Alumni profile: Kihslinger’s ‘splinter’ sparks passion for global outreach

As a child, Emi Kihslinger always had a metaphorical “splinter in her finger”— the thought wedged in the back of her mind that she had been born into a more fortunate situation than many others around the world.

“My parents never hesitated to expose me to the fact that not everyone in the world was as lucky as I was… And it just really stuck with me,” says Kihslinger, a recent University of Wisconsin­–Madison graduate. “So when I got to high school, I just had to find ways to get the splinter out. Nothing was going to satisfy that desire other than work, so I threw myself into international causes.”

Emi Kihslinger
Emi Kihslinger

At Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, Wis., she served as the president of the International Outreach Club, as well as the president of the Service Club.

When Kihslinger headed off to UW–Madison, she brought her passion for international outreach with her. On campus, however, she struggled to find an organization that engaged her passion for international work to its fullest.

A friend at another university told her about GlobeMed, an organization dedicated to improving health, sustainable living and empowerment for people in impoverished areas of the world.

UW–Madison didn’t have a GlobeMed chapter, so Kihslinger started one. She led the UW–Madison chapter in establishing a partnership with and raising more than $30,000 for the Cambodian Organization of Women’s Support in Kampong Thom, Cambodia.

She and her fellow Badger GlobeMedders also have networked on campus and around the globe, raised awareness about HIV/AIDS, brought members of GlobeMed chapters around the Midwest to Madison, and sent five GlobeMed interns to Cambodia during the summer of 2013.

Consequently, after three years of intense involvement, she became emotional at the last dinner of her final GlobeMed Summit – “like, tears rolling down my face thick and fast, breath hiccup-y and people occasionally giving me the side-eye.”

“I was too overwhelmed to be embarrassed,” she recalls. “What brought it on was just a flood of the most intense gratitude I’ve ever felt.”

Next stop: Uganda

Since graduating from UW–Madison in May 2013 in International Studies and Agricultural and Applied Economics, Kihslinger has channeled that gratitude into a career dedicated to helping others, which has taken her around the world.

“When I graduated, I knew I couldn’t quit the [GlobeMed] high cold turkey—or possibly ever,” she says. “Not just anything would do—I needed to go somewhere and work on something that met stringent standards of sustainability, grassroots foundations, addressing root causes, taking holistic approaches, and listening to community members and others.”

That desire and a connection through GlobeMed took Kihslinger to Uganda, for a six-month internship with the Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalization Program.

“I wrote my senior thesis about sustainable refugee assistance in Northern Uganda, and when this opportunity came along, I knew it was the universe nudging me along the right path,” she says.

Emi Kihslinger in Uganda
Emi Kihslinger in Uganda

In Uganda, Kihslinger is focusing on two projects: the Northern Uganda War-Affected Youth Livelihood Enhancement Initiative funded by CARE International, and her own separate endeavor.

In her CARE-funded work, she says, “I basically spend a lot of time visiting youth groups, working with community-based facilitators, collecting stories and data and writing reports.”

The community members Kihslinger interviewed included a former commander for the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militant group in Uganda known for its shocking violence. She talked with him over the course of two days to learn his unique story, with a goal of raising funds to help address his declining health.

“He was abducted at 16 and was in the bush for eight years, and he rose about as high in the ranks as you can get without being blamed for the actions of the LRA,” she says. “It took him so long to escape because they took him to Sudan for a good chunk of the time. But once they were back, he escaped within a few years…and how he’s struggled to acclimatize after returning.”

Kihslinger is also working on her own project, to “train representatives from four pilot villages in permaculture, and then spread the knowledge to community groups through a year-long curriculum.”

These community courses in permaculture – an ecological design system for sustainability in all aspects of human endeavor – would combine lessons on building sustainable agriculture systems with “dialogues on other important issues such as human rights, GBV (gender-based violence), reproductive health, psychosocial support, access to justice, land rights and conflict resolution,” she says.

Kihslinger is in the final stages of drafting her proposal, which includes writing grants. She intends to launch her project as soon as funding becomes available. Even though her current internship in Uganda ends in February 2014, she plans to work on her independent project for as long as it takes to get the job done properly.

“I’m coming home for a month when my internship is over… but then I’m coming back to either dig into planning for the project start or continue my fundraising efforts,” she says. “I’ll be here for as long as it takes to get it off the ground.”

Emi Kihslinger at wedding in Uganda
Emi Kihslinger at wedding in Uganda

Outside of her project work, Kihslinger enjoys exploring Gulu’s culture. She has the most fun by just going with the flow—such as “the time my friend spontaneously took me to a traditional wedding ceremony and they surprised me by asking me to dance in the procession,” she says.

“On the surface, Gulu might not be a very nice place to live: dirty, dusty, poor, underdeveloped and potholed,” she says. “There’s not really much to do. They don’t exactly have a bowling alley. But it’s the little joys and the wonderful people that make living here really special.”

Just riding the wave

While she “loves Uganda to pieces,” Kihslinger says her time overseas, which includes pre-Uganda trips to Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, hasn’t been without challenges and culture shock.

“You go through great highs … Then there are also days, or weeks, where you feel just as down,” she says. “It’s a bit of a yogic approach actually, but my goal has been to just observe my own emotions closely … and then let myself go with it. I don’t try to tamp anything down or reject anything, I just ride the wave.”

When she’s finished in Uganda, Kihslinger is looking to go back to school for a master’s degree or PhD in international development, peace-building and conflict resolution, public health, and/or management.

“I’m kind of taking it one step at a time though and trying not to plan too far ahead,” she says. “I don’t want to miss anything right in front of me.”

She remains confident that her UW–Madison experience and her work with GlobeMed has prepared her to thrive no matter what she decides to do.

“During my time at UW, I learned the meaning of friendship, hard work, community, true learning, happiness, tolerance and independence,” she says. “The tough classes, awesome international opportunities and thorough guidance services prepared me very well to be a responsible, active global citizen, and the ties I made to Madison give me roots that ground me as I spread my wings after graduation.”

Follow Kihslinger’s Ugandan adventures on her blog 

–by Haley Henschel