It is not every day that you get the opportunity to go to Fiji. In fact, it is not every day that you get the opportunity to not only visit a beautiful island, but also to immerse in the culture and interact with the villagers on a personal level!
This past summer, 24 Fresno State students got the opportunity to be a part of that life changing learning experience through Fresno State’s Fijian International Service Learning trip, which was designed to teach students the elements of service, leadership and reflection.
The students do not go to classes, unlike most study abroad trips, but rather focus on building relationships with the natives through community-based projects.
“An experience like this really teaches students to appreciate the differences of various cultures, not to judge others because of their differences, but to value the importance of learning about the backgrounds of their future clients or students,” said Dr. Fran Pomaville, a professor in the Department of Communicative Disorders and Deaf Studies, who also participated in the trip.
Many of the 24 students were Speech-Language Pathology majors, or were from other majors on campus, including public health, education, psychology and family services – all professions that require working with individuals and families of diverse backgrounds and cultures.
Cathleen Fagundes, a senior majoring in Communication and a student assistant in the CHHS dean’s office, served as a crew leader on the trip, responsible for planning trips, leading reflections and facilitating interactions with the Fijians.
“We created relationships through connections and building community projects that we set up with the village,” Fagundes said. “If the Fijians are working on something and you come by, they will literally stop what they are doing to talk with you. They actually care about their relationships with other people. That is something that we do not really have here, in the United States.”
Fiji consists of 330 islands, in which 106 are inhabited. The group from Fresno State stayed in the small village of Naboutini, located in Vanua Levu, one of the main islands in Fiji. Their daily activities included working on community projects, such as building the community kitchen, classroom observations and teaching lessons at local primary schools.
Stephanie Griesbach, an undergraduate Speech-Language Pathology student, said her experience in Fiji was among the best experiences of her life.
“The Fijian outlook on life inspired me to become a better person,” Griesbach said. “Being able to immerse myself in a culture that is full of thoughtful, and kindhearted people led to an amazing journey that was full of laughs, knowledge, adventures, memories, and friendships that will last a life time. I also took away a new appreciation, love, and knowledge of a country and village that I will use in my future career as a Speech-Language Pathologist.”
Fagundes echoed Griesbach’s sentiments, saying one of her greatest lessons she’s learned from the trip was learning to step back and appreciate her relationships, which she admits is not always the easiest thing to do.
“You learn so much more than just the service you are doing,” Fagundes said. “You are learning about yourself and the culture. Going into this we all thought the service would be the main component of this trip, but it was more about sitting back and learning and reflecting on ourselves. I learned to appreciate the little things that we take for granted here in the U.S., for example, running water and easily accessible food.”
The trip was entirely student lead, meaning that students were responsible for making sure things ran accordingly. The faculty were there to oversee the student operations, but they were really there as participants. Before the trip the students were required to attend several meetings, which informed them of what to take to the island, as well as, how to properly interact with Fijians.
For some of the students, this was their first time away from home, or traveling by airplane. The living conditions were extremely challenging, even for an experienced traveler who is used to the harsher conditions, but that only made the experience more enriching.
“We experienced a lifestyle very different from our own, in a village without electricity or technology, no vehicles, and few material possessions”, said Pomaville. “Despite that, these were some of the happiest people we had ever met. “We were all way out of our comfort zones and had to dig deep to deal with some of the conditions we were faced with, but I was so proud of the students and the personal growth I saw in each of them.”
Zandra Mitchell, a graduate student in the Speech-Language Pathology program, described the trip as exceptional, life-changing and full of life long lessons.
“As a whole, I learned to be in the moment,” Mitchell said. “In the U.S we are a very fast-paced society and I find myself thinking about what is happening next rather than what is happening right now. In Fiji, they truly enjoy what is happening in the present and I found that I would rather live life in that sense.”
This trip was not only beneficial for the Fijians, but it was even more beneficial for Fresno State students and faculty.
As Pomaville said, “I think a service abroad trip like this is important for several reasons, but what I learned is it’s often more about what they do for us than about what we do for them.”
And for the students on the trip, they couldn’t agree more.
View more photos here!
The project was funded by the Division of Continuing and Global Education, the Jan and Bud Richter Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, the Friends for Civic Engagement. Learn more at the link.
-Story written by Sierra Frank, CHHS Communication Student Assistant