UCI Volunteers Go International

It was a sweltering summer day in a village outside of Nairobi, Africa. Jenna Tourje, a second-year graduate student in urban and regional planning, approached a man who lived in a mud hut in the middle of the African savannah. Armed with a translator at her side, Tourje sat down, among the gathering of goats and chickens, to speak with the man about his water needs in order to understand what kind of project her group, Engineers Without Borders (EWB), could accomplish at that site. As the conversation came to an end, Tourje heard the ring of a cell phone. To her surprise, the man, who had almost nothing to support his three wives and starving children, took out a cell phone. At the moment, Tourje realized how incredibly connected the world had become.

Tourje’s story is just a snippet of the adventures taken by students who embark on international service trips. Tourje, the vice president of community development for EWB, first became involved in the organization through a friend and has seen its growth since its inception in September 2009.

The first trip in the summer of 2010 focused on identifying key problems and organizing a project. The second trip, which will be completed this June, will be a continuation of the first. EWB members will begin to educate community members about public health issues and build latrines in the community. This project will be the beginning of a five-year commitment to the small village outside of Nairobi.

“The trip will not only focus on implementing solutions, but also empowering the community to meet their own needs in the future,” Tourje said.

Besides volunteering in Africa, students have also ventured into Asia and faced their own obstacles as well. Andy Nguyen, a fourth-year biological sciences and psychology double major, dealt with language barriers while in Vietnam with Medical, Education Missions and Outreach (MEMO). MEMO’s two-week trip consisted of visiting orphanages, shadowing surgeons, giving out scholarships and seeing approximately 2,000 patients in free clinics in partnership with the Red Cross. Nguyen, who had not been back to his parents’ home country since he was 13, was fueled by the passion to give back to his homeland. With basic knowledge of Vietnamese, Nguyen was able to communicate with patients who showed their appreciation when he guided them from one area of the medical ward to another.

Nguyen, who is currently the president of MEMO, believes that the trip was an influential part of his life, giving him insight on future objectives.

“I’m very thankful for the opportunities given to me and being able to live a good quality life in the United States,” Nguyen said. “But, it is unfortunate that not everyone has the same opportunities as I do. So, I feel like it is a humane act to provide these opportunities to those that need it who would otherwise be suffering or live in unsatisfactory conditions.”

Along with giving back to the community, students can also learn more about other cultures on international service projects. Thupten Phuntsog, a transfer student studying public health, participated in Public Health Brigades to Honduras during his 2009 spring break. Despite not knowing any of the other students on the trip, Phuntsog returned with an understanding of the openness of members within a community.

“You cannot help but feel rewarded after helping a family in another country,” Phuntsog said. “Knowing that the concrete floor you put in prevents the transmission of Chagas disease or the eco-stove you constructed minimizes the risk of respiratory disease, you leave realizing that you made a real, tangible difference.”

Phuntsog now serves as the coordinator of the UCI chapter of Global Brigades, which includes a Dental, Environmental, Law, Medical, Public Health and Water Brigade, respectively. Each of the brigades will be traveling to either Panama or Honduras, working on projects ranging from seeing patients in mobile clinics to constructing irrigation systems.

“Through volunteering abroad, you develop a greater appreciation for what you have and a better understanding of the different perspectives in our global community,” Phuntsog said. “International service will not only enrich your personal life, but your professional life as well.”

All three students believe that continued support is essential to maintain the work that has already been done abroad. They encourage students to discuss and speak about important issues. Even if they cannot go out themselves, members of the campus and the larger Irvine community can participate in fundraisers or sponsorship.