Written by Vivian Chan, 2013 Glenn and Susan Brace Center for Global Health Scholar Award Recipient
Approximately half a year ago, I was given the opportunity to travel to Guatemala with a dozen other first year medical students. After weeks of seeking multiple avenues to go abroad in hope of aiding outside communities away from home, I was extremely excited to be given an opportunity to do exactly that. It all started with a virtual introduction during which I was directed to the Program Coordinator of the Center of Global Health (CGH), April Ballard. During our casual meeting over a cup of coffee, April had suggested a couple of places that were plausible for me to join even though the preferred timeline with interested applicants had passed. April was extremely helpful and understanding even when I shyly confessed to her that I have never stepped foot outside America. I knew this was not a shortcoming on my part, but the fact that it was simply an issue of time. As an undergraduate aspiring to be a part of the medical field in the near future, I was extremely enthusiastic about working in a foreign country not only to expand my academics in different fields, but also to apply my working knowledge in creating or continuing projects that are associated with an established organization for a greater purpose. After months of writing proposals, submitting protocols, and preparing for cultural immersion, a land that had been deeply afflicted by war, poverty, and conflict for decades was going to be my new home for the next six weeks.
After three weeks of Spanish class at a local school in Xela called Celas Maya, my partner, Robert Schenck, and I headed off to San Lucas, a small town around Lake Atitlán comprised of a community called San Martin. An introduction of health courses, biosand water filters, and in-country follow-ups were implemented in the area as a model to assess the possibility of mimicking the program to other communities in need. At the start of our project, we were extremely appreciative at how willing the San Martin community members opened their doors to welcome us as foreigners. We were not denied by any of the families that we surveyed and the majority of them treated us as respected guests. The women whose homes had a filter particularly expressed deep gratitude for the work that the University of Virginia Guatemala Initiative (UVa GI) has done in order for them to receive their drinking systems, which were available after they completed an educational class on the mechanisms of maintaining good sustainability and water quality practices. Having heard of the improvements through advisors or coordinators, it was hard to imagine how much progress had been made before we arrived until the moment we interacted with the recipients of our work. However, there is still more to strive toward in the upcoming years, as the question of long-term financial sustainability in order to bring this water project to more communities is a pressing one.
Often I had thought that opportunities for developing healthcare related projects in international communities were only offered to a selective student population with concrete ideas and functional propositions. However, it dawned on me that I was wrong when Dr. David Burt, the director of the UVa GI, spoke with me about the prospect of co-leading a carbon credit project that focuses on establishing future financial stability for the ongoing water filter program recently initiated in San Martin. As an Economics major with a Pre-Medicine background, I found that I was able to utilize skills that I have acquired in both subjects to facilitate the beginning stages of a carbon credit platform for other students to carry out in the future.
Essentially, our job was to investigate if the water filters not only provide clean water to community members, but if they also provide positive externalities such as decreasing carbon output. If it could be verified that these filters reduce carbon output because there is no longer as great a need to boil water to make it safe, and, as significant, decrease deforestation, quantifying this reduced carbon output could result in carbon credits that could be sold on an open exchange that could be a source of sustained funding. So the amount of wood usage, water consumption, and boiling methods are just some of the critical variables in which we aimed to determine. Afterwards, it was necessary to translate the results into scientific and statistical data, allowing us to analyze and decide a more focused direction for the future planning of carbon credits.
From enrolling in Spanish School to surveying an indigent community in San Martin, my experience in Guatemala has truly been one of the most inspirational and worthwhile journeys that I have had the privilege to embark on throughout my education here at the UVa. It would not have been possible without the continuous support and mentorship at CGH and from the UVa GI. I am so honored to have been funded by the Glenn and Susan Brace Scholar Award, which is the main reason why I had the opportunity to travel in Guatemala, improve my Spanish skills, and contribute my fair share in such a meaningful organization that has helped many students achieve valuable experiences in a global context. I genuinely believe that these programs offered by many universities teach us lessons in ways that words cannot easily describe. It is up to the students to incorporate a sense of responsibility from the experience, the memories, and the relationships made during this process to continually assist those who are less fortunate, but more importantly, to realize that we are all under the same sky, all equally entitled to the basic necessities of life.