Formmates chose Trudy Lei ’10 to receive Groton’s Frederick Greeley Crocker Memorial Award, given each spring to a college junior who has brought honor to Groton. Trudy, a public health major at University of California/Davis, has focused on service for years, most recently with UC Davis’ Global Water Brigades.
In your speech to the Sixth Form, before Prize Day, you encouraged the students to volunteer internationally but warned them to really learn about the communities they serve. What experience(s) made you realize that this is important?
In Honduras, we worked intimately with a community to implement a clean water system. We were able to talk with them and discuss their needs and desires. Through this experience, I began to understand the importance of working alongside the people you are trying to help, rather than simply for them. In Ghana, I took formal classes taught by native Ghanaians who were experts in their fields. They were able to reach a deeper connection and understanding of the situations of other Ghanaians and taught us how to properly approach communities culturally and how to recognize issues that outsiders often overlook.
With all the needs in the developing world, why do you consider access to clean water the most important?
Water is one of the basic human necessities. Lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation is the largest cause of illness in the world. In fact, at any given time, approximately half of the world’s hospital beds are occupied by those with water-related illnesses. Children are the most affected, with water issues causing more deaths than malaria, AIDS, and measles combined. Lack of access to clean water is an economic issue as well. Millions of women and children spend hours every single day walking miles to water sources that are often polluted, time that could be used more productively. I think access to clean, safe water is a human right, and we often don’t think of how much our lives are made possible simply because we have a reliable water system.
What does Global Water Brigades do?
Global Brigades is a sustainable development organization that uses a holistic model to help develop the communities, meaning that it uses health, economic, and education initiatives to create sustainable change, tackling poverty from all sides. Global Water Brigades is one of Global Brigades’ nine programs; it works to bring clean water systems to communities not only to provide them with water for all uses, but also to tackle the source of many illnesses, preventing future health problems. To do so, we help build clean water systems, establish water councils and sanitation committees, and educate the community members. As students, we are there to help provide the resources that the communities cannot afford, as well as to educate the members and ourselves about all the issues.
Can you describe how you’ve seen well-intentioned volunteer efforts do more harm than good?
While studying in Ghana, my global nutrition professor took us on a community entry field trip. We did a small ritual requesting permission from the elders to enter the community, walked around learning how to do an initial assessment, and conversed with the elders. The elders told us that a non-profit had created a garden without discussing it with the community, which didn’t know much about the project and weren’t receiving any benefits from the garden. This volunteer effort didn’t involve the community and therefore didn’t meet its needs. Though this particular project did not do harm to the community, it was waste of time, effort, and resources. From construction work, to orphanage help, to medical work, service in all sectors can result in wasted efforts or even negative effects if not handled properly.
How can a volunteer be sure s/he is directing efforts to a worthwhile, effective cause?
Research! Understand the issues regarding international service. Understand what you are going to do when you volunteer. Understand the long-term effects of your work. If you are going through an organization, learn about the organization’s overall goals and its goals for your project. Make sure the organization has in-country staff who follow every project through each step. If you are paying for your experience, know where your money is going. While we are young and untrained, what we can really contribute may be small, but we can use these experiences to educate ourselves about international issues and make sure that what we do has a positive long-term effect, even if it’s small!
What do you consider the difference between helping and giving?
I hate to use a cliché, but it’s explained well by the proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Helping a community achieve its goals gives residents ownership of the projects. By helping to earn the result, they also seek to maintain it. People around the world are extremely dedicated to the improvement of their lives and those of future generations when given the knowledge and opportunity to do so, but they need a helping hand. As volunteers, we can guide them, helping them help themselves.
What countries have you visited?
Too many to list! My family did a lot of traveling while I was younger, so I actually don’t remember much about the countries we visited except what has been captured in photos. More recently, I lived in Shanghai for five years plus four years back and forth from Groton. I visit my relatives in Taiwan often and did a two-month summer research internship there as well. Last fall semester, I studied abroad in Ghana and spent my fall break backpacking through two neighboring countries, Togo and Benin. Lastly, I’ve spent the past two spring breaks in Honduras with Global Water Brigades and will head back for a third time this coming March. I love traveling and cannot wait to visit more countries!
How did Groton influence your current interests?
A couple of Groton classes introduced some topics that I am now passionate about. Although Mr. Lyons can confirm I was not the best student in American History, my research paper topic gave me insight into the interplay of politics and cultural and race relations in the United States that I’d never previously thought or known about. This led me to take courses in Asian American Studies and Chicano/a Studies, two ethnic groups commonly overlooked when discussing discrimination. Through the social justice class I took for Groton’s Ethics requirement, I learned about the inequalities that plague our social systems, which led me to take courses in sociology and to read about issues such as socioeconomic status, education, race, health care, and welfare, all of which are inextricably linked.