Several students at Rice University learn about the needs of a group of recently-arrived refugees from a campus advisor. As these university students come to understand the system of refugee resettlement and to know the many refugees struggling to adjust to life in Houston, they form an official student group on the Rice campus in order to respond to the needs of local refugee youth who have a unique opportunity to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Through the student organization, they develop a youth program focused specifically on refugee youth involving a large number of campus volunteers.
PAIR's founders take an important developmental step by incorporating and receiving 501(c)(3) status for PAIR, making it an independent nonprofit organization in order to support its original Rice volunteer group and new groups and individual volunteers, expanding its capacity to maximize positive outcomes for youth, their families, and volunteers. Programs multiply and continue to operate under the direction of a board of directors and a large base of committed volunteers.
For the 2009-2010 school year, PAIR hires a full-time, interim executive director. In fall 2010, PAIR's first permanent Executive Director joins its efforts and begins building upon the strong foundation established by its founders and many early contributors. Also in fall 2010, the University of Houston volunteer group is established to support a growing number of programs and students.
PAIR programs serve hundreds of students annually with support from as many volunteers from groups at Rice University, the University of Houston, as well as other campuses and the larger community. PAIR serves youth in multiple neighborhoods and school and community sites where refugees live and attend school in Houston. Numerous programs during the academic year and summer months ease students' adjustment to American life and equip them with the motivation and resources to succeed in the American education system.
PAIR Celebrates 10 years!
In the brief biographies below, each of PAIR’s founders reminisces about the early days of PAIR, describes their activities since, and reflects on what they learned from their PAIR experience.
Chethana got involved in PAIR in the spring of 2007, when she returned from studying abroad: “I was looking for ways to remain engaged in international issues and carry out meaningful volunteer work. I was drawn to PAIR’s mission and activities even at this early stage.” Since graduating from Rice in 2008, Chethana spent several years in short-term international positions in the Middle East, South Asia, and West Africa. In 2013, she completed a Master’s degree in international development at The George Washington University and took a position with DAI Global, a USAID contractor. She currently serves there as a senior program officer for the five-year “Preparedness & Response” project, which assists sixteen countries in strengthening the use of One Health (i.e., multi-sectoral and multidisciplinary) approaches to combat newly emerging diseases of animal origin that could threaten human health. On PAIR’s impact on her, Chethana says, “I credit my involvement in PAIR programs as a college student with my interest in teaching and training (particularly immigrant and refugee populations) and my current career in international development project management. More abstractly, I feel that my participation in some of the early decisions we made about PAIR’s organizational scope and leadership taught me valuable lessons on effective project management that continue to inform my perspective today.”
Elaine began working with refugees even before the plan to provide programs for refugee students was developed. She also has the distinction of becoming PAIR’s first “acting director” in 2007-2008. She recalls that PAIR “consumed [her] life for a year and a half, but that it was worth it to see the kids excited to learn, the volunteers excited to work with the kids, and the Rice and Houston community wanting to contribute their resources in different ways.” Since graduating from Rice in 2008, Elaine completed an MD and medical training at Baylor College of Medicine; she is now two-thirds of the way through a fellowship in hematology/oncology. Elaine remembers spending a lot of time meeting parents to explain the PAIR program during the early days. The importance of seeing students in their home environment is a lesson that has stayed with her throughout her medical training. She says, “PAIR has left an indelible mark on me in my commitment to empowerment and human dignity worldwide.”
Steve got involved in PAIR in January of 2007, after returning from a semester abroad. He began leading workshops to prepare Cuban refugees for job interviews and recruiting additional volunteers from his Spanish classes. Since he graduated from Rice in 2007, he has continued to support PAIR as a board member, board treasurer, organizer of fundraisers, advisory board member—and always as an advocate and booster. Steve worked for 10 years in renewable energy, building wind farms in Europe, North America, and South America. He recently accepted a position at a technology company, where he is helping develop software to make renewable energy even more reliable and cost effective. Steve reflects on his PAIR experience: “PAIR always stands out to me as an example of how a small group of motivated people can make a real impact to improve society. There are few volunteer groups I have been a part of that had the energy and impact of PAIR... Unlike other groups, from the beginning, we were focused on doing real work with real people; all of the early days were about identifying how to spend more time with this wonderful group of high-potential youth we had discovered, who had minimal resources and support. This to me has been a valuable lesson: when you have clarity of mission, you are doing something helpful, and you keep focused on working and doing, then everything else tends to fall into place.”
