Student Travelers Reflect on Global Service

This summer, seven Bowdoin students received Global Citizens Grant travel funds to work with grassroots organizations in communities around the world. Their destinations included Ghana, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, Nicaragua, South Africa and Zambia.

Before leaving on their 10-week trips, the grantees participated in an Omprakash seminar series coordinated by McKeen Center staff and educators that looked into issues Americans face when they go abroad to volunteer. In the seminar sessions, run by past Global Citizens Grant recipients, participants discussed issues such as disparities in privilege, the problems of dropping in briefly to work with vulnerable people, such as children, and whether “voluntourism” might do more harm than good.

“We focus on what the students will learn from their experiences, and we emphasize humility,” said Janice Jaffe, the McKeen Center’s interim director. “It’s hubristic to think you’re going to somehow save the world, but it’s not hubristic to want to learn about another part of the world and engage with a community in an ethical manner.”

In their own words, the Global Citizens answered a few questions about their international experiences.

What lesson(s) about international engagement did you learn? Is there a moment or experience that illustrates this?

Oriana Farnham ’15 (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) worked with the Little Rose Shelter in Saigon. The shelter provides care for girls who are survivors of sexual abuse and trafficking.

Oriana Farnham ’15 (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) worked with the Little Rose Shelter in Saigon. The shelter provides care for girls who are survivors of sexual abuse and trafficking.

Oriana Farnham: Language was on my mind a lot this summer. I first arrived in Vietnam only knowing my numbers, some foods, and “I love you, mom!” in Vietnamese. When I got to Saigon one of the first things I did was find a Vietnamese tutor so I could begin to communicate better with my host family and the girls where I was working. I have seen many English-speaking Americans’ frustration with people in the U.S. who don’t speak English (or don’t speak English well)…I found, however, that the Vietnamese people I met, rather than being frustrated with my lack of fluency, were pleasantly surprised that I was learning Vietnamese. Many Americans and Europeans in Saigon, they told me, would live there for extended periods and never learn the language. And I was only there for the summer? Wow. Many people praised my fast learning, and almost everyone I encountered accommodated my butchered pronunciation, broken sentences, and terrible miming with generosity and humor. (In one particularly memorable encounter a saleswoman in a huge market for sewing goods helped me find a stall that sold elastic after I said “I’m looking for this thing” in Vietnamese and pulled at the waistband of the pants I was wearing.) On a day-to-day basis I was benefitting from the legacy of colonialism, Western cultural imperialism, and the privileges that come with being an American. It made me question the way many Americans treat people in our country who don’t speak standard English or don’t speak it fluently.

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Jesse Ortiz ’16 (Kathmandu, Nepal) volunteered with Social Development Center Nepal (SDCN). SDCN is a children’s home, currently caring for fifteen children whose parents are unable to support them.

Jesse Ortiz: I learned the value of mutually sharing culture. While it was incredible to explore the children’s culture [at the Social Development Center Nepal, a home for orphans and unwanted children] and visiting places they’ve been, I loved seeing how excited they were to experience unfamiliar things. One day, my fellow volunteer and I took the children to a swimming pool, where they rarely go, and I had a great time teaching them how to swim.

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Alex Thomas ’16 (Lusaka, Zambia) worked with the Rwanda Zambia HIV Research Group.

Alex Thomas: I learned that understanding and engaging different nationalities begins with embracing who you are. Every one of us has a national, ethnic, and religious identity that for better or worse defines who we are to the outside world. Coming to terms with how you relate to that outwardly perceived identity is the first step in learning how others relate to theirs. In Zambia being a white Christian American carried with it its own connotations and meanings. I would frequently get asked if I was a missionary or if I could take someone with me when I went home. …This questioning made me think about the assumptions I placed on the Zambians around me. So just as I had to explain to some Zambians that I met that I wasn’t a missionary or a tourist on safari, I equally learned from them that not all Zambians spoke one language, lived in a village, or wanted Western aid money.

