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Sabrina Verleysen '18 Advocates for Women's Literacy in Indonesia

Sabrina Verleysen headshot

At Villanova, students are called to ignite change around the world, using their talents to serve the greater good. For Sabrina Verleysen ’18 CLAS, her passion led her to Indonesia where she became a teacher and advocate for women’s literacy.

Verleysen received a Fulbright award in 2018-19, spending her year as an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) in Indonesia. She fully immersed herself in a religiously centered community of predominantly female students. During her time in a Muslim Madrasah, Verleysen saw an opportunity to make education more accessible to a rural and under-resourced population while also promoting cross-cultural dialogue.

 “I applied to the Fulbright ETA fellowship in Indonesia to gain a deeper understanding of the role of women in a conservative Muslim community,” Verleysen explained. “By being placed at a Muslim Madrasah with predominantly female students in rural Java, I was fully immersed in a community that is religiously centered. More than anything, I found that Islam and Catholicism are extremely similar and my experience living in my community helped me rediscover my own faith in a profound and incredible way.”

Sabrina Verleysen in Indonesia

These experiences led Verleysen to initiate Project Buku Buku—a program that tackles literacy and promotes increased rates of continuing education among women and girls in rural Indonesia by establishing community-based, English-language lending libraries at Madrasahs.

Project Buku Buku quickly made an impact, collaborating with U.S. and Indonesian organizations, schools and entities to raise funds and supply more than 350 English language novels to her Fulbright host institution, Madrasah Aliyah Negeri Demak.

Verleysen’s efforts with Project Buku Buku were recognized in the fall of 2019 when she received a Rodman Rockefeller Centennial Fellowship from the Institute of International Education. The Centennial Fellowship seeks to enhance the Fulbright Program as a life-long experience and recognize Fulbright alumni whose work embodies the underlining Fulbright values of mutual understanding, leadership, global problem solving and global impact.   

Sabrina Verleysen with three others in Indonesia

With funds provided through the Centennial Fellowship, Project Buku Buku was established as a non-profit organization and will create seven new English lending libraries and literacy programs across three islands and four regions in rural Indonesia at Fulbright-affiliated Madrasahs.

“The Centennial Fellowship allows me to build out the work I began during my Fulbright year in a sustainable manner to a have lasting impact,” said Verleysen. “Project Buku Buku will also increase tolerance and diversity through the content of donated books. The English language books will reflect the main themes of our project: promoting self-awareness, tolerance, and diversity—lessons that children’s books are especially good at teaching.”

While Project Buku Buku continues to grow, Verleysen credits her time at Villanova for cultivating her sense of curiosity and for preparing her for a lifetime of learning.

“The Villanova community instilled in me the values and skills needed to become an impactful global citizen and to move through this world with a deep sense of purpose and a Catholic sense of empathy,” she explained.

Today, Verleysen brings the global perspective she honed through her work in Indonesia to her career in international consulting.

“I am really blessed to be able to continue engaging with the Indo-Pacific region professionally and apply the lessons I learned and my language skills in a new way,” Verleysen said. “Personally, I am an advocate for Indonesia and the Islamic faith, simply by sharing stories of my experience with my network in the United States.”