Rajen recalls how PAIR “opened my mind to how targeted acts have the potential to change lives in the long-run.” He also remembers “spending late nights including an all-nighter or two with other PAIR founders creating our first strategic business plan for a Dell Social Venture Plan competition, which yielded PAIR’s first sizeable funding gift.” Rajen has stayed involved with PAIR as a board member and now as an advisory board member. Since graduating from Rice in 2008, he has lived in New York, San Francisco and is happy to be back in Houston. He currently works in energy finance and has previously worked in energy investment banking and urban development finance. He notes that “Seeing PAIR’s growth and professionalization as an organization and how that is impacting hundreds of refugees, university students, and other community volunteers is exciting. The PAIR experience deeply shapes how I view our ability to create impact and what makes America the country of inspiration, productivity, and openness.”
Christina Lagos Triantaphyllis
Christina recalls the first time they brought refugee youth to Rice: “I remember feeling all of life's emotions in a single day. The joy of seeing children set foot on the campus, learn something new, and connect with Rice students. Sadness when they conveyed stories about hardships they faced at such a young age as they made their way to the U.S. or about the language and cultural isolation they felt as newcomers to their school. Fear that we weren't doing enough, or not doing something right or that we'd leave a child on campus!” Since graduating from Rice in 2008, Christina worked for The Bridgespan Group, advising large foundations and nonprofits in developing strategies to expand their social impact. She earned a Master of Science degree from the Harvard School of Public Health, where she was a Reynolds Foundation Fellow in Social Entrepreneurship. She currently serves as the chief officer of public policy and strategic initiatives at Collaborative for Children. In addition to leading PAIR’s board, she is a board member of Rice 360 Institute for Global Health. Christina describes PAIR’s impact on her: “PAIR taught me more than I've learned in most formal educational settings. I learned how to communicate across cultures, how to accomplish and build something with limited resources, how to bring together a committed team to solve a problem together, and that it's possible and valuable to make incremental progress on a challenge. The fact that a problem is big should not turn one away, but should lead one to do something about it, even if it's difficult to see how small actions can lead to larger scale change.”
Alex recalls several early memories: working all night with the team on the submission for the RGK social innovation competition; the first field trip at Rice and all the work that went into it; and his and Christina’s first meeting with Felix, a Congolese refugee who introduced them to refugee families—“The first real step we took to start PAIR.” Since his graduation from Rice in 2006, Alex has lived in Argentina, worked in finance, earned a law degree from Harvard Law School, and moved back to Houston to work in the community. He is a member of PAIR’s advisory board. Alex reflects that “The challenging and meaningful experience of starting PAIR has influenced every important career decision I've made since, and the friendships built during that time are some of the strongest I have today.” He adds, “PAIR's success wouldn't be possible without the selfless contributions of so many people that are celebrating with us today, in person or in spirit!”
Kirstin has many memories of her year as PAIR’s first executive director in 2009-2010. They include “playing soccer after school with our middle schoolers, walking around the parking lot of the apartments with a crowd of kids in tow, visiting parents and being welcomed into their homes, talking to them about the U.S. school system and learning more about their lives, sharing a bowl of noodles with one of our Nepali families.” She also has a “vivid” memory of attending a youth conference with two high school students, Peace and Vikash. “They told their life stories at the conference….It was very emotional and inspiring for me and for the rest of the audience. I was so impressed and full of awe that these two young people could be really brave and really vulnerable in front of a room full of strangers. I felt proud and lucky just to know them!” Since leaving PAIR, Kirstin worked at the World Bank in Washington, DC, on infrastructure projects in Africa and Latin America. She is now “working a day job” as a coach at Fullbridge, but is an aspiring comedy writer and musician. Kirstin reflects: “Working with PAIR was one of the best things I ever did. It was not what I expected, in all the best ways, and I happily carry these memories and experiences with me.”
Renee became the president of PAIR’s board when the organization received its non-profit status in 2007. She says, “it was impossible to refuse Alex and the passionate college students who created PAIR.” She believes strongly in PAIR’s mission of welcoming newcomers and helping them adjust to life here and make the most of the new opportunities they have. Before PAIR had paid staff, Renee served as advisor to officers of the Rice student group and later supervised the Americorps VISTA members who were PAIR’s first staff. Over the years, she has worked directly in PAIR’s after-school programs, served as a mentor for a middle school student, and generally taken on any organizational task that needed to be done, from writing grants to stuffing envelopes. While she has always been focused on “providing quality programs that meet the needs of PAIR’s participants, the motivation for doing this work comes from getting to know the refugee youth and the college volunteers. Their commitment, caring, and determination inspire me daily.”