Browsing through Facebook upon my return from break, I have to admit I was a little jealous. I saw pictures of friends in Cabo, frat guys partying in the Bahamas and sorority gals channeling their inner Selena Gomez. But 11 other Yale students and I, along with everyone else who participated in a service trip, chose a different way to spend break. Our group traveled to Bocas del Toro, Panama, to volunteer, learn and better understand the culture.
We worked with an organization called Floating Doctors, a group of health care professionals led by CNN Hero Ben LaBrot. Our group had interests in medicine, public health and public policy, making Floating Doctors the perfect partner. We hoped to advance our medical skills while providing health care to patients who hadn’t seen a doctor in years, if ever.
We hoped to use our two weeks of break to provide and learn rather than indulge. We navigated barely functioning motorboats around lush archipelagos searching for the selected village to set up our clinic for the day. Once found, our group treated patients suffering from parasites, infections, rashes, diarrhea, you name it. Using a portable ultrasound machine, we performed examinations on pregnant women and patients with gallstones. We translated between patient and doctor, explaining the patient’s complaints and describing the prescribed treatment. The doctor-to-patient relationship is challenging enough, let alone when each speaks a different language. Occasionally, I could only hope that I had understood and translated properly.
Some people may view service trips as an excuse to party in a foreign country. That was certainly not true for our group. So long as there was daylight, there was a job to do. Along with the medical clinics, we labored in muck, elevating water pipes traveling through sewage to prevent bacterial contamination. We spent days with patients at a nursing home, feeding them meals and listening to their stories.
After all the assistance our group had provided, upon returning I still fielded numerous questions about why I had gone in the first place. Why hadn’t I just spent spring break working around our local New Haven community? I could have saved on airfare, reduced my carbon footprint and provided assistance somewhere not 2,000 miles away.
Few projects in the United States would task college students with the challenges we faced. Where in the States could students be forced to think of and construct a way to raise water pipes to prevent contamination? What hospital would entrust students to translate, diagnose and prescribe the proper treatment? Only in Panama — where we were challenged to problem solve and stretch our capabilities in ways that far outpaced typical local projects. We gained confidence and training, while these communities gained medical care and improved infrastructure.
In addition, spring break provides us with the opportunity to get away from home and learn from cultures other than our own. College must be our time to see the world, before the commitments of graduate school, families and jobs keep us grounded. It’s also the time to ask questions, discover passions and plan futures. What are the obstacles to health care that locals face? How could our experience with inequality in Panama be compared to the disparity of wealth in our nation?
Our trip was only two weeks. We didn’t save the world; we didn’t cure every sick, indigenous Panamanian. But our actions in these communities encouraged change and delivered essential resources. To ensure that we were not perceived as “the American rescuers,” we made sure to enlist community support. By incorporating the community, we promoted cooperation and empowerment, rather than a system of dependency.
Most importantly, our trip set the foundation for each member to commit to future service. The prospect of delivering aid and providing hope will certainly provide us with the motivation to push through late nights of studying orgo. There’s certainly nothing wrong with spending break relaxing at a resort and sipping drinks by the pool, but nothing brings the sense of fulfillment and purpose like service. Partying in Mexico doesn’t come close.
Josh Barrett is a sophomore in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .