Architecture grad, country of Tanzania
find each other through Norwich © Oct. 9, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

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Music: Kevin MacLeod ( Gavrish used this footage in a video documenting Norwich’s first full trip to Tanzania in June 2007.

The phrase “making a difference” still carries great meaning in a world that is often hostile to the dreams of idealists. To Moriah Gavrish, a 2007 graduate of Norwich University’s School of Architecture & Art, it’s the cornerstone of her world view.

While working on her architecture thesis, Gavrish was able to fuse professional ambition with an interest in serving others, and include her “hobby” of videography, all in the east African country of Tanzania. Several years later, she’s also had the unusual experience of seeing the thesis, “Architecture of Self-Reliance,” brought to life.

Class of 2007 architecture graduate Moriah Gavrish and friends in Tanzania in 2009.

  Gavrish on a 2009 trip.

“It’s been said that most architecture is for about two percent of the world’s population,” said Gavrish. “My thesis project opened my eyes and introduced me to the world of architecture of the other 98 percent of the world.”

When she started the one-year master’s program after four years as an undergraduate, Gavrish knew she wanted her thesis to focus on a vocational school set in a developing country. Taking a break from her studies, she made her first trip to Tanzania. That December 2006 service-learning experience has progressed to four journeys to the country, and her ideas have become part of a proposal to build a cultural media and education center in Tanzania.

“My thesis imagined a facility where Tanzanians could showcase and document, through music and video, their artistic culture to the rest of the world while subsequently turning the music and video into a marketable media form to foster self reliance in the developing country,” said Gavrish. “The idea of my thesis was that whatever media is created could then be sold as a program to the Discovery Channel to generate income as well as allow Tanzanians to share their unique culture with the rest of the world. As the world becomes smaller, a lot of indigenous cultural traditions are being lost.”

The purpose of Gavrish’s first journey was to prepare for future service trips by Norwich’s NU Visions, a service-travel program, and it fit perfectly with her thesis plans. She and another student performed needs assessment for the village of Pommern with Nicole DiDomenico, director of Norwich’s Center for Civic Engagement, which runs NU Visions.

After completing her thesis, Gavrish returned to Tanzania with the first full student group in June 2007. She spent her time working with the headmaster of the local secondary school to design a new medical clinic and a master plan.

After returning to the states, Gavrish found herself trying to reconcile her ambitions as an architect with a desire to perform service.

“My mom would say, ‘You’re confused about whether you want to design the soup kitchen or direct the soup kitchen,’” she said.

While looking for opportunities with architectural nonprofits, Gavrish came across the website for Art in Tanzania, a nongovernmental organization with a mission to help the country’s poor. Art in Tanzania didn’t have an architectural program, but offered Gavrish a video editing internship in Dar es Salaam, the commercial hub and largest city. Returning to Tanzania in January 2008, she produced videos featuring local musicians, and even named Art in Tanzania’s music label, Mzuka Records.

Five days after returning from her third Tanzanian journey, Gavrish accompanied DiDomenico to Nicaragua as a videographer. After returning to her home in Derry, N.H., she returned to work at a small architecture firm, and quickly found a new opportunity.

Earlier, she had made a presentation about her thesis to Art in Tanzania Director Kari Korhonen. This led to her quick return to work on a proposed facility similar to the Cultural Media and Documentation Center she had envisioned earlier. The Mapinga project is to include a nursery/primary school and vocational learning center designed to generate revenue while documenting Tanzanian culture.

Without Gavrish’s contributions, the project would not have progressed as far as it has, said Korhonen.

“Her impact this time was to organize the drawings and set up the Mapinga art and education center,” he said. “That’s a task that would certainly have been too expensive for our NGO to finish with commercial architects.”

Gavrish said she can’t credit Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military college, enough for the opportunities she’s had.

“It was the perfect college for me. I was able to thrive academically and through extracurricular activities,” said Gavrish, who was student government president for three years.

“[Moriah] has unparalleled drive and ambition. She’s a perfectionist but doesn’t let that paralyze her,” said DiDomenico. “Not only is she a leader; not only is she service driven and have good intentions, but ... follows through to the very end.”

The Mapinga project is working its way through permit processes while Art in Tanzania raises money. Gavrish hopes to return to see the project through. She is weighing job offers from two Tanzanian architecture firms, but is caught in a bureaucratic Catch-22.

“One agency says I need a work permit to get a job and another says I can’t get a work permit unless I have a job,” she said.

Despite difficulties, Gavrish remains excited about the project.

“It’s every architecture student’s dream to have their thesis project, even a variation of it, be considered,” she said. “To see it come to life is amazing.”