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An Interview With Adam Swartzbaugh

By Lili Martinez

Adam Swartzbaugh came to Kenyon last Friday, Feb. 17 to give a talk, “Getting Into the Right Kind of Trouble and Back Out Again,” about his experiences traveling in South Asia and founding the GENESIS Network, an organization that uses social media to sponsor economic development, education and child rescue projects in Burma and Thailand, among other countries. He graduated with a dual degree from Brown University in 2009 and is currently training in the U.S. Army to deploy to Afghanistan this June.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Kenyon Collegian: You just came from Italy, right? What were you doing there?

Adam Swartzbaugh: Right now, I’m assigned as a platoon leader for a long-range reconnaissance and surveillance unit called the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team. It’s a brigade of paratroopers, parachutists and infantry soldiers, and my job right now is training the men in my unit, and then ultimately I’ll deploy with them in June and lead them through whatever operations we’re tasked with once we get down range [in Afghanistan].

TKC: Were you interested in joining the Army after you decided to found your organization (the GENESIS network), or did that happen at the same time?

AS: When I was working in southeast Asia, I had developed a desire to join the Army and start these organizations in response to the need that I saw in those countries that were related to human trafficking and child prostitution and slave labor. At the time, I really didn’t have ways to solve those problems because I was incapable of overcoming the obstacles that I had to in order to actually take a piece out of these issues. So joining the Army was a way to start to develop some of those technical skills to be able to handle difficult situations. Joining the officer corps is essentially a big lesson in leadership and organizational management, and I was able to take what I was learning there and apply it to the projects, which were targeting these issues that I had originally wanted to resolve.

TKC: So you worked concurrently starting your Army training and also getting your organizations off the ground?

AS: When I came back to the U.S. from Asia, I first wanted to get back into school. I had originally left school because I wasn’t interested in studying anything in particular. Once I figured out [what I wanted to study], I was all about it, and I wanted to come back and do a lot of research to see how I could solve some of these problems and how I could get started, and I also joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps [ROTC]. Up until the time I graduated college and commissioned as an officer, I was working on developing these projects and doing all my military training to become an officer. It required a lot of coffee to finish all of it, that’s for sure.

TKC: When you decided to leave your first school (Hobart College), what made you decide to go to Asia?

AS: I kind of did one of those spin-the-globe things and put my finger on a spot, and that’s where it landed – Vietnam. That worked out pretty well for me, because I wanted to get as far away as possible and experience something as new as possible. At first I actually … went to Europe, figured I’d get some traveling in before I went to the other side of the world, and cycled through a bunch of countries in Europe, and got the travel bug in me, and came back ready to do some more. That’s when I left for Vietnam.

TKC: You were in a non-profit in Vietnam, and then you also ended up in Thailand?

AS: Right. When I got to Vietnam, the plan was to do a photo program there. When that finished, I didn’t want to leave, because I was just starting to like Vietnam. So I talked to the U.S. Embassy to see if they had any jobs, and I talked to the United States Agency for International Development [USAID] and they ended up connecting me with a job through their subsidiary organization that worked with disability rights. A couple months into being there I started getting involved with some of their project development for vocational training centers for people with disabilities and handicaps. It was completely different from anything I’d done before and it felt rewarding, so I ended up staying there for quite a while.

Then the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami hit in Thailand, and I went back to the guy I had originally met at USAID and said, ‘Hey, I’d like to go help out in Thailand; I have some construction background.’ I asked if he could connect me with a project there, and he pointed me in the right direction. So I was in Vietnam, got on my motorcycle and drove to Thailand. After a couple weeks of being there, I could see how much difference each person that was there was making. After a couple months, I was asked to manage the project because I was getting along well with the locals and was picking up the language.

TKC: I read an article that said you met a little girl who was a prostitute and you had a lightbulb moment.

AS: Yes. There were a lot of those lightbulb moments in the past few years; that one was while I was working on this reconstruction project. I had to go back and forth to Burma to renew my visa every 30 days, and I ended up meeting a bunch of Burmese individuals who later became my friends. They started to enlighten me about some of the problems that were present in that area having to do with human trafficking and child prostitution. It was hard to believe something like this could be going on, a now global, multi-billion-dollar-a-year business in trafficking people.

They showed me the inner workings of this whole operation, as much as they could without anybody knowing I was there. At one point, one of these individuals took me into a brothel because I wanted to see it. Going inside was just that lightbulb moment – when you’re walking through what felt like a dungeon and you see these little cubicle rooms, all that’s inside is a small bed and maybe a night stand. Some rooms are empty. In some rooms there’s what you would imagine from your typical hooker off the street in America, and in some rooms there were children.

In one room there was a girl in particular who looked like she was eight or nine years old and she was just kind of staring from the doorway at me. It kind of scared me for a second, because she looked like a zombie, like the undead or something, [and] was standing there with these big brown eyes as if the soul had been ripped out of them.

The reality is that if you want to completely destroy a human being, turn them into a prostitute as a child and you’ve accomplished that.

So it was really at that moment where I wanted to start burning things down and blowing things up, because it was one of the worst things I had ever seen. But I didn’t have the capability, the wherewithal, to do something like that. So that was one of those moments when I realized I need to be able to handle situations like this and respond to them, and I also wanted to do something in the long term that was going to root out whatever the source of this problem is.

So that’s why I went in the direction of education, because you’re creating long-term results, getting at the root of the problem of lack of social and economic opportunities and then pulling in children from communities that are at risk or refugees or orphans and giving them the resources and opportunities to continue their life.

TKC: So in joining the Army, you feel that you have the infrastructure you need that you didn’t have yet as a student at Brown University?

AS: In the Army it’s a yes-sir, no-sir environment, but it’s also very much execution-focused. It gives you a framework for what you need to make happen, and it provides benchmarks along the way. It provided structure for my free-floating ideas and the ingenuity that’s over on the Brown side. At first it was kind of tough to bring these two worlds together, but once I did, I found they wove together quite well. Today, these projects are the heart and soul of what I’m trying to do to address these issues, and the Army sort of provides a framework within which I can bring these ideas to fruition.

TKC: Is there anything you would like to communicate to Kenyon students about your mission or how we can change the world too?

AS: I would just say that sometimes we get caught up in this linear pursuit through life. We get through our education, towards a career and some kind of job that we can hold on to, and making money and all these things are a means to some other end that we haven’t yet identified. So I think if we can sort of figure out what our passion is, what we really care about, [we can] work backwards from there.

Because if you really care about something and love something and you know what that is, figuring out how you can accomplish it, how you’re going to get there, is a piece of cake.

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