SFU alumna, Bhavina Patel, connects the community dots across the globe

[dropcap]J[/dropcap]ust a month after graduating with a BA in geography, SFU alumna Bhavina Patel packed her bags and travelled to South Africa to pursue an internship in the economic development sector of the city of Durban.

She found herself in the center of progressive city planning and urban decision-making in the same province where Mahatma Gandhi began his human rights movement and Nelson Mandela began his 27-year-long prison sentence.

A couple months after she returned home and settled into a more typical post-graduate life, The Peak caught up with Patel to learn more about her adventures and future plans.

With a South Africa-shaped pendant around her neck and a smile wide enough to match her aspirations, Patel filled us in on her experiences at school, in volunteering, and with her global internship, and how she hopes to tie it all together as she embarks on her post-graduate journey.

Finding her own path

Patel started her SFU journey as a math major. As she describes it, math was something she knew she was good at, and a path that would lead her to stable jobs following graduation.

But it was an introduction to human geography course in her second term that piqued her interest. “I’m a holistic person, and just the way the course tied everything together from health to infrastructure to migration of people touched me,” she recalled.

After taking more geography electives that summer, Patel decided to make the switch from math to geography. “There’s a difference [between] being good at something and wanting to do it,” she differentiated. “I may not be as good a geographer, but I’m passionate about the realms of it.

“I don’t want to say anything cheesy like ‘geography is my calling,’ but it feels like my calling,” she laughed.

Patel pursued her passions for human geography outside the classroom as she participated in SFU’s Red Cross and UNICEF clubs, as well as the Canadian Mental Health Association. One of Patel’s most impressionable experiences was the three years she spent volunteering at the Surrey Food Bank, for which she was ultimately awarded the Mahatma Gandhi Annual Student Award for her work with the Surrey Food Bank’s Tiny Bundles family packages.

“Volunteering at the food bank was how my interest in food security started,” Patel said. She spoke about the sense of community she experienced at the food bank, how it made her feel closer to her hometown, and about the wide variety of food bank clientele she saw. She remembered a conversation she had once with the director of the food bank: “We spoke about how, ultimately, we don’t want food banks — we want people to be able to support themselves. We need to create that food security.”

Patel’s explorations, both in school and in her local community, helped her pull together a vision of what her future work might look like. “You never really know what you want to do until you do things,” she remarked. This openness, sense of adventure, and newfound passion would lead Patel halfway across the world to South Africa.

South African adventures

Patel got placed in her South African internship by the Sustainable Cities International Internship Program, a program created by collaboration between the Centre for Sustainable Development at SFU and Sustainable Cities International.  

The program sent 40 recent Canadian graduates across the world to cities that were actively working to develop sustainable futures to provide them with hands-on experience in urban development and food security.  

She worked within the economic development department in the municipality of Durban — a city aiming to be the most caring and livable city by 2030. Patel worked closely with the agri-business and waste material recovery programs manager, spending most of her time on projects and attending city meetings and conferences.

She spoke about how she was definitely intimidated by the kinds of situations she often found herself in, but felt her youthful voice mattered. “I’d be sitting in this weekly meeting and we’d be talking about waste management and agriculture programs, and even if I didn’t have anything to say, someone would ask for my opinion [as a Canadian].

“The fact that I just found myself in the midst of all this big city planning — which I never expected right out of graduation — was perfect,” Patel testified.

One of the projects Patel worked on was the Edamame Development Project. Since the poverty-stricken populations of South Africa are unable to afford meat, government research was done over 15 years ago to find a bean or crop to make protein more accessible for small-scale farmers.

The edmame bean — native to Asia — was found to be the ideal crop due to its need for a warm climate, its seedling characteristics, and its low-maintenance growth, as well as its extraordinary nutritional value. In fact, a lot of farming families would be able to grow this crop in their backyard.

“If there isn’t a rooftop garden where there needs to be, maybe it’s my time to create one.” – Bhavina Patel

In line with the promising results of this research, the Edmame Development Project focuses on creating employment opportunities and promoting food security and sustainability through edamame farming. Currently, the project plays the role of the middle-man between large retail companies and small-scale farmers to sell backyard edamame crops, but ultimately they hope to create a farmer-based, independent company that can interact directly with large-scale retailers.

The project provides farmers with edamame seedlings, which the farmers grow and then send to the project’s research farm. At the research farm, staff consisting of local workers and farmers clean and process the beans before sending it off to their large retail clientele. All of the profits are then returned to the farmers.

The majority of the farmers that the project works with are part of the black community and other people of colour who weren’t given the same economic opportunities during apartheid. In addition to socioeconomic inequality, the project tackles gender inequality as a lot of the backyard farmers are women — grandmothers and mothers for whom backyard farming is a way to provide for their families and gain domestic independence, while fulfilling their traditional roles as caretakers.

“It’s all connected,” Patel enthused. “Female empowerment feeds back into the well-being of their family — it aids gender equality, helps children focus better in school, and will form the backbone of any sustainable community.”

Bringing life lessons back home

Patel expressed an abundance of gratitude for her experiences abroad, but when asked where she saw herself in the future, it was clear her hometown won over any global location.

“A lot of young people just want to move,” she noticed. “I’m definitely pro-travelling, but I know my hometown and, after working at the food bank for so many years, I know there’s more that can be done in food security and development.”

In her Sustainable Cities biography, Patel wrote that her ideal job would combine sustainable community development with a focus on aiding vulnerable populations. In person, she expressed passion for specific local areas of development, such as transportation and the Surrey Urban Farmers Market — a three-month-long summer market set up near City Hall and the City Centre Library for local Surrey urban farmers to sell their local produce. “Urban sprawl is happening, but we still need to think about food security and agriculture,” Patel emphasized.

Not many will consider Surrey to be a agriculture hub, but Patel is out to change that.

While her path remains wide open, Patel’s greatest hope for her future is to be useful and make a meaningful difference in her community. She spoke about all the advice she’d been receiving from seniors in her field whom she’s encountered, as they told her to “do what you feel needs to be done.” Her numerous and varied past experiences have also given her the confidence to take her own initiatives when it came to the type of sustainable development she envisioned for Surrey.

“If there isn’t a rooftop garden where there needs to be, maybe it’s my time to create one,” she joked.  

Moving forward

Since returning home, Patel has settled into a post-graduate life with which many are familiar. Currently she’s in the midst of planning a March event for the Sustainable Cities International Internship Program to showcase all 40 of last year’s interns and their projects, which will be held at SFU’s downtown campus.

As she reflects on her previous experiences and helps out with the family retail business, Patel is also job-searching for her next opportunity, applying to various municipal and “green” jobs. She’s not alone — the majority of her friends whom she graduated alongside last April are in the same boat, and they constantly debate the merits of taking the fastest job to come their way versus holding out for a more promising career.

“No one wants to be jobless,” Patel testified, “but when you’re applying for jobs you need to ask, ‘Is this something that will help me grow professionally in a way that I want?’”

Ultimately, Patel is moving forward with the same mantra that has lead her from math to geography, from Surrey to South Africa and back again.

“It’s important to stay open to opportunities,” she said. “You never know where they might lead you.”

To learn about the Sustainable Cities International Internship Program and how you can be part of the next cohort of interns, check out: https://www.sfu.ca/cscd/International-Youth-Internships-Program.html