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Describe a moment of clarity. This could be about the job you had, the organization you were involved with, a person in your life this summer, the culture you were in, yourself — anything.

Meghan Bellerose ’17 (Kpando, Ghana) worked with UNiTED, an organization that seeks to provide health education and promote health-seeking behavior among children and young adults in the region.

Meghan Bellerose ’17 (Kpando, Ghana) worked with UNiTED, an organization that seeks to provide health education and promote health-seeking behavior among children and young adults in the region.

Meghan Bellerose: My second week in Kpando, I got lost looking for a house where I was supposed to meet the director of one of the local schools. I never did manage to find the house, but during my wandering, I met a woman named Georgina, who was both the most influential person I got to know in Ghana and also the loveliest. After that first meeting, I came to see Georgina almost every day. At first I went because Georgina is an elderly woman in a wheelchair living in a village where disability is not widely accepted or discussed. She didn’t have much company despite her sweet, caring nature. Each morning I would go to Georgina’s, and together we would do exercises that the director of UNiTED showed me that would help her restore strength in her legs. Meanwhile, she taught me expressions in Ewe and told me stories about her life in Ghana. It was in these moments that I was most at home in Kpando and felt a strong sense of clarity about why I had chosen to travel.

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David Silverman ’15 (Cape Town, South Africa) worked with the Amy Biehl Foundation, an education-based nonprofit that runs after-school programs to develop and empower youth living in the challenged and vulnerable communities.

David Silverman ’15 (Cape Town, South Africa) worked with the Amy Biehl Foundation, an education-based nonprofit that runs after-school programs to develop and empower youth living in the challenged and vulnerable communities.

David Silverman: (Cape Town, South Africa) One moment of clarity occurred when I was talking with other community members acting as facilitators during the children’s four-day camp. This was during the children’s school holiday, when our normal after-school programs were exchanged for daily programs at the school centers. The days were incredibly busy and hectic. I kept the programs on schedule and the kids together, as well as ran a number of workshops and led hikes. At the end of the day, the older male facilitators and I slept in a cabin, where we would talk fairly late into the night. One of my friends, who was 21, was a marimba facilitator. Talking with the guys in a more casual setting, we were able to discuss some aspects of Xhosa culture that I knew so little about, like going to the Mountain/Bush for manhood initiation, or going to certain people to buy curses, love potions, etc. I loved learning about this, and reflecting on how to understand my own beliefs in relation to theirs, and how my friends balanced their cultural and community beliefs with the needs and factors of going about their daily lives.

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Oriana Farnham ’15 (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

Oriana Farnham: There was a Saturday in June when I found myself 200 kilometers outside of Saigon at an AIDS/HIV hospital on a remote hilltop in the middle of the jungle. The walls around the hospital compound were eerily crumbled and mossy and topped with barbed wire (sadly, I later learned, to keep the patients from running away, since HIV-positive people are highly stigmatized in Vietnam). I didn’t know in which direction I was from Saigon or what the nearest town was; I had no WiFi or cell service and I hadn’t told my parents what I was doing over the weekend before I left. …I was with a priest and crew of nuns and sisters-in-training who visited patients at the hospital every weekend. I had only been studying Vietnamese for a week and a half. I remember sitting on one of around 12 beds in the room one of the sisters had shown me to and slowly taking stock of all this information. I had never been more out of my comfort zone, and I had never felt so far away from home. But, since there was literally not a single thing I could do to change the situation, I figured I may as well engage. I helped set the tables for dinner, I ate with everyone and tried to understand and participate in their conversations, and afterwards I helped the sisters do the dishes in massive water tubs outside. I went with everyone to the mass the priest gave for the hospital’s Catholic patients and tried to sing from the hymn book in Vietnamese. On the walk back to our room I had a life chat (in English interspersed with Vietnamese) with one of the sisters-in-training. When I woke up in the morning I caught the end of a World Cup match with the priest on the tiny TV in the kitchen. It’s hard now to describe the setting and the situation — it was maybe the most foreign experience I could imagine myself in and I don’t know how to relate it to others — but once I had accepted my circumstances, I remember feeling at peace. I felt connected with people whose lives, motivations, and goals seemed so so different from my own, and I briefly became a part of their community and their work at the hospital. After that day I never felt as isolated in Vietnam because I realized it is possible to connect with any person in any space or situation if you can open yourself up to it.

