A Need for Service

  • Some of the kids at Smile practice their yoga as the others practice their English in the courtyard.
  • Phil and Salem with some students.
  • The empty yoga room.

I always knew that I wanted to study abroad. Increasingly, it is becoming an expected part of the undergraduate experience and I had been thinking about it since I first toured Loyola’s Lake Shore Campus, but I also knew that I wanted to be intentional with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I did not want to just go somewhere I could easily travel to as a tourist or a place made famous through glamorous movies. I knew I had to choose somewhere that would be challenging and that I did not already know a lot about. These criteria intersected at a few study abroad sites, but Loyola’s Viet Nam Center stood out because it provided all of these things and the opportunity to engage directly with the local community through service-learning work.

Viet Nam is a beautiful country filled with incredibly diverse physical environments, people and ways of life, but it can also be a harsh place. In twenty years it has risen from one of the poorest nations in the world to one of the fastest developing. Sai Gon (officially Ho Chi Minh City) has exploded to nearly ten million people, a third of whom live here illegally. Free trade has brought jobs but it has also exaggerated already rampant corruption, increased cases of worker exploitation and exacerbated social ills, including intravenous drug use and prostitution. In many ways the poor majority of Viet Nam is being trampled by this surge of global, socio-economic activity.

A lot of the members of this silent majority make their living through informal sector work, selling street food, fixing motorbikes and selling lottery tickets. Although they provide vital services to all types of people in the city, they are forgotten by those in power and often actively opposed through attempts to “civilize” the city’s population and economic activity. A Vietnamese person working at a high-power international corporation makes only $400 dollars a month due to how low labor costs are in Viet Nam, so it is easy to see that someone working on the streets often has trouble making ends meet. As in too many places around the world, there is great need here and much work to be done.

I do not think that anyone on our program has any grand delusions about sweeping in and solving these problems. It would be unrealistic and presumptuous to think we could and ultimately these are issues that only the Vietnamese can address themselves after asking some hard questions of their government. The consortium of non-governmental organizations that Loyola has partnered with are more focused on the type of small to medium sized community building that individuals can have a large impact on when engaged.

Some of these groups are general in their approach, giving out funds and organizing neighborhood-based projects such as Helping Hand and the LIN Center for Community Development, while others are quite specific in who they help or what they do, such as KOTO and the Smile Group. Together they form a tight knit community of social justice advocates and community organizers who are trying to give individuals the tools to do better for themselves and their families in a fast-moving and unforgiving social climate. We as students at the Loyola Viet Nam Center get to help them in their missions but also get the opportunity to engage in a unique cultural exchange with new friends, peers and mentors. During the time that I have left here, I plan on sharing some stories and news from these unique sites of global learning. Enjoy!

Below is a short description of the service-learning sites Loyola University Chicago students are working at in Viet Nam during the 2012 Spring Semester:

Sai Gon Children’s Charity: Focuses on helping children who have been affected by urban poverty through providing access to educational opportunities.

Helping Hand: Works with both local and international volunteers to focus charitable aid into small-scale projects where the impact is greatest.

Smile Group: A community center and support group that seeks to aid children and families who have been affected by HIV/AIDS in the Sai Gon area.

LIN Center for Community Development: Serves as a support group for numerous local charities through organizing volunteer staff and a small grant giving process.

KOTO (Know One Teach One): A not-for-profit restaurant and culinary learning center that gives formerly homeless children an opportunity to learn service skills and receive a formal education.

Society for a Divine World: A Catholic community similar to the Jesuits that is preparing young men for youth ministry in various parts of Viet Nam. Volunteers here are leading an English club to help the future priests learn the language.

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