By experiencing poverty, one can find enlightenment through service. The Wake Forest University Volunteer Service Corps’ annual community service trip to Kolkata, India, gives students such an opportunity.
For the past 21 years, the “City of Joy” service trip has taken a group of 10-12 students on a challenging, two-week-long journey serving with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity organization in the hustle and bustle of Kolkata. There, students work very intimately with the poorest of the poor.
Shelley Sizemore, Associate Director of Civic Education of the Wake Forest Pro Humanitate Institute and staff leader for both the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 trips, says that of all of the international service trips offered, the City of Joy is the most challenging. “It thrusts you completely out of your comfort zone, and comes with a unique set of learning objectives,” she says.
The objectives are exposure to cultural difference and intimate service. Both go hand in hand to provide a blueprint that guides students through the physical, mental, and emotional journeys they experience.
To help prepare for the cross-cultural differences between Kolkata and the United States, the group met weekly during the semester prior to the trip, which took place from the end of December to the middle of January. During those meetings, they would research and present on the different cultural aspects of Kolkata.
Mike Thomas, a junior from Chicago, says that the preparation process gave everyone a seemingly solid grasp on what to expect. “Instead of feeling anxious,” he says, “we were all very excited to go.”
Upon arrival, however, that feeling was obliterated with shock. “As soon as we landed and boarded the bus, everyone went silent,” says Thomas. “What we saw was nothing we had expected: it was kind of a sensory overload, and none of us really knew how to grasp it all.”
The bumpy bus ride didn’t prevent the students from averting their eyes from the windows. The sidewalks were lined with bamboo stalks, dust, and people sleeping on threadbare mats. On one alleyway, a toddler siphoned murky gray water into her mouth to drink, and on another, a group of men bathed themselves under an iron spigot enclosed by a three foot-tall, C-shaped brick wall. Cars, buses, rickshaws, and pedestrians competed for space, a symphony of their constant honking providing a grim, welcoming overture for the group.
This day marked the first moment in which the students felt the gravity of the poverty around them. Dianne Uwayo, a senior from Greensboro, N.C., adds, “You definitely can’t prepare yourself for any international experience, and India was truly something I couldn’t have prepared myself for.”
Although Uwayo has served in various developing countries, she says that the vastness of Kolkata’s poverty stood out to her. “None of my prior experiences compared to what I saw in Kolkata,” she says. “It was everywhere, all the time; ceaseless. I was overwhelmed.”
The poverty was not the only challenge students faced. Sizemore also points out that the service, which focuses heavily on intimate human interaction, is particularly tough.
“It’s a lot of touching and a lot of really close contact with people who are either sick or who have disabilities,” says Sizemore. “This can often be challenging because we, especially in the U.S., have a lot of cultural norms around personal space, and those are quickly violated by the service that we do.”
Additionally, both Thomas and Uwayo struggled internally with feelings of inadequacy. “At first, I felt my attempts at service were insignificant,” says Uwayo.
Thomas agrees. He says, “We would go from serving within the homes and feeling like we had made an impact to being suffocated by the extreme poverty in the streets.”
Eventually, however, Thomas found solace within the service. The feelings that once discouraged him eventually encouraged him to dive further into helping others. “I realized that while I had absolutely no control over the systemic poverty around me, I did have control over my service in the homes,” he says.
Uwayo also felt reassured that her efforts were being put to good use, attributing the service homes as being “safe-havens” from the chaos in the streets. “What brought me peace was that I could track my progress through my daily interactions with those I served. It made me feel infinitely more connected with Kolkata,” she says.
Sizemore credits the intimate nature of the service. “You learn the most about other people when you work closely with them,” she says. “Eventually, you become more comfortable in a place that was once extremely out of your comfort zone. You start to see the value in service to others.”
As the students reaped the rewards of their service, they also realized that opportunities to give surround them daily, regardless of location.
For Thomas and Uwayo, serving in India not only allowed each to refine their perspectives and experience immense personal growth, but also inspired them to find opportunities to serve on any given day. “It made me realize the duty I have to other people, whether in my community at home or in communities across the world,” says Thomas.
Service is the antidote to the poison of apathy. It unites people across all cultural barriers and is communication without language. It is the key to enlightenment.