It's been a few weeks since we arrived back in the United States from our incredible trip to Cebu, Philippines. After having some time to recover from the jet lag and reflect on this experience, I have come to the conclusion that this program is aptly named. I will share some of my thoughts here and describe how they apply to the main goals of the program.
Some of us had not left the country before, but it's safe to say this trip definitely exposed those students to what international travel is all about. The great thing I came to notice about the Philippines is that it is on the other side of the world with a unique culture to experience, but at the same time there are a lot of similarities that make it great for less experienced travelers.
Virtually every sign in the country was written in english; from supermarkets to billboards, I could look at the signs and feel like I was back in the United States. Most of the Filipinos could speak English pretty well and had the ability to communicate and facilitate everything from dining to shopping. Language was not the only evidence of the American culture. Many of the shopping areas had the same American Brands and companies you would see in our cities. We also experienced the importance of Catholicism in the region from our students and in the major sites in the city. Having been raised catholic, I found this similarity pretty interesting. Before we headed over there I had to do some basic research into their system of government, which was basically adopted from ours. These similarities allowed us to be away from home, but not feel alien and have several key things in common.
Despite these similarities, we also got to experience the unique differences of the Philippines which is one of the best benefits of international travel. The Philippines has an interesting history. They were colonized by Spain for around 300 years, impacted heavily by its Chinese neighbors, invaded by Japan, and also a century of strong American influences. Not to mention the the individual cultures of tribes on different islands, which are still manifested in the multiple Filipino languages that are still spoken today.
We all had our different cultural experiences on the trip. For me this included both similarities and differences. For example, when some of our students began using their native language I was definitely reminded that I was in a foreign country. The other biggest differences were the beautiful mountainous/tropical geography, the native food (Mangos!), and being an ethnic minority.
Despite these differences, some of my more memorable experiences were finding similarities between communities so far apart. Some highlights for me were playing Chess with one of my students (we tied 1 to 1), talking about similar music we liked (their taste ranged from 'Amazing Grace' to the band One Direction), and of course becoming Facebook friends.
My team and I were working at Paril National High School which was about an hour commute up a mountain from where we were staying inside Cebu City. This trip everyday provided sights nothing short of spectacular. The tropical foliage looked like it was straight of out Jurassic Park. Along the winding roads were goats, dogs, and bulls. What struck me most though were the conditions of the homes of the people who lived up on this mountain. This type of poverty is something I had not seen in person before and it can be very emotional. I've included some pictures but they don't fully capture the sense that what is available to these people is so much less than what we have each day. I think what really got to me was trying to wrap my head around the fact that the students I had been meeting each day lived in these conditions.
This gets back to a very important part of the trip and that is giving back to a much less fortunate community. In Paril, the Dental team set up a makeshift Dental Clinic to perform dental services for a group of people who very rarely have the opportunity to be seen by a dentist, or don't have the financial means to pay for one. The Clinic saw over 100 patients including children in the local schools and adults in the community. The school administration had informed us that over the multiple years of UofL's help that absenteeism due to dental problems has dropped dramatically.
The day we weren't assisting in the dental clinic (which was quite an experience in itself), the rest of the students were teaching in a classroom. Each of us had prepared a variety of lessons to teach the students from our area of study. This included Leadership, Criminal Justice, Communications, and Engineering. We each led short seminars on things like "SMART" goal setting, the types of bullying, effective questions, and small building projects respectively. While a lot of improvising was necessary, and certain lessons were more effective than others, I think that our students were very receptive to what we had to share with them. More than anything they were just so grateful that we were spending time with them and having the opportunity to learn more about us and our experiences.
One irony of learning is that when you discover something new it typically leads to more questions. By the end of the trip several of us were believing that we came to teach, but ended up learning so much more. A trip like this is such a game-changer when it comes to the concepts of perspective, attitude, and responsibility. I spent many days on the ride down the mountain with several thoughts about how unfair it is that in many ways the students we met have been handed such difficult circumstances. I often wonder how much of our responsibility in life is to serve others and furthermore who should we serve? Some may say that we should spend our time helping those in our backyard, but just how far does that extend? Why should I give preferential treatment to my neighbors, when the people that we have met have been nothing but deserving and grateful of our time.
The biggest lesson from this trip for me has been adding that personal touch that is necessary to understand what it's like to live a life that is so different than your own. I have known about people in poverty around the world. I have seen slums and run-down housing. But I had never really met the people who lived there. By having the interaction with our students, it makes what would have been a interesting ride up and down the mountain, one that is incredibly more touching. Watching some of our students walk home from school after learning their names, seeing how bright they are, and wanting so much for them, is so incredibly hard to grapple with when you know that their opportunity is so much lower.
It's frustrating to know that these students with such bright minds, grateful spirits, and incredible attitudes will have to work so much harder and will still most likely receive so much less than their counterparts in the United States or other parts of the globe. It's frustrating that we saw incredibly lavish private schools on the same mountain and houses with five cars one day, yet, met so many great people struggling in poverty the day before. In some ways this frustration is very humbling because it reminds us how much of life is out of our control. At times it can elicit feelings of powerlessness too, because I know that me and all of my classmates would have loved to have done so much more to help if we could, yet we know that in many ways we can only do so much. What amazed me even more, is that I don't sense that frustration from my students. Their strong attitude, gratefulness, and happiness, seemed even greater than those in much better circumstances.
However, this frustration has also led to motivation. It has inspired me to help others more often when I know I can. It has reminded me that I am incredibly blessed and to not waste opportunities. Finally, it has shown that when something is bothering me I need to step back and think about the big picture because more often than not...my problems are the problems that others would love to have.
Student Body President
-University of Louisville International Service Learning Program