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Student Spotlight: Volunteering in Italy

It was the summer before entering graduate school. I was still working on my full-time job in a non-profit I was very passionate about. In a sense, I was pretty lucky, especially in the current state of the economy, but I still yearned for that experience abroad, that adventure. Who would’ve known my experience would not be defined by the sights of Rome, but by a little village up in the mountains and all the spiritual revelations that came with it.

I knew I wanted to go to Italy, to see the monuments and art, and to experience the food firsthand. I wanted to go to Europe for all the touristy reasons and to do what I have always dreamed of doing–volunteer abroad. I decided to volunteer at in an eco-village by Pescomaggiore, a village in the mountains by L’Aquila, the largest city in the region.

A major earthquake affected the area in 2009, displacing thousands of residents. Two years later, the efforts to supply everyone with housing were still in effect. The eco-village had goals of keeping local citizens around the homes they grew up in and helped build. It sounded great and, going into the field of urban planning for my graduate study, it gave me a logical reason to take this leap of faith.

It was a Sunday when my first day of volunteering started. I fell asleep on the bus ride there, and got off when everyone else did. Little did I know, I got off at the wrong stop. The sun was about to set, and I was no longer in the big city of Rome. I was in a town where people did not speak English, and I needed to figure out where I was going–quick.

Eventually, I found my way to the work-camp leaders who took me to a small village celebration. Though I was still fatigued, I was enamored by the ceremony. A whole crowd assembled as the procession of people in large paper doll costumes led the mob through earth-quaked ruins to stations where the village elders told stories of love and lost in a beautiful language I had no familiarity of. The rest of the trip held their own such treasures: touring a small, near-deserted village where most of the buildings were too damaged to be inhabited, jogging six kilometers through pristine hills from one small village to the next, and experiencing cuisine made by other international volunteers such as Czech potato cakes, Spanish paella, and self-grown zucchini.

What did I do? I put plaster on the walls of straw bale houses, helped convert a restroom in a trailer to a library, built a solar oven, watered fruit trees, helped harvest a wild bee hive in the middle of the night, and operated a motorized weed whacker to clear a field of golden grass to make room for saffron planting. All these experiences I will hold onto dearly. And the friends I’ve made? Well, I think about them often, and the two weeks in Italy I was able to share with them.

But I will always remember the scene on the first weekend I was able to share with everyone. We all took a trip to a lake up in the mountains, and I remember climbing a playground slide before having the best Italian dinner of my life, with the most vibrant sunset on one end, and the most serene view of the lake in the other, and later that night, falling asleep as I watched the stars. It was better than any ruins anyone can imagine visiting.

Jason Su is a graduate student studying urban planning at San Jose State University. He enjoys volunteering, photography, writing, urban planning and design, and daydreaming. Check out his site at


February 13th, 2012 | 1 Comment

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Public Administration Major Finds Career Calling in China

Juanique McNeill had never been on a plane before. It was her first time ever getting on an aircraft, first time going to another country, a plethora of firsts. The thoughts, “I can’t believe that I’m doing this,” raced through her head as she felt excited and flabbergasted at the same time. She was going to China through a program funded by Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA). Even though she had a rush of emotions, she felt glad she was getting the chance to step outside of her comfort zone. In her eyes, where she’s from, people don’t even step outside of their city.

McNeill has since traveled to China twice more with APSA; once more as a program participant, and a second time as an ambassador. As a program attendee, she had the opportunity to learn Chinese and be immersed in the Chinese culture. McNeill explained her initial impressions in China.

“I learned more about the Chinese culture and to accept people, no matter where they’re from,” commented McNeill. “Just because your culture is different from mine, I think we find similar things in our cultures together.”

Besides language and culture components, the program also included a service learning aspect. McNeill had the opportunity to teach English to migrant students and she created lessons to teach them the alphabet and numbers. After her time with the students, she understood the challenges that some working class students faced.

“It changed me. On the outskirts, I saw the real issues of China. They’re not out in the open because people don’t want them to know about it, but I could see myself giving back to the kids,” remarked McNeill. “The students were so attentive. They were really eager to learn and wanted to take in everything.”

