A Life-Changing Experience In Vietnam – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

A Life-Changing Experience In Vietnam

When Michael De Rosa ’16 was considering study abroad programs, he decided he “wanted to go someplace where I would probably never go to on my own, to experience a culture drastically different from what I am used to.”

De Rosa, a junior double-majoring in anthropology and Media & Society, first heard about the Vietnam program from his RA during his first year on campus and “kept hearing the same thing, that “Vietnam is a place that students say changed their lives.” Hearing all of this positive feedback just attracted me more to Vietnam, and I wanted to see for myself how a place could change someones life.”

Led by Associate Professor of Art Mark Jones, a close-knit group of HWS students spent the fall 2014 semester traveling across Vietnam, studying, working as volunteers, and soaking in Vietnamese culture. The group saw “everything from pagodas, orphanages, museums, war sites, and NGOs, to beautiful white sand beaches,” says Erica McLaughlin ’16. “We have made friends with Vietnamese locals and college students, who showed us local favorites. We didn’t get the typical tourist experience.”

Ryan Mullaney ’16, a sociology and public policy double-major and education minor, “felt it was important to experience a place where I was other; a place where I had to learn and be wrong and find out for myself; a place that kicked me out of my comfort zone and into a mindset of doubt and curiosity. Because, really, this is where some of the most important learning happens. Different experiences force you to synthesize new ideas into a more nuanced and thoughtful world-view. And I think this is really important.”

During the semester, the group visited the Peace Village in Hanoi, a government-funded school and home for children and young people suffering from the effects of Agent Orange — a service opportunity that was both “amazing and difficult,” McLaughlin says.

To gain the most from her time experience abroad, McLaughlin, like De Rosa, wanted to “challenge myself to visit somewhere entirely foreign and new to me. I am so happy I did because this trip has been the best experience of my life.”

The HWS volunteers toured the facility and were assigned various jobs serving students of the Peace Village, playing with them and helping feed lunch to the younger children.

“Going to institutions like these and helping out the staff and victims is very rewarding,” De Rosa says. “I give the caretakers a lot of credit for what they do on a daily basis; it takes a lot of patience, time, and a certain personality to take care of others with such challenges every day.”

“The children’s disabilities coupled with the language barrier made communicating with the students extremely challenging,” McLaughlin says, “but it was still an experience I will cherish and carry with me forever.”

For McLaughlin, a sociology major and an American Studies minor, the semester aligned with her academic and social interests, offering a course on Vietnamese culture and history as well as another service opportunity, working with CSAGA, an Vietnamese NGO that focuses its service on women and children.  

With CSAGA, McLaughlin worked on a variety of projects, “including a photo campaign called ‘Dad I Wish…’ that advocated for the end of domestic- and gender-based violence. It has been a unique learning experience and I have especially enjoyed my time with CSAGA.”

For De Rosa, some of the most rewarding periods of the semester were simply “traveling throughout the entire country of Vietnam on excursions and being able to get a real sense of how diverse the culture is within the country. We have gone on bike trips through small rural villages, stayed at home stays, hiked through forests and explored caves, relaxed on beaches with ninety degree water, volunteered at orphanages, and have worked, ate, and lived with the Vietnamese. This entire experience has been exciting, new, and full of adventures.”

Reflecting on the entire abroad experience, Mullaney says that “traveling to a new place physically allows you to also travel to a new place intellectually and emotionally. And I find myself consistently drawn to such a place. This is what I found in Vietnam.”