An Unburied Life

Emily Sessoms ’13 isn’t going to save the world. She’s more interested in making sure people have sustainable access to food, water, and shelter.

During a trip to Thailand, Emily Sessoms ’13 was introduced to Burmese children, who are not allowed to attend Thai public schools. During a trip to Thailand, Emily Sessoms ’13 was introduced to Burmese children, who are not allowed to attend Thai public schools.

For most of her time at Rollins College, Emily Sessoms ’13 was not actually at Rollins College. She was exploring human rights abuses of Burmese refugees in Thailand, where she saw many living in squalid garbage dumps. Or Brazil, where she spent a few months researching community development and permaculture, “which completely changed my life.” Or Nicaragua, where she volunteered on a sustainable farm. Or the trip to Nepal she made freshman year with the Rollins group Making Lives Better, where they distributed school supplies, helped fund a health clinic, and remodeled a school. Or Costa Rica where she studied abroad as an incoming freshman, before she ever set foot on Rollins’ campus. Or Tennessee, where she studied social entrepreneurship and microfinancing, the provision of resources to small companies. Or Oregon, where she studied natural building with Aprovecho, a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable development in North America.

“Emily is unique in some ways,” says assistant professor of political science Dan Chong. Chong has known her since her first year. He led the group that went to Thailand in 2011, and Sessoms has taken more of his courses than any other student—seven, by his count, including an independent study, which she took after becoming infatuated with Muhammad Yunus’s book Creating a World without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism. “So much of what she’s gotten out of Rollins College has been out of Rollins College.”

Back when she was in high school in Sanford, she decided that she wanted to change the world. Unlike most people with similar youthful ambitions, this drive is still there, stoked, in fact, by the multitude of experiences she’s gained since. In her junior and senior years of high school, Sessoms says, she was first exposed to the fact that, for billions of people, the world was still an ugly, horrid place. Atrocities—wars, famines—weren’t just things of the past, but things of the present. She started a student advocacy group at her high school called Come Together.

While attending the Clinton Global Initiative University, Sessoms met her personal hero, Muhammad Yunus. While attending the Clinton Global Initiative University, Sessoms met her personal hero, Muhammad Yunus. “I think there’s a big guilt factor that goes into people’s reactions to what goes on in the world,” Sessoms says. “‘I need to go out and fix everything.’ I’ve stepped back from that.”

She can’t fix everything, but she can fix some things.

Sessoms enrolled at Rollins with the intention of studying poverty alleviation. And in Thailand and Nepal, she indeed saw poverty—terrible, nauseating, almost unspeakable poverty that sharply contrasted with relative Western affluence—up close. But it was later, back home in Central Florida, that she found her life’s calling.

It was here that she met a man who taught permaculture, an omnibus term for taking a sustainable approach to all facets of human existence that mimics the relationships found in nature. It is through this prism that she now analyzes the world around her, the many intertwined relationships between and among components. “You want to make the relationship between different components as ideal as possible,” Sessoms says.

After that initial exposure to permaculture, her interests shifted ever so slightly. Instead of a broader focus on poverty, she wanted to home in specifically on the human rights to food, water, and shelter. That, in turn, led her to the concept of natural building.

“I realized that what I want to pursue is giving the pragmatic skills of building structures with different techniques,” she says. In other words, she wants to learn natural building and holistic agriculture techniques so she can take teach them to people who lack adequate food and housing. “Through these techniques,” Sessoms says, “people can empower themselves.”

That’s why she spent seven months in Oregon with Aprovecho before returning home to finish her final semester at Rollins. After graduation, she hopes to become both a teacher and design consultant, especially for people who have been displaced by wars or poverty or natural disasters. She wants to provide “both the design process and these skills” that allow people to “create their own homes after they’ve lost their houses.”

In this way, they wouldn’t be reliant on governmental aid. “I want long-term empowerment,” Sessoms says. “If you give aid, it becomes a cycle, a violation of the human right to dignity.”

It was with this commitment to action—working on giving poor and displaced peoples the skills and low-tech resources they need in the form of natural building—that Sessoms attended her second Clinton Global Initiative University in St. Louis. (She went two years ago to the CGIU in San Diego.) And there, she got to meet one of her heroes, Muhammad Yunus, whose book led her to the independent study that, in turn, led her to Brazil, permaculture, and natural building.

In all of her globetrotting, spending months and years away—probably half the time she was enrolled at Rollins—you might wonder if Sessoms worries that she missed out on a formative, quintessential collegiate experience.

She does not. “I’m, like, completely blissed out of my mind,” she says. “Rollins provided the theoretical aspects of my studies. I just kinda jump-started my career going out in the field. … It’s been kind of wild. It’s been great, though.”