Following her visits in the summer of 2008 and 2009, McNeill was invited to be a volunteer ambassador for APSA. One of the perks of her work as a volunteer was the opportunity to attend a performance that was promoting President Barack Obama administration’s initiative to send 100,000 students to study abroad in China over the next few years.

“I feel like [APSA] was a good program for me. It changed my life. If it wasn’t for this program, I don’t know what the direction of my life would be,” explained McNeill.

Photos via Juanique McNeill

Juanique McNeill is a Public Administration major with a minor in Chinese at North Carolina Central University. Her career goals are to work in rural China through programs like Teach for China and the Peace Corps. Ultimately, she hopes to work at the U.S. State Department.


February 6th, 2012 | Leave your comments

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Student Spotlight: Providing Community Support in Ghana

Krista Nickerson participated in a program with the Ghana Health and Education Initiative (GHEI). During her time in Africa, she focused on the health and education needs of a community in Ghana; traveled around the southern half of the country; and visited spots like Cape Coast “slave castle,” Kakum National Park, a major African bead market, and the Volta hydroelectric dam that powers the whole country. Farther off the beaten path, she hiked to several waterfalls and visited butterfly and monkey sanctuaries. She also had the opportunity for cultural immersion, visiting villages where they weaved traditional kente cloth and sampling pineapple, mango, boiled eggs, bread, and the local dish called fufu occasionally. This is her story.

GHEI organizes four short-term volunteer projects every summer that are directly related to community’s health and education goals and needs. I participated in two of projects: community outreach for childhood literacy and a girls’ empowerment camp for local junior high school girls.

For the child literacy outreach, our team of three volunteers worked with local staff to present a skit and song to local school kids about how to take care of books. We also helped organize an awards ceremony for the library read-a-thon. For Girls’ Empowerment, we planned and led a week-long camp for the girls with activities focusing on self-esteem, leadership, money management, family planning, and STD awareness.

By the end of the outreach, every kid in town would sing the song at us wherever we went – that was a good thing because they remembered the rules when they went to the library too! The read-a-thon was extremely successful. The kids definitely got used to the idea of using the library as a learning resource, and their commitment to spending time there earned them school supplies. The community elders came to the ceremony and expressed their support for our work too.

For the girls’ empowerment camp, the girls told us that they had never felt so free to express themselves and to think about their options for their lives. They left the camp with strengthened emotional and practical tools to help them make the choices that are right for them regarding education, family, and finances.

I was skeptical at first, but I definitely think that GHEI’s model of community-led development is no joke. These programs are part of a much larger, sustained commitment, and the ultimate goal is for local community members to take over. Everything GHEI does in the village is designed to avoid dependence and develop the community’s capacity to continue GHEI’s work on its own.

For me, working with the volunteer groups was a great exercise in teamwork, cross-cultural communication, and compromise. Also, I deeply admire the structure and strategy of GHEI – the minimal bureaucracy, functional hierarchy, and maximized consensus decision-making really made sure that each of us felt empowered in our roles while allowing us to make decisions and accomplish tasks efficiently.

Krista Nickerson is a communications professional and an avid writer, reader, researcher, and traveler. She is a persistent advocate for cultural exchange through local and international projects that promote mutual knowledge, understanding, and respect. She received her B.A. in English and Spanish from Vassar College, and two years later she was awarded a Fulbright grant to teach English in Argentina. Krista is currently earning her M.S. in Women’s and Gender Studies at Towson University in Baltimore, Maryland.


January 30th, 2012 | Leave your comments

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Student Spotlight: Teaching English in Taiwan

Caesar Feng taught English to elementary school students in Taiwan as part of the Assisting Individuals with Disadvantages Program. At the end of his teaching period, he and his co-teachers had students participate in a performance to show off their English skills. This is his story.

AID Summer was unforgettable. The people, the friends you bonded with, the faculty you became buddies with, and especially the students who you never knew existed until you came to their elementary school. Sure, Taiwan rained, poured, and sweated out every inch of my body; but, I can honestly say it was a worthwhile experience that I will never forget. One month, that I will never regret enduring–the struggle of frustration, anger, resentment and the most satisfying feeling of accomplishment. Let’s be honest, who can say they lived in the auditorium of a school or cleared out the third for a massive water fight? I can.

