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Humanitarian travel: Discovering shared bonds with a global community

For the past 35 years, WCSU Adjunct Professor of Anthropology Dr. Jean Hatcherson has been traveling the globe on missions of humanitarian service – and since 2006, she has been introducing Western students to her world.

Hatcherson, a member of the WCSU faculty since 1999, first became involved in humanitarian travel during the 1970s and 1980s as a volunteer for nonprofit organizations providing assistance to orphanages, refugee camps and communities in Asia and Latin America, traveling widely to provide services ranging from delivery of medical supplies to escort of adopted children from their home countries to their new families in the United States. As volunteer administrator on a total of 22 international surgical missions for Healing the Children Northeast, she conducted site visits and coordinated medical team trips to 13 countries in Central and South America, Southeast Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Most recently, Hatcherson has become a volunteer in educational programs organized by the charitable organization Empower the Children to serve children and disabled adults in Kolkata, India; she plans to make her fifth trip to Kolkata as an Empower the Children volunteer in January 2013.     

Hatcherson’s recognition in an award ceremony this March as recipient of the 2012 Danbury Women’s Mentor of the Year Award highlighted her special gift to the university community – her eagerness to bring Western students along on humanitarian missions to raise their awareness of social and economic conditions far from their homeland.

“At times, I would talk about my trips in my classes, and my students would ask, ‘Why can’t we go on your trips, too?’” she recalled. Those persistent requests inspired Hatcherson to organize her first trip for WCSU students on a three-week mission to Bangladesh in January 2006 that offered an opportunity for service in support of visiting medical teams providing screenings and surgical treatment at clinics and hospitals in Dhaka and other sites. Students also completed readings and papers for course credit during the Bangladesh trip.

The success of the Bangladesh experience led to organization of a second humanitarian mission and study-abroad opportunity in Cambodia, including interviewing and participant observation for course work.

The subsequent founding of the Humanitarian Travel Club at Western has provided fresh impetus for student participation in a series of service missions led by Hatcherson over the past five years to Brazil, Ghana, Cape Verde, Ecuador and India. She said approximately 50 students have participated in one or more of these trips, providing volunteer labor and service in diverse tasks ranging from building an orphanage classroom and teaching English to repairing a day-care facility playground.

Lorien Crow '07, a Western graduate who traveled to Bangladesh and Ghana and plans to join Hatcherson again for the January 2013 mission to Kolkata, said she has been changed “in ways I never could have imagined” by her past trips. “I’ve learned strange and wonderful things – how to assist in an operating room, how rural villages are affected by global warming, how children are educated in Ghana, what struggles mothers face to keep their children healthy, how my daily choices affect the livelihood of people far away,” Crow said.

“I like to think I’ve become a more compassionate individual, less concerned with myself and more concerned with those around me, near and far,” she added. “As a writer and professor, I get to share my experiences and interpretations of the world, and I hope to lead my future students on trips abroad. I don’t know of a single student who has traveled with Jeannie who has not returned with a renewed sense of purpose, and that translates into actions that benefit not just the university, but the entire community.”

Mike Carlo '08 also found his participation in the Brazil and Ghana trips to be a life-changing experience that inspired him following his graduation from WCSU to serve for 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Ukraine.

“These trips take you far outside your comfort zone and force you to think about who you really are and what you want to do in a whole new way,” Carlo remarked. “What really makes those trips special is that you’re not just traveling and seeing a new place through the window of a tour bus, but you’re actually working side-by-side with the local population, addressing a need in their community.

“While we did accomplish concrete and tangible things on both of my trips, I found the most significant takeaway was the exchange of cultures and ideas between our group and the local people, particularly in Ghana, where many of us were exposed to real poverty for the first time,” he recalled. “We encountered children who seemed not to know what it was like to smile, but by the end of the week, we had formed such a close bond with those kids that it was very difficult for us to leave.

“While I hope that our classroom and the basketball hoop we built went to good use,” he added, “I know the real impact we had that week was more about the way we made each other feel and the memories we made.”

Carlo’s humanitarian travel provided a fresh perspective for his 2008 trip with 11 other Western students to Geneva, Switzerland, to study human rights issues and attend a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. “I had traveled to some areas of the world with very real and pressing problems, and then got to sit in on meetings with world leaders and policy makers as they discussed what could be done about them,” he said.     

Hatcherson observed that humanitarian travel often influences future career choices, noting that several WCSU graduates who participated in humanitarian travel have gone on to work for nonprofit organizations, public health and other agencies with service missions. Perhaps the most important lesson that students learn is their shared bond with the peoples of societies that seem so different from their own: “We have had the opportunity to work alongside people in these countries, learn about their social and economic conditions, and experience the sense of community that people can create anywhere in the world.

“I love seeing things though the eyes of our students for the first time, because it helps me to see familiar things in a new way,” Hatcherson said. “I always come back with more questions than answers.”

Cover photo: Dr. Jean Hatcherson (center) in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India.
Above photo: WCSU students visited students from Prayrona School in Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

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