He fell in love and came home with a question often asked by Palo Alto teens who visit developing countries: Why, when these people have so little, do they seem so happy and generous?
In a trip back the following year, Severson's chance meeting with a Tanzanian teenager led to the formation of his nonprofit organization, The School Fund, which will mark its fourth anniversary in November.
Fourteen-year-old John Medo was cutting grass near the hotel where Severson and his mother were staying when the teens struck up a conversation. Medo told Severson he hoped to grow up to be president of Tanzania and invited him to his house. There, Medo's parents explained to Severson that their son, though bright, was not in school that year because the family could not pay the fees.
Since then, Severson has covered tuition — anywhere from $100 to $400 a year — for Medo, now 20 and the "international student body president" of a secondary school in Kampala, Uganda, with aspirations for medical school in India.
A fan of the micro-lending website Kiva, which enables people to lend small amounts of money to projects in developing countries that post online profiles, Severson decided in 2008 he wanted to apply the same concept to grants of school fees.
Two years after he first met Medo, he and his father, Denis Severson, and Paly friend Andrew Perrault launched The School Fund website, inviting people to view profiles of individual students and provide grants. Receipts from schools are collected and posted for donors to view online, he said, as is correspondence from overseas students.
To date, the website has garnered support for 430 students in the developing world, raising $180,000 in person-to-person funding which amounts to "over 800 years of education," Severson said in a recent interview.
"I'd been following Kiva for a while and was impressed with the way the lender really felt a connection with the borrower — you could see their picture and their story. I thought we could do something very similar for education," he said.
"And in education it's even more relevant because, unlike a Kiva borrower, a kid goes to school year after year, so you can build a connection."
Severson and his colleagues, including high school friends Perrault and Roxana Moussavian, have tweaked their ideas along the way.
When all but two of the initial group of 32 student recipients failed their exams to advance to high school, they decided to add a criterion that qualifying students should be in the top 25 percent of their classes.
"The first group was selected purely for financial need, but we needed to ensure the students are taking their education seriously," Severson said. "If there are two students, and you're only able to fundraise for one, you might as well fund the one that's taking it seriously and going on."
And rather than personally doing all the legwork of selecting and posting profiles of needy students, The School Fund decided in 2011 to open its platform to other nonprofits doing similar fundraising but lacking a way for their donors to interact with their students. About 30 non-governmental organizations now post profiles of needy students to The School Fund website, expanding the group's reach beyond Africa to countries like Haiti and India.
Still, Severson has returned to Africa all but one summer since 2006 to visit students and partner organizations — and sometimes to give computer lessons.
Medo, he said, was just one of 71 million children who cannot attend secondary school because they live in poverty.
Since graduating from Paly in 2007, Severson has nurtured The School Fund through his college years at Brown University and his working life at Google, where he works in business development. Except for a trip to Taiwan last November for his grandmother's 90th birthday, he said he's used all his Google vacation for travel back to Africa.
"I fell in love with that place," he said.
"For someone growing up in Palo Alto, it was just really refreshing to see how there are people living elsewhere in the world who have so much less than us yet are still so happy and thankful and generous and willing to share what little they have with people they've just met," he said.
"That's what I thought was special. I didn't have all these silly negative thoughts in my mind, and I was in a positive frame of mind. I was happy, sharing and generous."
The School Fund will mark its fourth birthday Sunday, Nov. 3, with a performance by Grammy-nominated artist Carolyn Malachi at the headquarters of Chegg Inc., in Santa Clara.