Andrea Messmer, general manager, Schools for Children of Cambodia
“Cambodia holds a very special place in my heart,” Messmer said. “I have a good command of the language, which certainly helps my productivity, so I can see myself staying here for some time. But, I'm also drawn to Africa, particularly Ghana, which inspired me to take this road less traveled. I feel an obligation to go back.”
Cambodia is a long way from home for most Michigan Engineering alums. For Andrea Messmer (BSE ChE ’99), it WAS home until very recently. From September 2007 to August 2009, she filled the general manager position at the Schools for Children of Cambodia (SCC), an organization that improves access to and quality of basic education -- right now, more than two-thirds of kids in Cambodia don’t complete even a primary education.
“I was very fortunate to grow up in a loving family, to have enough food and clean water, to get an education and to have access to healthcare,” Messmer said. “Many people in the world aren’t so lucky. As a global citizen, I feel a responsibility to do something about it. And there's a selfish side to what I do, too -- I love my work.”
Before SCC, Messmer worked with the International Organization for Migration as a Technical Advisor for the Royal Government of Cambodia, helping to return and reintegrate victims of child-trafficking from Thailand. Messmer also ran a children’s library and coordinated small-scale development projects around Cambodia. In 2009 she plans to attend the University of Birmingham in England to pursue a master’s in Poverty Reduction and Development Management.
Messmer has been involved in public service and volunteer activities since high school. During her Michigan Engineering days, Messmer gave her time to Mott Children’s Hospital and was active in several organizations, including Tau Beta Pi, University Students Against Cancer and Society for Women Engineers. “I loved my experience at Michigan, particularly the diversity,” she said. “I also have fond memories of late nights in the Media Union. I had season tickets for U-M football all four years and went to the Rose Bowl game in ’98.”
Messmer worked for Applied Materials until shortly after 9/11 (“Yes,” she said, “I did have one job where I used my engineering skills!”) At that point she took a two-month leave of absence from work to travel to Ghana where she volunteered to teach science and computer skills to high school students. “Ghana changed my life,” she said. “It was my first time in a developing country and it opened my eyes to poverty and the way that billions live.”
Once she returned, Messmer couldn't get the same satisfaction from her work. “I moved to another position in the company -- in marketing -- thinking I just needed a change of pace,” she said. “But it wasn't until six months or so later that I realized I was after something much more. I left Applied Materials in August 2003 and traveled through Southeast Asia, India and Nepal. By the time I returned, in June 2004, I knew I wanted to work in development.” It's a field in which she intends to build a career. “Education is what I'm most passionate about,” she said.
After six months networking and seeking advice in the U.S., Messmer got what she was looking for. “A gentleman said, ‘Just get out there.’ So I went to Cambodia and took a three-month volunteer assignment with Carpets for Communities. It turned into a two-year stint. After Carpets for Communities, I moved on to International Organization for Migration.”
Work generally fills her nights, but she finds time to run and, living near Angkor Wat, she likes to picnic in the evening in front of the temple ruins. She likes to travel, although she hasn’t had a chance to see as much of Cambodia as she’d like. “There's nothing better than taking to the open road on my motorbike,” she said. “My most memorable trip was an eight-hour drive up to Preah Vihear Temple, at the heart of the recent dispute between Thailand and Cambodia.” She’s planning a budget trip to China, Mongolia and Russia later in the year.
Despite her involvement in activities that most people merely talk about, Messmer does a lot of fairly normal things for a woman of her age and background. She reads (her favorites are The Gate and When Broken Glass Floats, about Cambodia's recent history) and listens to a range of music (she’s particularly fond of classic rock -- Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, U2 and Van Morrison). She has a favorite food (Khmer fish curry soup). And she’s single. (“One of the sacrifices you make working in international development!”) “I have a younger brother, Brody, who lives in North Carolina,” she said. “And my parents are in Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up -- not too far from Ann Arbor.” From Toledo to Cambodia -- she’s lived worlds apart, in distance and in culture, and it’s likely that she’ll carry both in her heart for the rest of her life.