November 27, 2007

C.U. Winter Service Takes Int’l Focus

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Unlike some Cornellians, Gerardo Zepeda ’09 will not spend this winter break going out late and sleeping in. Instead, he will use his time to build a sustainable library in Ocotal, Nicaragua.
Zepeda is just one of many students who will travel abroad this winter break to complete a service project. Many of the community service initiatives completed at Cornell are a combination of altruism and motivating personal experiences, and for some students, internationally-geared projects are no different.
This January, eight Cornell students will spend 10 days in Western Bengal, India educating young women on female health issues as part of a student led initiative, Project Protect. The project, which is administratively supported by Cornell Health International (CHI) and funded by private donors, came to fruition through the initiative of project leader Anushree Ray ’09.
While on a site visit to projects supported by Asha, a Cornell volunteer organization that supports education for unprivileged children in India, Ray learned there was a growing need to educate young women on health issues as an increasing number of young women leave their villages for urban areas and find themselves living alone. In India, there is “no distinguishing between general health and women’s health,” and that in rural areas discussing a women’s sexual health is “very taboo … no wants to do it.”
Ray, whose parents reside in western Bengal, pushed forward with her project after witnessing the rise HIV/AIDS epidemic in India, which is partly attributed to insufficient health education. “If I let this go, no one else is going to pick this up,” Ray said. But while her connection to India gave Ray the passion to follow the project through, she acknowledges that her cross cultural experience of growing up in America “is why I can do this project … had I grown up in India I might be part of that culture that sees this as too taboo” and says that “part of the problem is that no one wants to talk about these issues.”
The international nature of public service initiatives at Cornell is indicative of both the international background of its students and staff, but is also a reflection of the willingness of Cornellians to empathize with those who are culturally and geographically distant from themselves.
Zepeda, who plans to build the sustainable library with 14 other Cornellians in Nicaragua as part of a program designed by Centro de Idiomas, cites his long-standing belief in public service as his reason for taking part in this project. But he notes that other students chose to participate in order to obtain a cross culture experience.
The expansive vision that Cornellians have with regards to public service is what is driving these projects to become impacting and sustaining.
Prof. Monroe Weber-Shirk, civil and environmental engineering, is leading AguaClara, a project that strives to build small-scale water treatment plants in Honduras. According to Weber-Shirk, many Cornellians have the desire to extend their help further than the icy boundaries of Ithaca.
“My sense is, a lot of students care about people beyond themselves” and that the “core of engineering is to do things that help build a better society” and that ultimately students dedicate themselves to the project because “they very easily grab hold of the vision of what we’re trying to do,” Weber-Shirk said.