Class of 2017: Ryan Sullivan strengthens villages in Southeast Asia

Ryan Sullivan (center) and villagers in Southeast Asia. (photo courtesy of Ryan Sullivan)

by Alexandra Valnoski

Moving a mile and a half of PVC pipe along unpaved, winding roads in a small pickup truck—in a foreign country, no less—is no easy task.

Ryan Sullivan, known as “Sully” to his professors and friends, knows this firsthand. Doing so was a necessary means to bringing about the first sustainable water source to the Karen tribe in Mae Hong Son, a mountainous region in Thailand.

Sullivan is the founder of Village to Village, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to improving public health, education and homelessness in villages throughout Southeast Asia. The Piedmont, California, native founded the organization while still in high school.

“I had previously been to Central America on several volunteering trips in both middle school and early in high school. I decided to go to Southeast Asia to expand my perspective on the international aid community,” he said. “After my initial trips to Southeast Asia, I came to realize that I could more effectively improve outcomes for beneficiaries in the region by breaking from the volunteering model and focusing instead on collaborative, participatory development.” Sullivan’s goal is to make a difference in the communities he serves in a way that is sustainable and also distinctive to each of those communities. Village to Village is uniquely designed to have a 100 percent guarantee of no overhead.

“We work with and rely on local volunteers and contractors from start to finish on our projects,” he explained. “[rquote]It’s important to give the communities we partner with autonomy and make sure the projects we create have the most positive impact possible.”[/rquote]

At Vanderbilt, Sullivan majored in public policy studies, an interdisciplinary major he credits with helping him better understand and tackle the challenges facing rural Southeast Asia. “One of the reasons I chose to come to Vanderbilt is its broad interdisciplinary liberal arts education,” he said. “I am definitely more data-oriented now. The classes I’ve taken solidified my thoughts surrounding the international aid community.”

Over the past six years, Sullivan and his team at Village to Village have completed multiple projects, including providing rain gear for children during monsoon season, building homes and sanitation projects, and, last summer, building a school. Sullivan engaged in negotiations with the Thai government to ensure the school’s sustainability once it was finished. Village to Village funded the operating costs for the first six months, including teacher training and salaries, and provided the students’ meals, which they would have gone without were it not for the school. In December 2016, the school became sustainable through the Thai government.

(photo courtesy of Ryan Sullivan)

For his Vanderbilt senior capstone project, Sullivan, who was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship, conducted research within Thai refugee camps to assess whether refugees are participating in vocational programs and why. After graduation, his plans include possibly joining the Peace Corps to gain field experience. His work with Village to Village also will continue.

“We are looking to create as big an impact as possible for as many people as possible,” he said. “It is an incomparable feeling to get updates and pictures from the villages we’ve helped. It’s what makes it worthwhile and keeps me enthusiastic to keep going.”