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Students return from India with new perspective

by UofL Today last modified Jan 22, 2010 10:07 AM

At a health clinic in India, UofL freshman Deepa Patel met a woman who needed new glasses. The woman arrived at the clinic – where several UofL students spent winter break working – carrying what she had been using to help her see more clearly.

Two lenses, attached to a piece of rope.

 "It was definitely a learning experience," Patel, a biology and Spanish double major, said. "It really makes you think about things we take for granted. Something as simple as going to get glasses."

Patel and four other University of Louisville students completed a 10-day service trip to India over winter break.

The students helped two nonprofit organizations in Chandigarh and Punjab –  Sewa Simran and Sood Bhawan – operate medical camps in needy communities. More than 800 people participated in the free camps, which offered glucose screenings, eye exams, general checkups and gynecological exams.

UofL's group registered participants, managed the crowd and assisted with the medical record documentation. The group also handed out new glasses that had been donated by groups in Louisville. The students, through their own money and donations from Louisville physicians and other groups, also sponsored 15 cataract surgeries.

"Seeing the gratitude in people’s eyes as we handed them their glasses, or as they thanked us for sponsoring their cataract surgeries, was unbelievable," said Deep Aggarwal, a sophomore finance and biology double major who organized the trip. "Sometimes with short-term service projects such as this one, where you’re interacting with the people you are serving for as little as an hour, you never know how much of a difference you are truly making in their lives or in their future.  But it was truly rewarding to see. They were so thankful that there was someone that showed interest and who cared."

Other trip participants included Elvin Webb, graduate industrial engineering student; Jade Ashley, graduate public health student; and Tommy Vollmar, a senior physical therapy major. The group was accompanied by Gerome Stephens, UofL coordinator of student leadership and a doctoral student in educational leadership. Aggarwal’s mother, a family practitioner, and his father, who helped handle the logistics of the trip, accompanied the students. They were also joined by Ashley’s parents, who are doctor and nurse.

Aggarwal was the driving force behind the trip. He said he helped at medical camps while in high school and was inspired to try to organize a similar trip while in college.

"I began thinking about Third World countries, where access to health care was even more dismal, and I wanted to do my part – however small that may be – to help rectify this issue," Aggarwal said.

His parents, as well as his extended family living in India, helped identify groups in the area that already operated health camps in India and would welcome additional resources.

Aggarwal approached students on campus about participating in the camp. Once a few signed up, they began seeking donations from the local medical community that would aid the clinics in India. Some groups donated supplies and others donated money.

Aggarwal said the trip could not have been successful without the support of the university, particularly Student Affairs and the University of Louisville Foundation.

Stephens, a Student Affairs staff member who traveled with the students, said service trips allow UofL students to grow and get a better understanding of the world around them. This trip is just one of the many types of service opportunities UofL offers to enrich students.

"International trips like this trip to India – and even domestic service opportunities –  allow students to step outside of their comfort zone and out of their own personal constructs for the world and see through the eyes of people with whom they may have not otherwise come in contact," Stephens said. "With the globalization of workforces comes the necessity for students to graduate with the ability to thrive in new places and process cultures that are not their own. I can think of no better way to develop new understandings than to immerse ourselves in other cultures through service."         

Dean of Students Michael Mardis commended Aggarwal for taking the initiative to organize the service project.

"It is a pleasure to work with the caliber of students we have at UofL," Mardis said. "Deep showed a great deal of leadership and vision in the planning of this trip to India. This is a testament to what students at the University of Louisville are able to accomplish."

Aggarwal said he hopes to make the trip an annual affair.

"This gives me nothing but hope for the future of this project," he said. "It can only grow and improve as the years go by."

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