Students travel to Vietnam on Alternative Break trip

The trip to the country, the first in a decade, addressed post-conflict issues that affect daily life in the region.

Students travel to Vietnam on Alternative Break trip

Photo courtesy of Steve Cammarota, a junior who is participating in the trip.

Over the winter holidays, 13 AU students and two faculty advisors set off on an alternative break trip to Vietnam to explore post-conflict issues affecting the daily lives of many in the country.

The itinerary for the Dec. 28–Jan.10 trip consists of visits to various locations in Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, according to Chris Diamond, a senior in the School of Communication and School of Public Affairs and a student leader for the trip. Justyna Kepa, a senior in the School of International Service and College of Arts and Sciences joins Diamond as the second student leader for the program. They will be accompanied by CAS Professors Max Friedman and Katharina Vester.

Participants will see how the Vietnamese have been impacted by exposure to toxic herbicides like Agent Orange, used by the United States during the Vietnam War, and explosive remnants of the war, as they strive to gain a better understanding of the U.S.–Vietnam relationship. They will also be contributing to a blog about their experiences throughout the journey.

A decade has passed since the last alternative break trip to Vietnam, due to a lack of student initiative in traveling there. Alternative breaks, which are service learning trips, cannot be organized without direct action from students, as they are the ones responsible for submitting a proposal, planning and leading the trips, according to Christine Gettings, the assistant director of Global Learning and Leadership at the Center for Community Engagement and Service.

Diamond became involved in leading this winter’s trip after having studied abroad in Vietnam in the summer of 2013 and then participating in an alternative break in Haiti this past spring.

“I was invited to lead this trip after being a student participant in an alternative break trip to Haiti in March,” Diamond said. “That was very eye opening and definitely inspired me to do this.”

During his summer abroad in Vietnam, Diamond became passionate about issues such as the presence of unexploded ordnance, which are explosive weapons left behind from years ago that can still go off and cause harm today. He also learned of children who were born with severe birth defects caused by the toxic contaminant dioxin in Agent Orange. Diamond is excited about traveling back to Vietnam and is happy to be leading the trip.

“I’m looking forward to being back in Vietnam, and working with the U.S. government and other agencies. I believe that a lot of good can be done,” Diamond said. “One of the first things we’re doing in Vietnam is meeting with the U.S. Consulate and people from the State Department who will be informing us about the current U.S.–Vietnam relationship.”

The first half of the trip is focused on Agent Orange while the second half is centered on unexploded ordnance, according to Diamond. Students will be learning what effective current cleanup methods for unexploded ordnance are and work with several organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development or USAID and Project RENEW, which helps in clearing out explosive remnants and keeping the Vietnamese safe. MAG International is another organization dedicated to discovering unexploded ordnance that they will work with. Students will be visiting a hospital to spend time children who have birth defects and see how they can be better helped as well.

“At Tu Du Peace Village, a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City that has patients with birth defects, we will be spending a good part of the day with kids and the staff, and be with children who need 24-hour attention and see what they could use more of and what they need,” Diamond said.

Upon their return to D.C., Diamond and the group plan on using the knowledge gained from the trip to work with the U.S. government and different organizations to create positive change.

“We will be doing more work in the months to come. We will be bringing our knowledge to Congress and members of the State Department and various nonprofits, and figuring out what can be done in helping the Vietnamese further,” Diamond said.

Diamond hopes that the other students become more aware of the lasting effects of war by looking at the current situation in Vietnam and seeing the suffering of innocent citizens touched by it.

“What I want participants to take away is how long lasting the damage of war can be, and understand how we can work with the Vietnamese government to undo past wrongs,” Diamond said.

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