Fresno State students head to Fiji to volunteer

The Fresno BeeDecember 25, 2013 

A group of Fresno State students are busy packing up gear — mosquito nets and all — and getting ready to say, "Bula" ("hello" in Fijian) to a winter break adventure in a remote ocean-side village in Fiji.

Seventeen students are traveling to the South Pacific archipelago to help build a community center in Naboutini, a town of about 100 on the northeast coast of Fiji's second-largest island.

The goal: To work alongside the residents to build a social space where they can meet in the evenings to sip kava-root grog, hold swap meets or musical events and take shelter during the rainy season.

"The volunteers will get out as much as they put into the project," said team leader John Lawler. "The villagers are so looking forward to seeing all the students and want them to enjoy their stay as much as possible. Hospitality is integral to Fijian lifestyle and Naboutini will be a home from home."

During the service-learning trip the students will also go fishing, play rugby and volleyball with the village's youngsters and, "of course, drink copious amounts of Yaqona, the national non-alcoholic drink of Fiji," Lawler said.

Lawler is the founder of Madventurer, a global nonprofit service group that is organizing the trip. The students fly from California to Nadi, Fiji on New Year's Eve. They'll then hop into eight-passenger planes and jaunt north from the country's main island to a small airport, where they'll pack into a bus for a four-hour ride to Naboutini.

The village is about 60 miles from the next-closest town. There's usually running water and electricity, Lawler said, and the students will lodge in basic wooden-frame houses in the heart of town.

Trip organizers Emily Hentschke and Alyssa Gutnik said they're not expecting frills. They're not going on a holiday vacation, they said — the point of the visit is to build a gathering place and learn about the residents' history and traditions.

"We hope this is a cultural exchange of sorts," said Gutnik, 22, a Fresno State senior. "We don't want to have the perspective of Americans going in on their white horses to save the day."

Hentschke said the trip, which is Fresno State's first international service-learning project, attracted compassionate students who truly want to learn more about other cultures. It's not charity, she said, but a way to build relationships.

"It's one thing to go to another country and see the sites," the 21-year-old Fresno State senior said, "but it's another thing to live amongst them."

Community service is not a requirement to graduate from Fresno State, said Lynnette Zelezny, dean of continuing education and associate provost. But she said there's compelling research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities showing students with service experience do better in school.

Students had to pay for airfare, but she said Fresno State covered the $1,080 program fees.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.

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