Alumnus Takes Class Experience to New Level


Newswise — MOUNT VERNON, Iowa -- Justin Futrell ’16 knew two things.

He wanted to help the people of Tanzania and he was really good at pull-ups.

While one doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the other, the former Cornell College football player figured out a way to put the two things together to create change.

“My thought was, there are so many awesome charities, and fundraisers, I had to think of something crazy to catch people’s attention,” Futrell said. “My thought was to do something physical.”

Futrell, who lives and works in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, decided he’d do 1,000 pull-ups in a single day, and he’d do it with the goal of raising $25,000 to build a well in a Tanzanian village.

Two years after the Cornellian graduated, he found himself still thinking about the children and families living without clean water there–something he experienced for himself during a 2016 off-campus economics course in rural Africa. In fact, he often replays the vision of a Tanzanian woman filling a bucket with water from a puddle where goat and cows were lying down.

“I had no idea something as basic as not having clean water was such a reality for so many people,” Futrell said. “We hear that developing countries don’t have basic needs, but when you see it with your own eyes, you are so much more connected and it brings so much more understanding.”

The course, Economic Development in Rural Tanzania, was created by Dean Riesen ’79 and Professor of Economics A’amer Farooqi. Both were delighted to hear about Futrell’s fundraising mission, but not surprised.

“For many of the students who participated in the class, the journey to Tanzania was one of defining moments in their Cornell experience,” Farooqi said. “They took considerable personal risk and showed great determination. Our objective was to develop an analytical understanding of the issues and to build empathy. Justin's initiative certainly reflects that. Given the warmth with which we were received, it is not surprising that Justin would want to give back.”

Riesen, who has stayed in contact with Futrell since the 2016 off-campus course to Tanzania, says there’s something about visiting Tanzania and meeting the people that can open your eyes and your heart.

“Justin was very curious about everything and asked a lot of questions on the trip,” Riesen said. “And I think at a certain age when you get exposed to that combination, it really spoke to him and he certainly hasn’t given up.”

Riesen made his first trip to the country about 20 years ago and returns regularly. He created the Tanzania Water Fund, a non-profit for raising funds to build water systems. The businessman from Arizona has now been a part of the construction of 35 systems for villages in Tanzania. He says without a well, the women and children spend four to five hours a day searching for water.

“When you bring a water project in, a big return on investment is you are saving between half a million and a million labor hours in a year,” Riesen said. “Those labor hours get put back into their families and economy. The productivity of the family farm goes way up if the spouse isn’t fetching water, and if the children can go to school–there’s a huge benefit long term.”

The ’79 alumnus—who was in the same Beta Omicron fraternity at Cornell as Futrell—says Justin’s fundraiser is just one of many examples of the Cornell experience stretching beyond the Hilltop and beyond graduation.

“I think it’s a great example of experiential learning that an alumnus comes back to co-teach a course in Tanzania with one of the professors,” Riesen said. “One student gets so motivated that only two years after graduating from college he has raised $25,000 to do a well project in a developing country. I think when you put that all together, it’s a unique Cornell experience. It’s indicative of many things that go on at Cornell.”

Thanks to Futrell’s fundraiser, the village of Kinyeto will have a well installed over the summer. After countless hours of physical training, three months of fundraising, and 310 donations, Futrell hopes his efforts help families live better lives.

“I just want all the kids to be able to run up and get clean water so they can spend more time at school and go about their day like it’s not a big deal,” Futrell said. “At a human level, it seems everyone should have access to clean water.”

Even after 1,000 pullups, it’s clear his heart is bigger than his biceps.

About Cornell College: 

Cornell College, a selective liberal arts college in Mount Vernon, Iowa, offers a distinctive One Course At A Time curriculum, immersing students in a single academic subject during each 18-day block. With a student body from 47 states and 19 foreign countries, and renowned faculty, speakers, and entertainers, Cornell offers the world from its hilltop campus.

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