Two new Ph.D. candidates arrived at the ZOC last week, both to spend three years learning under Dr. Congdon (one of my two immediate mentors). We’re contrasting medical school applications in the US and China over lunch, and I’m listing out the wide range of things they look at in the US: MCATs, grades, essays, letters of reference, extracurriculars (“kewaihuodong” in Chinese). The conversation then shifts to the work I’ve been doing here in China.

“So this is like your kewaihuodong,” one of them says with a grin. I laugh sheepishly. It’s true, that in the beginning what I was looking for was something that would get me out of the classroom, involved in something fresh and new, and—incidentally—look real nice on a resume.

It seems like it’s not just American students that yearn for these things either.

How I came to meet and involve 20 local volunteers is a story of early intentions, good connections, and sheer dumb luck. Back in fall 2010, as soon as I learned that I had been awarded the Lang scholarship, I sat down for a long talk over dinner with my buddy Haichao, an international student from China and one of the capable organizers I have ever met. In that talk, he had strongly advised me to find a group of local volunteers who could provide manpower and help me coordinate activities on the ground while I wasn’t there.

It sounded good in theory, but I had no idea how an American student with shaky Chinese and no local connections could get a chance to interact with local medical students. That chance came in the form of a godsend: my very first week in China my apartment mate (another American student) told me she had been invited to talk with a group of medical students from Sun-Yat Sen University but had made plans to go to Hong Kong; would I be interested in going in her place?

(Thanks, God)

Never mind that I had to do some research of my own in order to talk about the US medical education system. I jumped on the opportunity and met a group of eager medical students. Among them was a third-year dental student named Zhang Qin…

…whom I sat down with over a cup of iced tea toward the end of the summer. It was during this conversation that I mentioned my hope to incorporate volunteer activities into my project this summer, and in which she told me about the Zhijiao volunteer team (“Volunteer teaching”) at Sun-Yat Sen University, a group established three years ago based on a volunteer teaching model, but which had been hoping to expand into medically-related volunteer activities.

She put me in touch with a former Zhijiao team leader, who put me in touch with a current leader Jia Qianju. He and I established email contact during the school year, and he helped recruit 20 volunteers for the SEER project this summer.

After arriving in China this summer, one of the very first things I did was arrange to meet the 20 enthusiastic volunteers and talk a bit about our plans for the summer.

Last weekend, we carried out a training for the volunteers at the ophthalmic center, where head nurse Ms. Huang gave an excellent interactive demonstration of how to check vision.

The volunteers’ anticipated role includes:

  • Assisting with the training of VHWs, especially the practical training
  • Traveling to villages following the training to assist in patient education and help the VHW during his/her first screenings
  • Promoting awareness of blindness prevention work at Sun Yat-Sen University

That’s the plan, at least. To be honest, it’s a huge leap of faith they’re taking, joining this little project of mine. At the time of recruitment back in the spring, all I could offer is a vague description of the project goals, and suggestions for roles that volunteers could play. Even now, we are incrementally gaining a better understanding of the situation in the villages, and how best to go about carrying out patient education. Fact is, this kind of trip hasn’t been done before, and any project—no matter how beautifully planned—is going to be a trial-and-error process full of setbacks.

What’s more, as medical students in China, this summer is the first and last summer break these volunteers will have. Come August, the majority of local students here will be flocking home for their one-month break, while these 20 will be traveling instead to rural China with little more than a rough plan and their can-do attitude.

Kewaihuodong comes in many forms, and stems from many different motivations. Some people are looking for a way to contribute their time and energy. Some have an eye on their future employment or grad school application prospects. But in a country where kewihuodong isn’t on the list of things schools are looking for, it’s gotta take a true sense of devotion to sign up for something like this.

Here’s to them.

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