This article was originally published in Rotary Canada, the quarterly supplement to Rotary International’s monthly Rotarian magazine. Click to visit the original article. Republished here with permission.
Deep into water
by Paul Engleman
Rotary Canada — October 2012
As a child growing up in Montreal, Ryan Rowe resented his parents’ requirement that he learn a second language. “I hated having to learn French,” says the 2010-12 Rotary Peace Fellow, who earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in May, along with a certificate in peace and conflict resolution. “I never expected that I would come to love learning new languages.”
Rowe, 34, now speaks Spanish and Portuguese in addition to English and French, and he’s recently taken up Mandarin Chinese. Learning new languages is something Rowe does as a hobby. His official line of work – the stuff he’s really serious about – is water and sanitation. That was his specialty at UNC, where he studied at the internationally acclaimed Water Institute. Today he is a part-time communications officer at the institute and quenches his thirst for volunteer opportunities on water projects in Africa, with Rotary and other organizations.
“A lot of people think the water crisis is just too daunting,” he says. “I believe if we work together and remain committed to investing our energy, our skills, and our money, we can have a positive impact.”
To hear Rowe tell it, that blend of optimism and determination has been part of his outlook at least since college. While an undergraduate at Concordia University in Montreal, Rowe took a semester off and travelled by bus through Mexico and Central America, immersing himself in the language and cultures to prepare for an exchange program in Colombia, where he took most of his courses in Spanish.
That bus trip, he says, is what opened his eyes to the impoverished conditions that many people face. “But instead of seeing poverty,” he says, “I saw opportunity. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial quality, and I saw how the issues of poverty related to lack of infrastructure.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in commerce and finance, Rowe pursued an international master’s in strategic management at York University in Toronto. He studied in Brazil, taking a third of his courses in Portuguese and conducting an independent-study project on private-sector investment in water infrastructure in Latin America.
Rowe recalls that during his childhood, he heard tales of world travel and service projects from an aunt and uncle who are Rotarians in Ottawa. “But I wasn’t clued in to Rotary’s impact on the world,” he says. That changed in 2009, when he was living in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and working in infrastructure development for the Australian investment bank Macquarie Group. While doing volunteer work, Rowe learned about the Rotary Peace Centers program and saw an opportunity to help address water issues with some of the world’s best experts.
“The public health program at UNC is fantastic. This is an amazing partnership for Rotary,” he says. “Applying to the Rotary Peace Centers program was the best decision I ever made.”
In June, just four weeks after completing his fellowship, Rowe packed up his laptop, strapped on a backpack, and set off on his latest adventure: a six-month working tour of Africa that began with stops in Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique, where he spoke at a conference sponsored by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. He plans to visit Nairobi, Kenya, where he serves on the board of trustees of the Tabasamu Education Fund, a nonprofit that provides funding to help children stay in school.
While Rowe continues his work for the Water Institute, his goal is to create a social investment fund to provide sustainable financing for infrastructure and development projects that improve the health and welfare of people in vulnerable areas.
He also expects that his career path will lead to collaborations with other peace fellows. “We’re all in the same army,” he says. “I’m following my passion, and I think that may be the most important thing a human being can do to be successful. I thank Rotary for enabling me to do that.”