Sharon Bylenga ’81
Woman on a Global Mission
By Nanci Adler ’81
Sharon Bylenga’s first journey after Rollins was to the impoverished West African country of Guinea-Bissau, where she worked for Operation Crossroads Africa constructing a freshwater well in a rural fishing village with a team of volunteers. Twenty-eight years later, Bylenga finds herself back in West Africa—but no longer digging wells. Today, she works as project manager for the West African operations of Fondation Hirondelle, a global nonprofit based in Lausanne, Switzerland that builds and operates independent news radio stations in crisis and conflict areas.
Bylenga, who studied political science as an undergraduate, credits Rollins for opening her eyes to global concerns. Her subsequent volunteer work in Africa made her acutely aware of the complexity of food and hunger issues, and prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in agricultural economics at Michigan State University. “My liberal arts education helped to clarify the defining question that has guided my career: Why does human hunger and starvation persist on such a massive scale?” she said. Her master’s thesis was chosen by Michigan State’s Department of Agricultural Economics as the top paper of 1985.
Armed with two degrees and lots of determination, Bylenga embarked on a career path that took her first to Rwanda, where she worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) helping to develop food standards and understand food-price integration during drought periods. For the next 10 years, she worked on international agricultural trade negotiations as a diplomat for the U.S. Department of Agriculture—a role that took her from Washington, DC to Geneva and Rome. Later, she consulted for the United Nations and the World Bank, analyzing and evaluating emergency farm reconstruction projects and food-security issues in several countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Since 1997, Bylenga and her family have been settled in the French-speaking village of Bursins, Switzerland. From this serene and bountiful setting, she travels often to impoverished and crisis-ridden countries such as East Timor and, more recently, Liberia and Sierra Leone. She currently manages the foundation’s latest project, Cotton Tree News (CTN), a radio program that broadcasts news and information nationwide in five languages to populations with a great need for a reliable and independent press. “The foundation’s objective is to create a fully functioning nationwide news-reporting service in all the national languages, ensuring public access to a professional free press,” Bylenga said. In a country like Sierra Leone—among the poorest in the world, just recovering from a decade of civil war, and with an illiteracy rate of over 60 percent, “Radio is the single most powerful tool in the peace and reform process,” she said.
After a stint on the job, the peaceful Bursins, nestled on the north shore of Lake Geneva and surrounded by rolling vineyards, is a welcoming sight for Bylenga. She is so taken by the beauty of the area that she recently collaborated with a Swiss neighbor on a book documenting the flora of the local countryside.
But just as vivid in her mind and heart is the image of world hunger, a subject she continues to research. “I have been fortunate to have a life of travel and adventure, but I remain committed to finding solutions to this complex global problem.