Sweat equity and community spirit took on new meaning for seven Suffolk students and a staff member who traveled to Vietnam over winter break to help build a family home in a remote farming town.

The team started the week learning to lay a line of brick on a prepared foundation. By week’s end, they had completed the Habitat for Humanity home’s nine-foot-tall walls.

“The first couple of days I was hot and exhausted, but I kept pushing on,” said student leader Lesley Ta, who was visiting Vietnam for the first time, although her parents had emigrated from there. “My sweat was dripping into the cement, and I thought: I’m giving this family all I have, trying to make a difference. I left a piece of myself in Vietnam–literally and figuratively.”

The Suffolk construction crew shared reflections about their service experience each evening at dinnertime. Megan Decker was particularly impressed by the sense of community among the townspeople in Dong Thinh Commune, where the head of a family of six worked alongside the student team to build his home.

Breanna Brown, Bok, a child who will live in the house, and Megan Decker“There was only one paid worker, but the rest of community would come by to help,” said Decker. “Someone would come by and lay a few bricks and then leave and come back later to help some more. Even our bus driver would help out. Here everyone wants to be a hero; there no one does – everyone helps.”

For Qui Pham, the trip was a homecoming after nearly four years in the United States. Her family hails from the southern part of the country, and she “was thrilled to see how Vietnam, especially North Vietnam, has been transforming over the past few years, and how people's lives have been changing and improving.”

The Suffolk group traveled three hours round-trip daily from their accommodations in the northern Vietnam province of Phú Thọ to the worksite in Dong Thinh commune, where cornfields stretched to the foot of nearby mountains, farmers raise pigs, chickens range freely, and there are banana trees everywhere.

A personal lens on social justice

The students had prepared for the Vietnam experience through a course on conflict and resolution with Government Professor Roberto Dominguez. Some classes were held in common with a group of students who engaged in a service-learning mission to El Salvador, but the two groups split when discussing history, culture and politics specific to the countries they would visit.

“These types of experiences give students the opportunity to better understand our world through the lens of social justice,” said Center for Community Engagement Director Carolina Garcia, who was part of the Suffolk team. “Our mission as a center is to cultivate and inspire a community committed to social justice. When students travel, step out of their comfort zone, and learn from communities around the world, they become more active world citizen committed to social justice.”

Connecting with townspeople

Pham and another student, both native speakers, helped their peers with communication, but Ta, who does not speak Vietnamese, found other ways to connect.

“I was very determined to make it on my own through facial expressions and hand gestures,” she said.

The house the students worked on will be home to three boys, ages 4, 9, and 13; their parents; and a grandmother.

“The father of the family helped us build,” said Ta. “He would be there nodding under the scaffold, asking if we needed more bricks or cement. We were able to establish rapport with the other workers, and it was gratifying to establish relationships with people. Just before we left them, there were pats on the shoulders. It was an emotional experience.”

The townspeople found it interesting that eight women made up the Suffolk crew.

“Workers from the town said they thought women shouldn’t work so hard,” said Ta.

Expansive experience

The students had explored Hanoi for two days at the beginning of their adventure.

“When I first walked outside in Hanoi, we just stood there for five minutes,” said Decker. “It was hard to cross the street; there are no traffic rules. It was a complete surprise–crazy, but a good crazy.”

Following a week of work/travel days that went for 11 hours, the students had a chance to unwind at Halong Bay with swimming and a cruise among tree-topped limestone islands. The women, who had become close friends, stayed overnight at the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which was listed among the new seven wonders in 2012.

Pham didn't have time to visit her hometown, but she found the work and travel experiences in her native land “amazing.”

“I love how we spent time and worked together as a team; we treated each other respectfully and warmly as though we're family,” said Pham.