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Lumos Travel Award recipient presents “My Life as a Volunteer in an Eco-Village”

After graduating from Belmont in August 2013 with a degree in math and economics, Zach O’Brien canceled his plans to become an actuary and headed to an ashram in southern India.

He spoke about his experiences in a personal growth convocation at 10 a.m. Friday.

O’Brien’s trip was funded by the Lumos Travel Award, an award designed for Belmont students with a desire to impact local communities abroad.

According to the Lumos website, the award aims to “transform the lives of young adults ages 18 to 26 by enabling them to embark on a self-designed international working adventure.” A message captured by the award’s tagline: “Lumos, travel with a purpose.”

O’Brien spent six months volunteering at an eco-village for Amritapuri, a large humanitarian organization whose efforts involves developing functioning microfarms to yield crops such as herbal tea and fruit.

“I spent a lot of time brainstorming different ideas for the farms, seeing the projects through, gathering data and then asking ‘Did this work well? Is this something that could make a real difference for the village?’” said O’Brien.

One of his most successful ideas was a “food forest,” a garden that consists of vertical levels, with tall fruit trees at the highest level, mid-size fruit trees underneath them and ground vegetables and fruits at the lowest level.

O’Brien has always had a passion for travel. After studying abroad his junior year in Europe at Oxford University, he knew he wanted to experience Asia this time.

“I was thinking Japan, but I wasn’t really sure,” said O’Brien.

That is, until he went home for Christmas.

“I ended up choosing an eco-village in India over a conversation I had with our family gardener.  He told me about his time volunteering for this ashram that developed farming models for poor and polluted villages and actually helped the people grow their own food. It interested me,” said O’Brien.

The Amritapuri organization has a large impact, shaping the lives of both the native villagers and the volunteers.

“I couldn’t believe the sense of abundance I felt even though I was living with almost nothing.  About $4 a day,” said O’Brien.

He admits he actually had a more difficult time adjusting back to life in the U.S. than he did adjusting to the Indian culture.

“I would definitely consider working in India,” said O’Brien.

Currently, O’Brien is living in his hometown in California. He works as a caregiver and math tutor, and he also volunteers at his local Zen center.

The application deadline for the next Lumos award is Nov. 15. O’Brien’s advice to Lumos applicants is to “start brainstorming for project ideas early. It’s the hardest part of the process.” Belmont students interested in the Lumos award can find more information and applications at

This article was written by Krista Walsh.

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