Bethany Lerch: Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar

October 24, 2017 –Our speaker was Ms. Bethany Lerch. Bethany is a former Fulbright Scholar and Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. She came to speak to us about her life, travels, and work as a military advisor.

Bethany started by telling us that anyone can achieve anything if they are determined, even if things don’t turn out how you think. She always wanted to be in politics and policy-making. She chose to attend West Point and felt a military career was what she wanted. While at West Point she realized she could not continue because she did not feel comfortable leading men and women into battle. As a result, she left West Point feeling as if she had failed. She returned to Wisconsin. Having observed that her brother was a different person after returning to the US after a tour in Bagdad, she became interested in terrorism studies. In 2010 she was awarded a $25,000 Rotary Scholarship for graduate school which she used to attend the University of St. Andrews. She went to the middle east and then returned to the US.

Upon returning she was unable to find a job and ended up working at a local pet shelter. She eventually was offered a position as a guest lecturer at the University of Leipzig in Germany, eventually leading her back to the Middle East, where she taught Palestinian children. She assumed she was there to teach young girls, but realized that her role was more about providing a safe place for these kids. She observed danger and conflict all around the children and that school was a “safe” place for them. She realized that despite the terrible conditions, the Palestinian families aren’t really any different than American families. The parents just want their kids to be happy. She stressed that instead of defining ourselves by our differences we need to define ourselves by the commonalities we share.

A chance email led her to a job with NATO as a trainer in gender integration in Afghanistan. She realized that troops in Afghanistan didn’t get out to see beyond the base and, therefore, didn’t really know the communities they were there to help. She coordinated a program that enabled our troops to visit an orphanage. She also organized a literacy program and helped kids stay in school. Eventually, she helped to develop a program at the University of Wisconsin where Afghanistan women can study .

She left us with the challenge to remember that people want to help themselves and aren’t looking for a handout. Our policy makers need to remember that sometimes what we as Americans want isn’t what other countries want, but we can still be agents of goodness.

Steve Coe, Keyway Committee