After traveling to Southeast Asia and coming face-to-face with the horrors of poor sanitation, Sydney Kamen founded So Others Are Protected (SOAP), a nonprofit that has given more than 50,000 bars of recycled soap to underdeveloped communities.
Sydney overcame tragedy at a young age; at 14, she lost her brother, and at 15, her father, who battled with mental health issues, abandoned her family. Now a rising junior at Dartmouth studying geography, global health and international development, Sydney is a State Department Scholar, serves as an ROTC cadet for the U.S. Army and is an Ambassador for the Peace Corps.
What has kept you so passionate, focused and motivated when dealing with challenges in your personal life?
So much of my passion is repurposed and reframed frustration and disappointment. When life starts throwing its curve balls, I seek refuge in my studies, passions and interests.
Passions can be challenging to separate from other interests or subjects of excitement and areas of ability. It has taken me a long to time to get past the expectations of others and trying to meet them. In challenging and stressful times, knowing myself, my needs and goals has helped me prioritize and stay motivated and focused.
What inspired you to create your organization, So Others Are Protected (SOAP)?
Having grown up with the privilege of taking my constant access to sanitation for granted, and living in an area where a child’s death before the age of five due to diarrhea or respiratory infection was nonexistent, my exposure to this reality along the Thailand-Myanmar border when I was a freshman in high school blew my mind.
I had always been interested in health, and aspired to make a difference in that field. But disease prevention seemed as if it could only be done with vaccines, novel antibiotics, or an advanced degree – of which I did not possess at age 15. However, seeing this injustice firsthand drove me to try and create my own solution: SOAP.
You wear many hats—you’re the founder of a nonprofit, you serve as an ROTC U.S. Army Cadet and have other service, academic and leadership roles. How do you balance all of this with being a college student?
This juggling act is something I have yet to master, and I feel that it is important to be candid about this reality. Some weeks are easier than others. Some nights are longer and harder than I would like. And sometimes my responsibilities and needs get poorly prioritized, overlooked, neglected or even lost in the chaos that looks so good on paper. Perfection is a fallacy. There is no catch-all algorithm or magic breakfast ritual. It’s trial and error, a marathon complete with hills and valleys. But my running of it is made more possible by the love, support, opportunity, and friendship I have been privileged to receive by mentors, professors, and friends.
How do you plan to continue expanding SOAP in the future?
One of the beauties of the SOAP model is its ability to be tailored to meet the specific needs of communities globally. I plan to expand SOAP in the coming months and years through building new partnerships (with communities and hotels) and expanding our regions of impact. Using the established soap recycling platform as a mechanism to promote access to basic sanitation and economic empowerment, SOAP has recently launched a new effort to integrate sexual and reproductive health programming and is also looking towards working with women to break into the global market with the sale of soaps.
What advice do you have for ambitious collegiettes who are struggling with loss or other hardships?
There is no shame in asking for help, and stepping away from something or declining an opportunity is not a sign of weakness. I have learned firsthand of the admirable strength it takes to acknowledge your own needs and limits, and the courage it takes to respect them.
Loss and hardship is inevitable. We are all bound to struggle at some point during our college careers, and fall flat on our faces. So, surround yourself with people who you care about and can trust. You are not as alone as you may think. The indescribable stress and vulnerability that come with experiencing a loss or hardship is human. And while we may have been expected to be, or held ourselves to the expectation of perfection as collegiate-bound students, we have to acknowledge the absurdity and consequences of such a belief and embrace the reality of our human status — and a part of that is recognizing that everyone is grappling with their own struggles, even if it doesn’t look like it.
I, too, have tried the fake smile strategy, keeping my challenges to myself, and convincing the world that I was a strong and triumphant woman capable of it all. But speaking for myself, this approach is even more isolating. I have challenged myself to be more honest and vulnerable with the people I love and trust. Perhaps if we were all a little more open and honest with ourselves, and the people we care about, we could do a better job of supporting each other in trying times.
We can only do our best. Sometimes the best you have to offer is disappointing. But that is something we each have to work to get over. Because at the end of the day, a disappointing grade on an exam or paper is not worth your happiness, health or sanity.
What’s the most inspirational advice someone has ever given you?
On a routine basis, my first sergeant will say: “If you see something that makes you think ‘someone should do something’ or ‘someone should say something,’ I expect you to do or say that something.” This inspiring notion, presented and reframed to me by a variety of people, tells me not only that I can make a difference, it is my responsibility to do so.
Who in your life most inspires you?
I am inspired by the courageous men and women who brave the fight for change, for the rights of the oppressed, for justice, against all odds, obstacles and at the risk of their own lives over a lifetime..
What are your top goals and priorities post-graduation?
Upon the completion of my undergraduate degree, I plan to serve in the U.S. Army reserves and work towards an MPH specializing in global health disparities. Through the experiences and knowledge offered to me through my academic and military training, I hope to continue to grow and improve SOAP. In doing so, I hope to address overlooked and headline issues alike, including access to healthcare, especially historically marginalized and vulnerable populations, from a multidisciplinary background of knowledge and humility.
As an officer, I hope to lead to the best of my ability, and in doing so, encourage and empower women, fight bigotry, and promote acceptance and understanding. This is an interesting time to be entering the U.S. military, however, to me, patriotism is not a matter of partisanship, rather about love of country. I am dedicated to being the best officer I can be, serving my country, and defending our constitution in every arena. Once I complete my military service, or perhaps as a part of it, I hope to pursue an MD and dedicate my career to global health.
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Grateful. Determined. Adventurous. Curious. Hardworking.