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Recent Sociology Graduate Learned Lessons Traveling to Vietnam

Jennifer Mizuki (Sociology, ’19) is pursuing a master’s degree in social welfare at UCLA. After she graduated from Cal Poly in June, she went on an Alternative Breaks Global Service trip to Vietnam through the Center for Service in Action. Her participation was partially sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts. She wrote the following reflection on her experience.

Mizuki creating a poster with students at Tam Ha School.
Mizuki creating a poster with students at Tam Ha School.  

Traveling to Vietnam with the intention to serve rather than simply “travel,” provided a unique opportunity to experience the culture in a real and engaging way. Our work allowed us to teach students in both a low-income school and a shelter about various topics, ranging from the water cycle to leadership. There, we were able to establish personal relationships with both the students and the staff and gain a special insight into the Vietnamese culture. For example, I felt that the school’s rules were more flexible, and in a way, more trusting, as opposed to the stricter policies implemented here in America. One of the days that we were teaching at Tam Ha School, we walked the students back after visiting a school for folks with visual impairments. The walk was about two miles and there were significantly fewer number of adults to supervise the children. Some students were taking shortcuts, some were buying drinks and food at local food stands, and I was overwhelmed with concern! However, all the students ended up at the school.

It was interesting to me because I previously thought that strict order and control were inherent characteristics of childcare. Though I don’t believe that we should do away with safety precautions, that experience caused me to question the assumed nature of a lot of systems in America. I believe that is the greatest gift of traveling, learning that all cultures and systems find a state of homeostasis through diverse means, and that there is never one superior, perfect way of doing anything.

Mizuki (center) on a boat tour exploring the Mekong Delta.
Mizuki (center) on a boat tour exploring the Mekong Delta.  

Between weeks of service, we were privileged to be able to visit the Mekong Delta and receive such wonderful care from our hosts. This was my favorite part of the trip as I felt that the countryside provided a more preserved depiction of Vietnam’s culture. Though the city had its fair share of cultural specificity, I felt that the influence of globalization slightly diluted Vietnam’s unique history and culture. On the first day of our excursion, we were lucky enough to be guided through the delta by a native herself, giving us insight about this region’s history and cultural norms, and the central role that spirituality plays in everyday life there. We also visited the homes of community members and learned how to make Vietnamese donuts and rice paper. It felt so special to be welcomed into their homes and treated with such generosity and openness. In addition, we were able to see how handmade coconut candy and rice treats, two local specialties, were made, as well as visit a pottery factory and a floating market, which surprisingly consisted of a cluster of boats selling a variety of items, ranging from clothes to fruit. Everything was unique and different than anything that I had experienced living in California my entire life.

Mizuki learned how to make homemade ricepaper in a Vietnamese family's home.
Mizuki learned how to make homemade rice
paper in a Vietnamese family's home.  

In terms of personal growth, I now believe that traveling abroad is an invaluable experience that – should circumstances permit – all young adults should consider. The experience was entirely out of my comfort zone, everything, from traveling with near strangers to teaching a lesson in front of a class, was a challenge. At times, I felt homesick and scared, and others I felt so proud of myself for growing and adapting. I was also lucky enough to be grouped with truly compassionate, kind, brave individuals, who taught me so many things that I would have never learned about from my familiar friend group back at home.

Though I have since graduated, this experience influences every interaction I have with this world, from simply the way I season my tofu to the way I view cultural differences. I will take these tools and lessons and apply them to my future in social welfare. I am eternally grateful for this experience and the opportunity to grow into a more self-aware, culturally competent, and confident individual.

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