- October 20, 2010
He remembers the faces of those he saw in that refugee camp in Thailand when he was 21.
The downtrodden, the sickly and those trying to make their way out — all living in the cramped camp run by the Thai military that packed in more than 20,000 residents.
It was meant to be only a temporary place for those trying to escape from the violence in Vietnam during the war, but there were some that had been there for more than 15 years.
“I saw people who were the victims of war and the suffering that they endured,” said Dr. Dan Chong, a political science professor at Rollins College. “I worked with kids who were 13 and 14 years old who were literally born in the camp.
“I saw some significant human rights abuses there — every night the soldiers would go into the Vietnamese section of the camp and sexually abuse women,” he said. “That just kind of opened my eyes to a lot of suffering in the world and the impacts of U.S. foreign policy.”
The experience helping in a refugee camp back in 1992 was so impactful for the young Chong, who grew up in a middle-class home in a suburb of Los Angeles, that he decided to switch career paths and look into fighting against global poverty the best way he could — by helping educate.
After completing his master’s degree in international peace studies at Notre Dame and his doctoral degree in international relations at American University, Chong taught multiple years at American — where he developed the idea of getting his students out of the classroom and into the real world.
“I was always interested in these trips, because that’s how I got interested in international development,” Chong said. “And that’s one of the reasons why I came to Rollins, because they provide a lot of support for faculty who are taking students (to) places in the developing world.”
Since arriving on Rollins’ campus as the assistant professor of political science nine years ago, Chong has taken classes to a number of countries, including Thailand, South Africa and the Dominican Republic.
For last summer’s trip, Chong and 13 of his students made the journey out to the East African nation of Tanzania to do some volunteer work for Better Lives — a California-based development organization that works in East Africa and Southeast Asia.
Picking out Tanzania, and specifically a small town at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, was an easy choice for Chong, who had visited the area in 2014 thanks in part to the help of a former student named Sam Barns. The Rollins graduate and development coordinator at Better Lives fell in love with the town and set out help the locals develop their community.
One of the main ways Better Lives assists the community is by using tourists and students to help fund development projects.
“We basically go and help him with his development projects there and learn about the community, and it is super immersive and super culturally different,” Chong said. “And of course, any trip like this where the environment is different, one of the things that students learn is how similar humans really are. You think about all these differences with foreigners, but there are actually many similarities, as well. It’s a really challenging and really fun trip.”
For the first week of the trip, students helped construct a kitchen and bathroom for an eco-lodge project. But the trip wasn’t just all work. For the second and final week, students took in a multi-day safari in the Serengeti National Park — getting the full, immersive, picture of Tanzania.
The two-week experience is one Chong hopes will stick with his students for the rest of their lives — whether it is personally or professionally.
“I hope the students think about the world a little bit differently; I hope the students can find their passion and their professional purpose in the world,” Chong said. “What I hope to achieve is some academic and intellectual development but also some personal development and growth.”