AID Summer not only gave me life-long memories, but also a sense of independence. Away from the hustle and bustle of school, the chattering of parental gossip, and the constant nagging to make something of yourself, AID Summer provided a moment of absolute euphoria without the burdens of home. Of course, homesickness is inevitable, but you learn to truly appreciate your parents and your education. AID Summer allowed me to foster a sense of individualism, allowed me to reconnect to my heritage, allowed me to get a better sense of me. Rather than have another meaningless summer, join AID Summer and truly open your eyes to reality.

Caeser Feng is a second year B.S. Management Science student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He is involved with the Associated Students and Emerging Leaders Program at UCSD. In addition, he recently had a summer internship at American Plus Bank.


January 23rd, 2012 | Leave your comments

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Student Spotlight: Promoting Dental Hygiene in Honduras

Michelle Young attended a Global Dental Brigades trip in Honduras as a member of the American Student Dental Association. Before visiting Honduras, she helped collect dental supplies for the trip by visiting local lcinics. While in Honduras, she acted as a translator and was able to see how different dentists teach and utilize their work space. Her week-long trip was filled with dental procedures, presentations on dental hygiene, and the opportunity to interact with locals. This is her story.

The opportunity to travel to Honduras fulfilled a personal goal of mine to observe how disadvantaged people receive their dental and medical care on a daily basis. The way things operated on the dental side of things was very eye opening to see how mistreated the condition of their teeth had become. The children were extremely energetic and passionate in learning more about what we were there for and, possibly, after the lesson teaching their parents why it is so important to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

I was truly honored to hopefully influence the next generation of kids working on building a healthy smile, in order for the oral health to not be as difficult as it had been for their parents. It is apparent to see why their teeth and overall health had reached its breaking point. This overall experience made me not only appreciate what I do have in my life but to give more attention to those who don’t.

As well, one of the lessons I learned was to reorganize the value of some materialistic things that I once found important, which seem pretty worthless now. I learned so much in dentistry, more in three days than a whole month at a clinic here in the United States. I am so excited to keep telling everyone how amazing it was and I can’t wait to be able to experience it again.

Michelle Young is a student at the University of California, Irvine and a past member of the American Students Dental Association. She hopes to pursue a career as a dentist. On her free time, she likes biking to the beach.


January 16th, 2012 | Leave your comments

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Student Spotlight: Volunteering in Korea for Disadvantaged Families

I had originally gone to South Korea to teach English in a rural public school with the Teach and Learn in Korea (TaLK) program. After a year of teaching, I eventually moved to Seoul to pursue my master’s degree at Seoul National University. Although school had kept me busy, I felt as through something was missing in my life. I thought back to the time I was teaching in the countryside, and I realized that I missed helping and interacting with students. I did some research and found out about HOPE, which is a volunteer program that provides English language education for underprivileged and disadvantaged families. I signed up for the program and explained what I was doing in Korea and why I wanted to volunteer. They contacted me, and I was placed in a classroom.

My experience, however, was slightly different from the other HOPE teachers because I was placed in a classroom that was located in Banghwa, which was a center for disabled children as well. At first, I did not know what to expect or even what to teach because I was told that some of the students’ levels were extremely low and that some students had major behavioral issues. On the first day, the students had filed into the classroom, and I started the class with “My name is…” While I was teaching with the help of two wonderful co-teachers, I realized that I was learning more than what the children’s’ names were, I was learning about their habits and their abilities. Although each child’s abilities varied greatly, each child left a lasting impression because of their loving and accepting personalities. What had impressed me most of all was that the students and I were able to communicate with each other despite the language and culture barrier.

While my experience with HOPE was wonderful and enriching, problems had inevitably emerged. Sometimes the students would fight with each other, which would disrupt the class. These types of conflicts were difficult to solve because of the language barrier but, with the help of my co-teachers, we were able to overcome this particular problem. Another major issue was that my inevitable departure from Korea to continue my education in the U.S. Leaving the kids was one of the most difficult things that I had to do because through the songs we sang and the games we played the students and I had built a bond of friendship and understanding. Although I am currently in the U.S., and the students are still in Seoul, I continue to think of them as time goes by as the students who made my life a little bit brighter in the city.

