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Study abroad students launch fundraiser for Fijian host community

students on a study abroad trip
November 13, 2014

Fiji’s Votua Village has been welcoming Arizona State University study abroad students for years, providing what is often the highlight of a program that focuses on culture, the environment and health.

What makes the village experience so meaningful to the students is that the villagers appear to have so little yet give so much. Their homes are meagerly stocked and modest – usually concrete slabs and walls, some without doors or electricity – yet they invite students in as family, giving up their beds, preparing meals for them and happily sharing their resources.

Before departing Fiji last summer, the latest group of study abroad participants decided they wanted to leave their hosts with more than their gratitude.

“All of the students discussed the need they saw there for simple medical supplies that we all have in our cupboards at home,” says Brooklyn Elkan, a double major in global health and nursing.

So, students and faculty took up a collection. Elkan, who stayed behind for a short vacation with her husband, bought supplies specified by the local nurse and delivered them. She was amazed at how much $300 purchased in Fiji and how simple the needs were – items like cream for scabies, Band-Aids and crutches.

Anthropology and sustainability undergraduate Colby Howell personally and painfully learned about the medical supply shortage when she broke her foot during her study abroad trip. Her foot was immobilized in papier-mâché, and she left the hospital without crutches, as all eight sets had already been loaned to the public.

Howell’s make-shift cast dissolved after a couple of days, and she spent most of her visit walking on her broken foot, until eventually locating and borrowing a pair of crutches from a local. Her experience provided an example to her entire group about the reality of health care in the area.

Associate professor Jameson Wetmore of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences led the Fiji program and witnessed the students’ journey toward advocacy and humanitarianism.

“On our last trip we were startled to find out that, while they have a very capable nurse in the village, she doesn’t have any supplies,” Wetmore explains.

Back in the U.S., the students continued to brainstorm and collaborate on ways to effect change in Votua. They have now launched a PitchFunder campaign to raise money for basic medical necessities, as well as much-needed everyday items – like diapers and personal hygiene products – that are not affordable or readily available to the villagers.

Leading the initiative is PitchFunder account manager and global health major Ha Mai, who fell in love with Votua’s children. She became worried about their access to preventive or routine health care and decided to put her background in crowdfunding to work for them and their families.

“This project is a chance for ASU to give back and strengthen the bonds we’ve formed over the years. And I’m very impressed by the fact that the project is completely student motivated,” Wetmore says. “The students are not just learning about global health, they’ve taken the initiative to improve it.”

To donate to the Funds for Fiji project, visit the ASU Foundation site.