By Sama Al-Refai
As university students, it’s easy to feel as if we’re drowning in books, constantly racing to meet deadlines, as we hustle day and night to fulfill our numerous commitments; we often forget to slow down, self-explore and embrace all of our countless blessings. Last summer, Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) gave us the opportunity to expand our comfort zones, immerse ourselves in a new culture, and absorb the wisdom and knowledge of a foreign country: Vietnam.
The trip is part of GUST’s Mass Communication and Media Department’s annual summer internship program, run in coordination with Oxadventure. This is the fourth consecutive year that GUST has run this internship with the previous destinations being India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The internships are designed to expose students to new challenges, while providing opportunities to practice their media skills, and understand the importance of helping communities less fortunate than their own.
The first stage of the internship was to gather books and stationary to donate to a children’s charity in Vietnam. It was such a delight going through my old books, as old memories raced through my head, and I kept thinking about how such a simple act would have such a profound impact on the children we would meet in Vietnam. At this point, we also did thorough research on Vietnam, and educated ourselves on the Vietnam War and its impact on the country, the country’s current position as an ASEAN member, and its burgeoning economy.
While in Vietnam, a number of students kept a journal to not only document the journey, but to help internalize and interpret the significant moments we collectively went through. The following are excerpts from my writings during my time in Vietnam. They reveal the most pertinent moments that acted as eye-openers and catalysts to think more deeply about my life, and the world I want to live in.
July 17, 2017 – 7:52 AM
I can’t stop analyzing the familiar and the unfamiliar. An airport; a simple word that holds a much bigger context. An airport is where masses of people cross paths to fly onto other destinations. What I find alluring about airports is how people just come together with their differences. Monks, wanderers, imams, rabbis, priests, and people of all races and beliefs; it’s the place where we unite in peace and solidarity. In that moment, I envisioned myself boarding one flight after the other, meeting new people and embracing new cultures. All this and I still haven’t left Kuwait.
July 18, 2017 – 10:55AM
We boarded a plane to Abu Dhabi for a connecting flight to Bangkok, Thailand. With ears clogged, dimmed lights, and the airplane’s engine roaring in the background, I found my brain stirring with thoughts about life and the contradiction of truth. We are taught that happiness is luxury, and leading a meaningful life comes with a good income and stability, when in fact I’m beginning to think otherwise.
How does one lead a meaningful life? What does it mean? How can I determine whether or not mine is? And who gets to judge it?
July 19, 2017 – 6:20 AM
After spending one night in Bangkok, we took a drive to board our next flight to Da Nang, Vietnam. As the plane approached Da Nang, our home for the next few days, all I saw were my fellow Ox-ers looking out the window in complete astonishment. The view we saw from above was otherworldly. The mountains in all their majesty, the shades and hues of green. Oh, how they contrasted harmoniously with the lakes.
July 20, 2017 – 11:40 AM
Today we had the chance to visit the kids at Children’s Hope in Action, a local non-governmental organization that supports children’s education, and helps with disabilities and improving living conditions. It was such an eye-opening experience to see them smiling regardless of all they’ve been through and continue to go through. Some suffer from severe bone diseases, and yet that didn’t hold them back from sharing their laughter with us. The true essence of life is found under one term and one term only, “contentment”.
Content was all they were and all that we’re not. We get sucked into a world of consumerism and materialism; we begin to slowly convince ourselves that this is what happiness is. The truth is, happiness is attained once we’re content with the fundamentals of our lives.
July 21, 2017 – 9:03 AM
Our first day volunteering at Oytutomg School at Bhing brought on a spectrum of feelings. After three consecutive hours of painting the school walls, we were tired, happy, sore, and at the same time excited to meet the children. For the next three days, we helped organize the books we collected and categorized them according to genre and subject. Volunteering really pushes you out of your comfort zone. Your soul starts connecting with nature and you begin to break your own borders. You begin to realize that there’s more to life than just a recurring routine and conformity.
For the next week, we spent our days endlessly exploring the small town of Hoi An. We took cooking classes, biked around an island, kayaked through lakes and scuba-dived.
July 27, 2017 – 4:26PM
As a group, we understood the true meaning of the term ‘cooperation’. We lifted each other’s spirits whenever one felt down, shared genuine laughter, and were sure to offer one another kind gestures. We’d spend long nights talking about our backgrounds, and how our differences actually unite us, just like an airport. At the end, the small things count for so much.
It was at this point that the thought of leaving Vietnam and the kids behind brought me down. What brought my spirits back up was the comforting notion that I had contributed to making their lives better by supplying them with tools for a better education, and a way to improve their lives
The biggest lesson I learned on my trip to Vietnam was to accept people for who they are, regardless of any cultural, ethnic, or ideological differences. Unfortunately, this is a daily struggle we face in our society, and sadly we tend to block out people who do not share our views, principles, and beliefs. A sustainable open mind gives us the opportunity to learn so much.
Most importantly, the trip to Vietnam helped me uncover what I wanted to do with my life: to travel the world, create more art, and do my part to help people improve their lives. Personally, I urge everyone to take a leap of faith and try something new. This experience has shaped me both internally and externally, and I’m very thankful for that.