Melissa Chan is currently a graduate student majoring in East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s in English from the University of California, Irvine, and then she spent two years in South Korea. Her current study focuses on contemporary China and its relationship with diasporic Chinese populations in Taiwan and Hong Kong.



January 9th, 2012 | Leave your comments

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Liberal Arts Major Improves English Proficiency in China

Xie Xie (Thank you). Ni Hao (Hello). These are some of the words that Hanford Lin utilized while teaching English in China. Lin is an English major with a cause and a passion to help others learn new skills.

Lin taught English in China in the summer of 2009 and again in 2010. During his first year, he taught in DongYing, in the Shan Dong province; the following summer, he taught in Jin Hua, in the Zhe Jiang province. Both experiences of teaching aroad proved to be enlightening.

Lin first decided to go to China due to what can only be described as “a yearning” to experience the country and see, for himself, what was in the beyond of Asia.

“There was a calling and a great wonder as to what China was. Everything I knew about it was from what I have read, seen, and heard from what my parents have told me, like an ancestral home from a previous life,” said Lin.

Lin taught the students a variety of skills, including English oral proficiency, vocabulary, and method. To him, the days were full of lessons but the time went by quickly.

“Teaching was arduous and often times frustrating, but it was fun and enriching,” commented Lin. “Teaching the students in a hundred degree weather with high humidity in a room with no AC is a humbling experience–patience and discipline, two traits that must be learned in order to survive in China.”

In interacting with the Chinese students, Lin was able to see the differences between the cultures of the U.S. and China. Once, when he was walking around the village, he saw a large group practicing aerobics outdoors. Hundreds of participants waved their hands in the air and moved their limbs. They were engaged in a physical activity, all the while learning how to dance. Living in China for a short amount of time allowed him to see what the locals did on a daily basis.

“Being able to take in the environment, to smell the eternal muddy river in JinHua or the pollution in Beijing that was so foul that it grayed the sky–it was surreal,” Lin described.

Lin’s international service experience impacted him in such a way that he recommends that others participate in volunteer projects as well.

“In my opinion, volunteering is vital to the human mind! Seeing, smelling, hearing, feeling, to fully be in a space so entirely different, yet subtly similar, is essential to the positive growth of an individual, and subsequently the society.”


December 19th, 2011 | Leave your comments

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Study Abroad Students Launch Health and Education Initiative in Ghana

Africa is a hodgepodge of things. It is a mix of history, culture, peoples, climates, and languages. Brendan Rosen found himself in the midst of it all and embraced it fully. Rosen participated in the University of California’s Education Abroad Program during his third-year of college. After his year-long immersion program at the University of Ghana and volunteering with various nongovernmental organizations, he created an initiative titled the Butre Health Education and Health Cooperative (BEHC) with fellow study abroad student Julie Ghostlaw.

BEHC is an ongoing project that continues the work that Ghostlaw and Rosen finished after three months in 2010. They were inspired to bring awareness to health and education in Butre, encouraging people to have a more sustainable environment for future generations. Butre is a coastal village, located in the western portion of Ghana.

One of the traits that helps BEHC standout is the collaborative efforts among various members of the community. BEHC brought together local governments, international students, volunteers in Ghana, and local residents in Butre. A few tasks of the program included giving out mosquito nets to people in the community of Butre, constructing latrines, constructing a water storage system that could provide clean water, fixing a local bridge that is need of repairs, as well as hosting health education workshops. In their own individual efforts, Ghostlaw and Rosen worked with translators to survey the local residents in Butre and found out that clean water was especially needed, as those in the village began fetching water at four in the morning. The water was used for a variety of tasks including cooking and washing.

Brendan Rosen has since returned to the U.S. and recently received his degree in political sciences from the University of California, Irvine (UCI). He remarked on the communal atmosphere of Ghana and his desire to continue helping people in the U.S. through political activism. He also has hopes to return to Africa one day and continue the work that he and Ghostlaw started with BEHC.

