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From Quang Tri to Manhattan: Discovering Social Impact from Countryside to City

January 27, 2017

This week we are featuring an article by Jen Louie. Jen joined our faculty member Christoph Giebel’s 2015 summer study abroad program Viet Nam: Building for Peace in the Wake of War. The 2017 application for this program closes February 15. 

By the time the egg coffee was in my hand and the sun crept above Hoàn Kiếm lake, sweat began to drip down my back, motorcycles slowly filled the streets, and elderly Vietnamese women finished up their morning aerobic exercise in the park.

Last summer, I spent nearly six weeks studying Vietnamese war and history and volunteering with PeaceTrees in the Quang Tri Province of central Vietnam through a UW Comparative History of Ideas program.  To view the blog I kept, please click here.

Everyone boasts about the glory of studying abroad; being immersed in another culture and gaining unimaginable unique experiences. And these clichés proved true throughout my time in Vietnam. I played soccer barefoot on concrete slabs between busy streets with a team of local Vietnamese boys, painted playgrounds in schoolyards tucked away in the countryside, and ate endless bowls of freshly picked fruits unique to South East Asia. I enjoyed the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises, endless rolling rice fields, and mountainous backdrops.

But study abroad isn’t always the enjoyable eye opening adventure it’s made out to be. It is consistently challenging in all regards: mentally, physically, and emotionally. I can confidently say that those six weeks ruthlessly questioned my perception, pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone, and questioned years of personal values and beliefs more than anyone or anything has before.

Throughout the volunteering portion of our program, my awareness of voluntourism was brought to a whole new level. During this trip, Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions” became one of my most valued texts. What Illich’s discusses remains the basis of a perspective on international social issues, necessary for anyone interested in social impact. Our group discussions on white man’s burden, poverty porn, voluntourism, and sustainable community programs were difficult to have.

But they were some of the most important conversations I’ve ever had the privilege of being a part of.

Professor Christoph Giebel was an inspirational mentor and the Program Directors of PeaceTrees carried an admirable passion for service. These people crafted a space for constructive unconventional conversations to be had without obliterating my idealistic hope for the future of social impact.

Although I can’t speak for other countries or programs, Vietnam has an environment vastly different from western civilization. It is a rich, vibrant, and bustling culture, met with crowded urban populations and high rates of poverty. Similarly, the CHID program created an opportunity for students to interact on a local level and think critically about international relations and social impact of western civilizations on developing nations. It was a summer that ignited my passion for people, cultural understanding, travel, and the power of positive social impact.

This Summer, I continued to act upon my passion for social justice in a vastly different setting. I swapped out the motorcycles and street food for a familiar scene of yellow taxi cabs and sky scrapers. Born and raised in New York, I decided to come back home to be a marketing and brand intern at a start up, Marketing Strategy Dharma (MSD).

My adventures abroad from last summer carried over pressure to spend this summer in a more traditional business environment to construct the professional skills desired in a work place. Similarly, to the unique social impact concentration of the CHID program, MSD works heavily with clients focused on a double or triple bottom line and values using their resources towards a positive social impact.

MSD is focused on “storytelling, strategic partnerships, and developing content for emerging and impact brands.” I am privileged to work directly alongside the CEO and Content Supervisor, which means I can turn around in my chair to ask my boss a question, talk and dress casually in the office, and be able to sit in on meetings with clients and partners. When I imagined interning at a small start up, I honestly pictured lots of printing, copying, mailing, and minimal content development work. But I quickly realized that the work I do is much more meaningful and impactful than I initially thought it would be.

By the beginning of the third week I was tasked with conducting research and creating an implementation timeline for the major long term project MSD is working on with 1 Hotels, to kick off the opening of their new environmentally sustainable hotel in Brooklyn Bridge Park. It was the first time I felt as though my research, findings, and work carried meaningful real life implications. It felt incredible to transition the work to a real life situation that would be presented in meetings with clients and was valued by my boss. Surrounding myself in a business startup environment has allowed me to expand my marketing content portfolio by developing work for events and creating presentations filled with new ideas to consider for clients.

There is a stark contrast between sitting at my desk, soaking in air conditioning while working on impact brand research, and sitting on the floor of a kindergarten classroom in a rural village with fresh paint marks up and down my legs. Yet both experiences have undoubtedly given me the opportunity to gain valuable perspectives that have changed the dynamic of my personal and professional mindset.

Interning has allowed me to work on high profile projects and sit in on valuable meetings that carry implications towards work that further develops the stories and impact of NGO’s and impact brands. As I carry out and witness the conversations, research, presentations, and meetings that result in partnerships, events, and increased recognition for organizations just like PeaceTrees, I maintain the critical global perspectives I gained last summer.

As someone who aims to utilize her business education to work in the space of an impact brand or NGO, these experiences have gifted me with a much needed critical perspective and deeper understanding of social justice in developing nations.

Whether you spend your time off from school traveling abroad or interning at a corporation, allow your passions to carry you forward through the work that you do. Commit yourself whole heartedly to the path you set foot on, regardless of how uncertain you may feel because I guarantee there are lessons to be learned and perspectives to be gained.

Huge thank you to Sonia Xu for all of her help, support, and inspiration.

Edited by Sonia Xu, University of Washington Campus Editor

#StudentVoices #Interning