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Jesse Ortiz ’16 (Kathmandu, Nepal)

Jesse Ortiz: I liked to think that you can’t really know somewhere unless you’ve been bored there. Some afternoons when the kids were sitting around, done with their schoolwork but tired of their toys, I felt connected through completely familiar, normal boredom.

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Juliet Eyraud ’16 (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) worked for Children for Change Cambodia as an English Teacher and Social Action Intern.

Juliet Eyraud ’16 (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) worked for Children for Change Cambodia as an English Teacher and Social Action Intern.

Juliet Eyraud: Unfortunately, I had to return to the U.S. earlier than expected due to a concussion relapse. For the rest of the summer, I worked for Makara, a Cambodian woman in Portland who came to the U.S. as a refugee after the genocide. I worked in her market and took care of her children, which allowed for a lot of time to get to know her and her thoughts on Cambodia. By listening to her perspective on the U.A. and Cambodia, I developed a new appreciation for the U.S., and especially for Maine. Last summer and this summer, I returned home from Cambodia with a sense of bitterness. I resented certain aspects of the U.S., such as its excessive materialism and its involvement in the Vietnam War. (Many claim that US bombing in Cambodia during the war caused the Khmer Rouge take-over.) While working with Makara, I could sort of see the U.S. through the lens of a refugee. I remember one conversation was especially striking. Makara told me she preferred being a single mother but would never have been able to get away with that in Cambodia, especially as a business owner. Her attitude helped me recognize more clearly the opportunities the U.S. offers.

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Was there a moment when you felt truly immersed in the culture? What happened? What was it like?

Meghan Bellerose ’17 (Kpando, Ghana)

Meghan Bellerose: On the night of the U.S. vs. Ghana World Cup game, I sat cross-legged on the ground in front of a tiny television set up in my host family’s yard. Thirty or 40 others were crowded beside me: members of my host family, neighbors, and friends who had biked long distances from other communities for the game. The youngest children scrambled to find places in the laps of adults or contented themselves with running around behind the screen waving the Ghanaian flags that had been brought out for the occasion, while the elderly men like my host father, whose age had gained him respect in the community, sat behind us all in chairs from which they had a view of the whole scene. As soon as the game began, children and elders alike were cheering and shouting for each goal, speaking over one another in a mix of Ewe and English. Hours after the last goal, when the lights had shut off for the night, we all remained in the yard talking and laughing. I was introduced to everyone and learned about my family members’ lives and the culture of Kpando. At this point, I had been in Kpando for three weeks and felt very welcome in the village, but on that night, I felt like a part of the community, able to partake in the celebration as member of the family.

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Juliet Eyraud ’16 (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

Juliet Eyraud: In Cambodian culture, you address people with a familial title: older sister, auntie, grandpa, etc. I felt like I was “in” when young kids started addressing as as older sister. Tuktuk drivers and vendors would call foreign women “older sister” when they wanted to charge them higher prices. Younger kids, though, seemed to call foreigners older siblings when they stopped being petrified of how different they looked and actually felt comfortable with them. I visited the village where my Cambodian roommate grew up and met her young cousins. …One day we were swimming in a river by their house, and they wanted to race me to a nearby buoy. They all called for me at once — “Bong Juli!” (older sister Juli) to get my attention. …They were calling me in proper Khmer fashion. I was very flattered and felt like I had been approved by the toughest critics in the village. I was no longer the unfamiliar foreigner their cousin had brought home. They still confessed that I looked like a “cute rat with no eyebrows,” but they called me older sister and they let me race to the buoy with them.
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Meredith Outterson ’17 (San Juan de la Concepcion, Nicaragua) worked with La Mariposa Spanish School & EcoHotel.

