the traditional architectural career path. “I had an opportunity to stay longer in Peru, but I felt like I wasn’t far enough along in my professional career to do the best that I could do. I still need to learn more of the fundamental skill set so that I bring more to the table next time.” David joined the community service committee in the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, helping promote service work to others. “People have a desire to volunteer, and I’ve been learning the different types of ways to do that. You don’t have to leave your own country to find problems to help with.” He encourages others who want to explore viable career paths in service and design to explore the PublicInterestDesign.org website.