Photos via the Butre Education and Health Cooperative


December 5th, 2011 | Leave your comments

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Adventure Awaits Graduate Student in Japan

Blonde. Petite.  Musically inclined. French speaking. Japanese rock star. These phrases don’t normally mix. However, for University of California, Irvine (UCI) education graduate student Rebecca Mesch, they work and describe just a few of her characteristics. This past summer, Mesch was one of the interns for Guy Healy Japan, where she assisted in teaching English classes in Nagasaki and acted as a program evaluator for the English camps in different regions of Japan.

Mesch first became interested in the Japanese culture when she worked with Japanese exchange students through the Extension programs at UCI. She worked as a conversation partner and, in interacting with the students, it sparked an interest in Japanese culture. During her fourth year as an undergraduate, she took an introductory Japanese language course and continued her learning by enrolling in Japanese classes at a local community college. She was accepted to Guy Healy Japan after a general application process.

The program, Guy Healy Japan, focuses on creating lessons that are conversationally based. This differs from English taught in Japanese schools, where there is an emphasis on grammar. Mesch remembers distinctly one of the lessons that she taught while in Japan, where the interns created a sample conversation for students. The students then ran around the conversation, laughing, giggling, and utilizing the vocabulary they learned.

“They loved it, they were so engaged. We were running around with them and have conversation with them too. I saw their English improve from what they thought they could do because they were so happy and so engaged,” said Mesch. “It made me realize that if kids are really interested in what they’re doing and they have reason to be engaged in learning, they’ll do a lot better.”

Mesch has learned much from her experience abroad, such as the importance of politeness in Japanese culture as well as the focus on seafood in Japanese cuisine. With all this intercultural learning, connectivity was one of the major take home lessons for her.

“I learned that people aren’t as different as you think they’re going to be. If you grew up in Japan, you’re shaped by Japanese society and, if you grew up in the United States, you were shaped by American society,” commented Mesch. “But people are more the same than they are different, especially kids. But my experience has shown the importance of human connection.”

Photos via Rebecca Mesch

Rebecca Mesch is enrolled to receive her teaching credential from the University of California, Irvine. She has an interest in music education as well as English as a Second Language. She is knowledgeable in French and Japanese, having studied abroad in France and worked in Japan.


November 21st, 2011 | Leave your comments

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International Education Aficionado Interacts with Kenyan Students

Yolanda Espiritu embarked for a trip of a lifetime on July 7. She left Los Angeles International Airport with bag in hand, leaving the smoggy land of southern California to the natural terrain of Kenya. She was departing to a rural village, where she would assist the Engineers Without Border (EWB) chapter of the University of California, Irvine with a project for two weeks. Her goal: teach Kenyan students about health sanitation.

Espiritu, a political sciences undergraduate, has a love of international issues. The previous summer, she participated in the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), an educational trip that allowed her to visit the Middle East and to listen to various speakers who were knowledgeable on the conflicts in the area. Following her trip with OTI, she felt the desire to go on another adventure that would give her an invigorating learning experience.

Despite not studying engineering, Espiritu became involved with EWB and eventually became health education chair. As a student with an education minor, Espiritu had some knowledge of planning lessons and she also sought resources online to prepare for her trip abroad. She would walk a few miles to the school every day to teach the students and she quickly learned to adapt her lesson plans to the students’ progress.

“It allowed me to experience how much preparation is needed to do the lessons and how to be a lot more comfortable in that way,” said Espiritu. “The students are smart and they’re really great to work with.”

Not only was Espiritu able to gain experience in the classroom, but she was also able to interact with people who were involved in Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). She had always considered working with NGOs and her work in Africa allowed her to gain a better understanding of the tasks that an NGO completes. She learned the importance of giving the Kenyans resources rather than making them dependent on others.

After returning from Africa, Espiritu’s passion for international education still lives on. As she looks toward graduation, Espiritu considers the various career opportunities that lie in front of her and how her experience in Kenya affected her.

“It definitely gave me an experience for teaching. It made me realize that I really enjoy teaching. It strengthened my passion to teach,” commented Espiritu. “I’m certain that I wanted to teach after.”

Photos via Yolanda Espiritu

Yolanda Espiritu is a dual-major Japanese and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. She is involved in the international community on campus, including participation in the Olive Tree Initiative, Engineers Without Borders, and International Club. She hopes to pursue a career in education in the future.


November 7th, 2011 | Leave your comments

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