In Person: Catherine Knoedler '16

After Catherine Knoedler '16 visited a Nicaraguan village with barely a children’s book to be found, she dedicated her college career to building a library there. The scholarships she received from Sarah Lawrence helped her achieve her goal.

By David W. Major, Photo by Charles Gauthier

Catherine KnoedlerThe summer before her first year at Sarah Lawrence, Catherine Knoedler '16 took part in a mission trip to the remote outpost of Sutiava, Nicaragua. She was stunned by what she saw. Sutiava was beyond her notion of impoverishment: rutted dirt roads, houses made from a patchwork of metal and plastic, sewage coursing through the village when the heavy rains came. But what most astounded Knoedler was that the 40 children who attended the local school had exactly one book to share.

When the mission group was preparing to return home, one child after another approached Knoedler with pleading eyes saying, “Don’t forget me.” And she didn’t. Two months later, Knoedler was back, returning alone to volunteer at the preschool. Unpacking books to give to the children, she was floored by their eager reception. “I will never forget their reactions after opening their first books and seeing the beautiful pictures,” she says.

Settling in at SLC during the fall of 2012 to pursue her interests in child psychology and anthropology, Knoedler knew the driving force for her college education would be the desire to help the people—especially the children—of Sutiava. But she didn’t want to stop with just providing books; she wanted to build a library for the community. She was sure Sarah Lawrence could help her achieve her goal.

As part of her First-Year Studies seminar, “Child/Adolescent Development,” Knoedler worked on the initial stages of the project by writing a mock grant and then raising $4,000 during the summer of 2013. The following summer, she oversaw the completion of the library’s construction—thanks to a $10,000 grant from Davis Projects for Peace—as local craftsmen installed the roof, doors, windows, ceramic floor, and furniture. “It’s a very complicated process to build in a developing country,” Knoedler says. “Patience is of the utmost importance.”

"I like to think that I am a pretty good problem solver. Once I set my mind to something, I rarely look back. Of course, the children were the motivating factor in getting this done.” Catherine Knoedler ’16

Complicated might be an understatement. After all her hard work—getting permits, hiring contractors, and securing building materials—Knoedler watched with dismay as corrupt local officials abruptly confiscated the library and turned it into a store. Refusing to concede defeat, Knoedler bought a nearby parcel and set out to renovate an existing building to create a second library. Knoedler removed all 
the books and learning materials from the first library, and she later made them available again for the children in the new space.

During the fall 2014 semester, which she spent in Nicaragua as part of an independent study project, Knoedler established library programs such as homework tutoring, story hours, and arts and crafts in the new facility. But not long after the second library was opened, thieves broke in and stole tables, chairs, books, and games. Aware 
of the culprits’ identities but unwilling to press charges that might invite retribution, Knoedler replaced all the stolen items with funds donated from friends and family. She also received a few small grants designated for students doing community-based work from The Anita L. Stafford Office of Community Partnerships and Service Learning at Sarah Lawrence.

“I like to think that I am a pretty good problem solver. Once I set my mind to something, I rarely look back. Of course, the children were the motivating factor in getting this done,” Knoedler says.

“Everyone in the community has touched my life, especially the children, who have blossomed,” she emphasizes. “I honestly could not imagine my life without them. I have learned from them as much as they have learned from me, especially their strength and resilience in adverse conditions.”

Knoedler received the 2015 Raymond Seidelman Award for Political Advocacy, a $1,000 prize granted annually to a student who has done the most to advance the cause of economic and social justice. She used the grant to augment the library’s offerings, funding a cultural program, underwriting trips to museums and parks, and bringing visiting artists to the library.

For all her pluck and persistence, it’s unlikely Knoedler would have achieved her goal to build a library (much less two libraries) were it not for the financial support she received from the Sarah and Geoffrey Gund Endowed Presidential Scholarship Fund. “Without being awarded the Gund scholarship,” Knoedler says, “I would not have been able to continue my education at SLC. I am very grateful.”

Each year, the Gund Endowed Presidential Scholarship Fund underwrites the recruitment of two top-ranked students, and it provides the opportunity for an educational experience that encourages recipients to make a difference in the world. Established in 2012 by Trustee Sarah Gund '65 and her husband Geoffrey, the fund underscores the lasting impact that scholarships and other forms of financial aid have made on generations of Sarah Lawrence students.

"I believe deeply in a liberal arts education, and it has been a joy to be involved with this scholarship and satisfying to see students benefiting from it." Sarah Gund ’65

“As a way of learning, I benefited from this education,” Sarah Gund says. “I know that helping the College to maintain the kind of educational pedagogy for which it has been famous is an important goal. I believe deeply in a liberal arts education, and it has been a joy to be involved with this scholarship and satisfying to see students benefiting from it.”

Knoedler learned the value of service work at a young age. Inspired by her parents, Bernd and Linda, who met while volunteering at a homeless shelter in Harlem, she began her own volunteer work at a soup kitchen when she was seven years old. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, she intends to join a nonprofit organization such as UNICEF or Save the Children. “Because I am concentrating in psychology,” says Knoedler, now the godmother of two girls from Sutiava, “I am interested in the socioeconomic and physical environments in which children live and develop. By working for a nonprofit, I can travel to other impoverished environments in order to observe and interact with children.”

Thanks to scholarship support from Sarah Lawrence, she already has an impressive track record.