A year of living fearlessly

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TV series follows UCLA grad doing nonprofit volunteer work in 13 countries

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UCLA alum Snejana Daily traveled to 13 countries over the course of a year for "Operation Change," a series now airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Her most memorable experience was helping to rebuild a village in Sevisa, Papua New Guinea, that had been destroyed by tribal warfare.

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Being able to work on community projects around the world was a life-changing experience, Daily said.

If you tuned in to the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) on Monday nights, you might have seen UCLA public policy alumna Snejana Daily building a house in post-earthquake Haiti, working on a community center in war-torn Colombia neighborhood or digging water wells in a Tanzanian village – all part of a new show called “Operation Change.”

If you haven’t seen the show, there are three more episodes yet to air showing Daily in action.

The 10-part series, which airs on OWN, follows the founders of the Starkey Hearing Foundation — Bill and Tani Austin and their son Steven Sawalich — as they travel to the world’s most impoverished countries delivering hearing aids and partnering with local organizations to empower and improve communities around the world. The documentary series tells the stories of people facing challenges across the globe and highlights the work of agencies hoping to make a difference.

Along with the Austins and Sawalich are two volunteers who assist with the projects — and Daily, who graduated with a master’s in public policy from the Luskin School of Public Affairs in 2012, is one of them.

Participating in the show took Daily to 13 countries over the course of a year. And while this could have delayed graduation from her policy program — ultimately it didn’t — she felt it also meant fulfilling a life purpose.

“There was an email sent out — I’m assuming to the whole cohort -— and the subject line was ‘Amazing opportunity but may delay graduation,’” Daily recalled. “I was probably the only crazy person who opened it, but I knew this was everything I ever wanted to do. I was determined to get this position and to graduate on time.”

In the email were details of an open casting call for a show that would send chosen participants to different countries to help fit hearing aids and partner with local nonprofits. The show was hatched by the Starkey Hearing Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, which challenged Starkey to expand its pledge to distribute 100,000 hearing aids per year around the world to something that could have greater visibility and impact.

After several rounds of rigorous auditions and interviews, Daily was selected to become an official “Starkey volunteer.” Her role was to complete projects in each country, interface with the community, research the places, learn what it’s like to live in those locations and then tell that story on camera.

“They were looking for people who were passionate about making a difference in the world, inspired by other cultures, eager to learn about other places and people, and able to speak to the issues, whether cultural or political,” Daily explained. Adding lustre to her resume was the fact that she was a graduate student in the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs specializing in nonprofit organizations.

Daily said the show was the perfect opportunity to take everything that she was learning in the classroom and see it in action. More importantly, the yearlong commitment gave Daily the opportunity she was looking for — to make an impact on the world.

She always knew that she wanted to do work that was “people-focused,” but it wasn’t until her husband, UCLA alumnus Lieutenant Mark Daily, died while on active duty in Iraq in 2007 that she decided she wanted to work overseas. She was 21 years old at the time.

“While I was working at a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, my husband was deployed and passed away. And at that particular moment in time, I really got to reevaluate what I wanted to do with my life,” Daily said. “When you’re faced with your own mortality at such an early age, it makes things have a little more gravity. And I felt like I was still alive, and he was such an epic human being that I had a responsibility to carry out his legacy as well as live for the both of us.”

It was then that Daily committed to living without any barriers and fear. After spending time recovering from the tragedy, she began looking for organizations that would send her abroad and to make her life count. To start the process, she enrolled in the UCLA public policy program. And then this project presented itself.

The first episode of Operation Change, which aired last month, opened on Haiti and followed the struggle of two Haitian families. Subsequent episodes have taken place in Israel, Palestine, Tanzania, Colombia and Lebanon.

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Daily’s favorite experience was in Sevisa, Papua New Guinea, where she assisted in rebuilding a village destroyed by tribal warfare, built underground latrines, planted trees that were burnt down by a warring tribe and helped harvest and sell coffee beans to assist a small business.

“The people were so open and welcoming, and they have a tradition of holding hands if they respect you. So everywhere I went someone would walk with me and hold my hand. It was really beautiful,” Daily said.

In addition, the village was made up of mostly women and children, because many of the men had been killed as a result of 15 years of tribal warfare with a neighboring tribe.

“It was incredible to see a group of strong women step up to become community leaders and rebuild their lives in such a powerful way,” Daily said. “And, obviously, the other thing that we connected on was the idea that people all over the world experience the same pain. When you go through the tragedy of losing somebody, there’s just that unspoken understanding and connection and I felt like they just got it.”

Daily said the experience was “life-changing.” Since the show ended, she has been working as a freelance producer on a genre of projects that she calls “socially conscious media.”

“My strength is connecting the dots and telling the human story,” Daily said. “You can shift the dynamic of policy by working directly within the structure, but you also need the support of people. Media raise awareness, catalyze action and work in support of policy change.”

This story originally appeared on the Luskin School of Public Affairs website. You can catch up on past episodes by going to www.operationchange.com/. Blog posts written by Daily also accompany each online episode. There are three more episodes in the series to air at 10/9 central. You can also follow along on social media by using #operationchange.

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