Participating as a Global Impact Fellow as a High School Student

By Priya Srinivasan, High School Student* Global Impact Fellow; Current University of Pennsylvania Student, Unite For Sight Volunteer in Accra, Ghana

*Those between the ages of 15-17 may participate as a Global Impact Fellow as long as they participate with an adult parent or older sibling (older than 25 years old) who is also a Global Impact Fellow. All other Global Impact Fellows are required to be at least 18 years old.

As a rising senior in high school, I was unsure what to expect from my volunteer experience in Accra, Ghana. Since I was 17 at the time and the minimum age for volunteering alone abroad is 18, my mother graciously volunteered with me. What followed was an eye-opening and inspiring experience as my mom and I worked side by side as Global Impact Fellows to provide quality eye care in Ghana.

In the time leading up to my experience as a Global Impact Fellow, my intended destination was India. However, due to the swine flu outbreak in 2009, flights to India were cancelled. I was devastated when I thought that meant that I would not be able to volunteer abroad despite all of my planning. Thankfully, Unite For Sight was very accommodating with this unforeseen change and helped my mom and me with our new arrangements. After securing visas, taking the yellow fever vaccine, and changing our flights, our destination quickly switched from India to Ghana. We could not have made these changes without Unite For Sight’s direct involvement, and I am so thankful that this allowed us to change destinations rather than forgo the trip. As a high school student, this switch was a lot to handle. I had volunteered abroad before, but taking care of all the tasks that make a trip run smoothly had always been my parents’ responsibility. To those considering volunteering while still in high school, I strongly recommend getting involved in the planning process. The time I spent planning with my mom taught me how to plan a trip myself, and the skills I gained from it have been crucial since coming to college. It has allowed me to travel on my own comfortably, but more importantly, it has made me an extremely independent person.

When we arrived in Ghana, it was not the Africa I had built up in my head. I had heard time and again of the poverty in Africa and expected to find crumbling villages rather than the bustling city of Accra. The abject poverty I heard about beforehand was not visible immediately, and suddenly I questioned the necessity of my role. However, my very first day at Crystal Eye Clinic quelled any fears I had that I was unnecessary or, even worse, a burden to the doctors and nurses by being in the way. The clinic ran smoothly with the addition of volunteers, whose extra hands allowed more patients to be helped. The staff was incredibly welcoming and encouraged me to participate as much as possible. They found it endearing that my mom and I had traveled together, and spent time getting to know us.

At the clinic, volunteers conducted visual acuity tests for patients, observed exams with ophthalmologists, and observed eye surgeries. I have never experienced anything so exhilarating. I had spent years wondering what surgery would be like, and having the opportunity to observe so closely was priceless. Dr. Clarke would perform surgery after surgery, switching from one operating table to the next and explaining his process as he worked. Since the majority of the surgeries were cataract surgeries, I observed so many that by the end of my 10-day experience, I knew exactly what the next step would be as I watched. From my mom’s perspective, this was equally fascinating, as she is not involved in the medical profession. I was so glad that my mom found volunteering as a Global Impact Fellow just as rewarding as I did. Part of what made the experience so rewarding was the dedicated staff of Crystal Eye Clinic, every member of which truly loved that they were giving the gift of sight. Further, they were eager to share their knowledge with anyone interested, so Global Impact Fellows had the opportunity to learn more than they had ever expected.

On outreaches, volunteers had the opportunity to conduct visual acuity tests for up to hundreds of patients and distributed eyeglasses based on the power prescribed by the local eye doctors. Outreaches were so exciting because volunteers and staff would travel together in a van for a few hours through the rural parts of Ghana, which greatly contrasted the busy pace of Accra. On the way, we would pass fields, small homes, kids, cattle, and bright green vegetation. Traveling to outreaches was an excellent way to see the beautiful country. When arriving at the villages, we were greeted by people excited about our visit because they were familiar with Unite For Sight’s work. In fact, some villagers were even familiar with the staff. I discovered how important this partnership was during one outreach when only a few patients were directed to undergo surgery. At first, I thought the village just had particularly strong eyes. However, I discovered that, in fact, Unite For Sight had been visiting the village regularly and had improved the sight of most residents already. This was only possible because villagers trusted the staff and volunteers based on past experience.

I highly recommend volunteering abroad with Unite For Sight at any age, but volunteering in high school has the added benefit of spending quality time with a parent. Although I am close to my mom, this experience gave us a common goal toward which we could work. Volunteering side by side made us so much closer, as did traveling on bumpy roads to outreaches, laughing over funny things that happened during the trip, and mourning some of the tragic life stories we heard from the people we helped. Without the regular back and forth about homework, activities, and applying for college, my mom and I could enjoy each other’s company and spend time as friends. There were times when being a high school student made me feel out of place in the company of medical school students and recent college graduates, but the volunteers were also very friendly and made the trip unforgettable. Volunteering as a Global Impact Fellow as a high school student was a great experience, and I know it would not have been so great without having a family member there with whom I could enjoy it.