Meredith Outterson ’17 (San Juan de la Concepcion, Nicaragua) worked with La Mariposa Spanish School & EcoHotel.

Meredith Outterson: I first started to feel immersed in the culture and family when my host-parents finally started asking me to help with chores. At first, they would ask my host-siblings to do things for me — requests that I understood and could have done for myself. It made me feel excluded from the life of the family, so I was really happy when they first asked to help get water with them, and to get my own plate for dinner, etc. It seems small, but sometimes the biggest difference is in the little things. I also felt really immersed in the culture near the end when I went to a vigil with one of the families from school. Walking down the road to church with the curly-haired twins and their older siblings, all holding hands and dressed nicely, felt so very Nicaraguan. The moment was exciting, because the twins were showing me something, rather than me being their “teacher” in school.

What did the experience of dropping into a new culture and living there for 10 weeks teach you? About yourself? The place and people you were with?

Alex Thomas ’16 (Lusaka, Zambia)

Alex Thomas: Living in Lusaka for 10 weeks, and having the opportunity to travel around Zambia to different cities, showed me that there is no single narrative for Africa as a continent or Zambia as a country. Lusaka as a city embodied the spectrum of socio-economic situations, languages, and cultures. Within Lusaka you can go to a grocery store that uncannily resembles a Whole Foods and then drive 10 minutes to a township where access to running water and reliable electricity are luxuries afforded to very few. On a daily basis I met and worked alongside Zambian doctors, biomedical researchers, and accountants whose passion and drive are unmatched by any I have seen. However just as commonly, I met illiterate teenaged couples with children who were struggling with their HIV status. Especially as an employee of an NGO, I learned that is equally important to embrace and acknowledge the developed and developing sides of Zambia. As much help as my organization provides for those seeking HIV counseling and testing, I believe it is equally helpful to the young professionals in Zambia who hope to one day become the minister of health or run their own HIV research lab.

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Jesse Ortiz ’16 (Kathmandu, Nepal)

Jesse Ortiz: I learned how adaptable my body and mind is. My meal structures changed completely and I slept on a totally different bed, but I still had to eat and sleep, so I did and it was fine. I became comfortable walking through neighborhoods that weeks earlier seemed completely inaccessible, got to know the people around me and built a consciousness of my surroundings. This made me realize how much I had depended on the familiarity of the space around me.
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How has this experience impacted your thinking as you move forward? Think about, for example, your studies, future plans and long-term aspirations.

Meghan Bellerose: I’ve been interested in the idea of public health for a long time, but this summer working closely with health care workers and individuals in the community gave me a real sense of what it means to be in the field of public health, and I am certain now that it is a field I’d like to be a part of someday.

David Silverman (Cape Town, South Africa)

David Silverman: This experience has impacted how I act every day in my interactions with friends, family, and in leadership positions. It’s an oft-repeated line, but it’s given me a little more perspective on some of the challenges that people face every day, and given me a better respect for the privileges that I carry with me. …This experience helped cement that fact that I want to work with people, and for people. I hope to be a doctor some day, and maybe work in public health or non-profit administrative roles.

Meredith Outterson: The biggest way that this summer impacted my thinking probably has to do with privilege. In our pre-departure curriculum, we talked a lot about what it means to be wealthy, and the privilege of even flying into and then leaving a country. I felt really guilty after I left Nicaragua, because I had been a part of this family’s life for 2 ½ months and then I just left. But I think it’s important that I can bring that perspective back to Bowdoin, and really think globally when people are talking about growing up with or without privilege. Recognizing that in the grand scheme of things that I am very very lucky helps me to stay grounded when I’m worried about the future or about not having something.

 

 

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