Sarah Needham (BSBA '11)

Fisher introduced alumna Sarah Needham (BSBA ’11) to social entrepreneurship, and a passion for public service was born. Her courageous decision to pursue an unpredictable path in life has defined the course of her successful career.

Sarah Needham (BSBA '11)It was the summer before her junior year when Fisher alumna Sarah Needham interned for Nestlé. As corporate executives talked through their illustrious careers, she could not help but think “there is a bigger world out there.”

Although a career dedicated to launching new consumer products initially intrigued her, Needham recognized that it did not offer the type of impact she wanted to make.

“I wanted to do something that was a good fit for me and that utilized the skills I had learned at Fisher,” she said.

Fisher had introduced her to the concept of social entrepreneurship. From there, an interest in public service was born.

Needham’s father had completed the Peace Corps program in the 1970s and she became eager to try it herself. The application process was long and she watched as “my friends got good jobs out of Cohort and other programs.”

But Nancy Lahmers, the Cohort director at the time, was very supportive: “She taught me that it was okay to take a different, unpredictable path,” Needham said.

Needham was accepted into the program and assigned to spend the next two years in a small village with a local family in Georgia.

“I had to explain to peers that I was going to the country Georgia – not the state,” she added.

Needham’s passion for public service and her degree from Fisher secured a job in non-government organization development. Her host ran a nonprofit committed to finding employment for women. Georgia’s culture is traditional, leaving few opportunities for women, especially those who are widowed. The organization operated on grant funding, and it was Needham’s goal to make the operation more sustainable; she utilized a grant from the United States Agency for International Development and several foreign donors to build a house that would become a lasting farm business.

Sarah Needham (BSBA '11)Needham admitted that home life was an adjustment.

“You cannot be there for your friends’ weddings and special events,” she said. “That is tough when you are in your early twenties. It was very cold in the winter and there is no electricity or water, but you do surprise yourself as to how fast you can adjust to those physical conditions.”

The key is to buy into the culture. Learning the language was a logical start. With no strict work schedule to abide by, she had the chance to work on her host’s wine farm and revel in their family traditions.

“Your host family becomes your protector. My American family did come out to meet them and see how I was living. They felt better seeing me have a community there,” she recalled.

As she observed the developing country up close, Needham pondered attending law school. Given its importance in setting the foundations of society, an understanding of law would open the door for building up communities that lack resources.

It took two months for Needham’s mother to get LSAT study materials to her in Georgia by mail. The exam is not offered often and when it is offered abroad, it must be taken at the U.S. embassy located in the country.

“When I got there, I realized I did not have a No. 2 pencil. I remember asking an embassy worker for one and studying as chickens ran around my feet,” she said.

Needham had a month at home before starting law school at the University of Denver and she “almost forgot English. I was very fortunate to get a full-ride to law school after not earning a salary for two years.”

Upon readjusting to life in America, Needham felt that her journey gave her a different perspective.

“I felt calmer at law school,” she said. “I had the perspective of ‘no matter what happens, this is not the end of the world.’”

After receiving her law degree from the University of Denver in 2017, she completed the bar exam. Today, she is a lawyer for the United States Air Force.

Needham may not have recognized it at the time, but her bold move to Georgia set the direction for her career.

“I was able to apply what I learned in school. I wanted to understand why our country is so well off and what we can do to help others,” she explained.

It was the nudge Needham received from the Cohort community, a program founded on the principles of experiential learning and self-discovery, which gave her the courage she needed.

“You are stronger than you think you are,” she said. “Keep pushing yourself and you will see what you are capable of.”

The views expressed in this article are those of Ms. Needham and do not represent the views of the United States Air Force or the United States Department of Defense.