UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a teenager living in Dhaka, Bangladesh, one of the largest cities in the world, Shah Chowdhury saw the hardships that disadvantaged countrymen faced every day. What troubled him the most was that many of these individuals did not have access to safe drinking water.
It would have been easy for him to look the other way. Instead, he took action and, with support from family and friends, founded Footsteps, a youth-driven social enterprise that organizes and manages projects designed to address existing social problems in Bangladesh. Now in its fifth year, Footsteps has helped thousands receive access to clean drinking water, sanitation, waste management systems and natural-disaster aid.
For his commitment to building a more sustainable future for his country, Chowdhury, a community, environment and development major in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, has been invited to participate in this year's Young Leaders Programme at European Development Days, currently taking place in Brussels, Belgium.
"We are incredibly excited for Shah and congratulate him on this prestigious honor," said Deanna Behring, the college's assistant dean and director of international programs. "He is an extraordinary young man who strives for the greater good, and we are happy he is at Penn State for his undergraduate education."
Organized by the European Commission, European Development Days brings together policy makers, international leaders and development professionals for discussion on creating solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. This year's summit will have a special focus on gender equality and women's empowerment.
Chowdhury, 22, said he is honored — and humbled — to be one of the 16 young adults from around the globe to be chosen, and he is eager to exchange ideas with his peers and international leaders who share his mindset.
"Through this experience, I hope to gain a better understanding of how our global community can work together to design solutions that will last for the long run," he said. "I am looking forward to meeting people from different cultures who share the same passion for helping others. This also will be a great platform to showcase Footsteps and Bangladesh."
The son of journalists, Chowdhury was taught from an early age the value of education and the importance of service to others. One of his first entrées into public service was with Born to Smile, a youth-based organization that provides food, clothes and educational items for underprivileged children.
Inspired by that endeavor, Chowdhury took on an even larger venture — the formation of Footsteps in 2013. He enlisted his family and like-minded friends and formed a board of directors, created a mission statement, recruited volunteers and secured several corporate partners. The group's first project was a clothing drive to benefit those in need in the northern region of Bangladesh, where winters are extremely cold.
More projects followed, including developing an educational platform that provides workshops to children and teens on subjects typically not offered in the country's schools, such as graphic design, robotics, and health and sex education. Another undertaking helped to establish efficient and storm-resistant sanitation facilities for vulnerable communities along the coastal belt of Bangladesh.
The initiative that Chowdhury is most proud of is Footsteps' work in creating widespread access to clean drinking water all over Bangladesh, especially for low-income residents, by setting up water-filtration units in public and community areas. With the help of corporate partners, including many women executives, Footsteps has placed more than 80 water-purification systems, creating access to more than 4 million liters of clean drinking water for citizens.
"Seeing how grateful people are to have safe drinking water is beyond amazing," Chowdhury said. "There are no words to adequately express the joy felt when you've made life better for someone else. It's powerful."
To expand Footsteps' reach, Chowdhury made the decision to further his education. After researching several colleges, he chose Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences because it provided the academic rigor, global perspective and faculty leaders he sought.
"For me to realize my vision, I knew I had to learn more about the environment, public policy and practices in a first-world nation such as the United States," he said. "Penn State has exceeded my expectations. I have been like a sponge, absorbing everything, so I can use what I have learned when I return home after graduation."
In addition to acquiring a wealth of knowledge, Chowdhury has gained lifelong friends at Penn State, including Adam Tidball, a recent graduate of Penn State's Eberly College of Science, who was so impressed with Footsteps' impact that he joined the organization's fundraising and corporate sponsorship team. Chowdhury hopes European Development Days will provide even more friendships and collaborations.
"One of my favorite proverbs is, 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If want to go far, go together,' and it is so true," he said. "I wouldn't be here without the support of the people who have been behind me, including my family, Footsteps' supporters, and my professors and friends at Penn State. Working together, we are making a difference."