Wolverines spend summers helping communities, researching abroad

By Sabira Khan, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 7, 2011

LSA senior Nader Hakim didn’t spend a month in India this summer to sightsee and vacation.

He participated in a research project studying the sexual health issues of men. Not only was Hakim’s experience an academic learning experience, but it was also a lesson in cultural exchange.

“It was the first time for me that I visited a foreign country and I wasn’t a pure tourist,” he said. “I wasn’t just jumping from landmark to landmark.

With a four-month summer, some University students like Hakim decided to take the long break from school to leave Ann Arbor and embark on journeys around the globe. And, like Hakim’s time in India, many students’ time abroad involved participating in research and on-site projects helping communities. These students often take away more than just their academic projects, forcing them to reflect on their own lives.

As a research intern at the Public Health Research Institute of India, Hakim analyzed sources of sexual information for Indian men. His task was to determine whether there was a link between these sources and men’s sexual practices and whether there were shortcomings in the sex education system that could lead to sexual health problems later in life.

The most significant part of the trip, he said, was forming relationships despite the language barrier.

“I would say, probably the biggest (take away) would be the universality of a smile,” he said. “I don’t know — there’s something about it. People, when they travel, usually note that people are not as engaging, and I stuck out like a sore thumb in India, and I did get a lot of stares, but those occasional smiles did make a huge difference.”

While LSA junior Gallal Obeid did a little traveling around Europe this summer, he spent most of his time working at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, where he researched Parkinson’s disease.

“I’ve never learned so much in so little time,” Obeid said. “I really wished I could stay longer."

Like Hakim, Obeid said one of the main benefits of his time abroad was learning about a different culture first hand. And, he said, he plans to return to Switzerland next summer to continue his research.

“I was really worried about the cultural boundaries and being alone,” he said. “But I learned that wherever you go, if the people there are the ones that make the trip, the people make the journey and you really learn from them. They really made the experience worth it.”

LSA junior Mel Hebeisen’s travels this summer involved a trip to Indonesia through the University’s Global Intercultural Experience for Undergraduates program. Hebeisen’s group researched the preservation of traditional Indonesian culture, which she said is being eroded by tourism.

Hebeisen said she chose the program because she wanted to be immersed in an unfamiliar culture while experiencing the comfort and safety of traveling with University students.

“I chose Indonesia because I knew I’d probably never have a chance to go to Southeast Asia, and it was a culture that I really wasn’t familiar with at all,” she said.

Hebeisen added that her favorite part of the journey was living with her homestay family because her experiences during that time allowed her to truly learn about life in Indonesia.

“You got to see how a family functions, and you got really close to the parents and the siblings and you could kind of tell them about what the U.S. was like and they would tell you what their life was like … which was really awesome,” she said.

Hebeisen added that along with the knowledge about Indonesian NGOs and their efforts to preserve traditional culture, her time abroad instilled in her two new ideas: the need to reduce stress in her life and to learn more about people.

“We’re so scheduled and everything is so intense and competitive, and it made me kind of step back and realize how stressful my life is and how I can change that,” she said. “I learned how important it is to get to know people around you and how important it is to ask people questions about their life and really not just talk about surface things — talk about things that are important to people — because then you really get to know who they are.”

LSA junior Alexander Ludwig also spent time this summer engaging in community outreach. Ludwig spent two weeks working with the Honduras Medical Brigade, which organized a medical mission trip.

During the first week, participants went to a preschool, helped open a free clinic and distributed health and hygiene samples to patients. The second week was spent providing basic necessities for local homes.

“We helped them build a bathroom, a water storage system, a stove, and then we also cemented their floors so that they wouldn’t get a deadly virus that people get in Honduras from walking barefoot on the ground,” Ludwig said.

Not only did the trip increase Ludwig’s determination to go into the medical field, but it also forced him to reconsider his priorities.

“The biggest life lesson I learned was to really appreciate the loved ones that you have, because the people of Honduras only really had their loved ones. They didn’t have any materialistic items like we do,” he said. “They just have the love of each other, and here in America we have been clouded by material things, and we sometimes forget about those closest to us.”