While helping provide dental services in Cusco, Peru, a group of eight George Mason University students found they not only had an impact on the local community but also on their own lives.
“We can’t help everybody, but we have to help those who need it right now. So, I said, ‘Let me give it my all and hopefully it will change somebody’s life,’ and it did change my life a lot,” said Afua Owusuaa, a psychology major who graduated from Mason in August.
The students are members of Mason’s chapter of Volunteers Around the World-Dental, a student-led organization that gives volunteers an opportunity to shadow dental professionals abroad.
The Aug. 2-18 trip was arranged through the Volunteers Around the World Global Health Alliances (VAW Global) Dental Outreach program. The students either paid for the trip themselves, used individual study-abroad scholarships, or received sponsorships. They also raised funds to pay for any medical supplies they brought with them. Students did not get academic credit for the trip.
The VAW Global staff in Peru worked with the students to coordinate the flights, host families, and itinerary, and a staff member accompanied the students for most of their trip.
“The outreach programs are great because volunteers get to learn about dental, medical, or other forms of outreach,” said Marina Ascue, the VAW Global site coordinator in Peru. “We are able to help a lot of people because of the help of the volunteers.”
The students, who attended VAW Global trainings and workshops prior to their trip, were taught by and were under the direct supervision of two licensed dentists and one nurse who accompanied them in Peru.
The students helped set up a free dental clinic in a local elementary school to aid the rural community of Ccoyllorpuquio, near the city of Cusco. They assisted in taking patient vital signs and preparing instrument trays. They shadowed the dentists and passed instruments to them for cleanings, restorations, fillings, and extractions.
“We helped them with the health of their teeth and therefore the health of themselves,” said Julia Hakeem, a senior biology major.
For Hakeem, the trip confirmed her desire to work abroad, especially with children, and to use her Spanish and Arabic speaking skills to help other communities in need.
“There was a 13-year-old boy who had never brushed his teeth in his life because he didn't have a toothbrush,” she said. “Other patients just didn't know how to brush their teeth.”
In response, the students hosted an oral hygiene education day.
Hakeem’s brother, Yousif, a junior community health major and vice president of VAWD at Mason, also assisted a nearby family with construction of a wall and a ramp for a school.
The trip, he said, allowed him to “realize the scope of the things that you can do and how you can actually change the world.”
The students said they also connected with the Peruvian culture through excursions to Humantay Lake, Machu Picchu, Sacred Valley, and Rainbow Mountain.
For Owusuaa, the trip encouraged her to pursue dentistry as a profession and devote two or three years to helping people abroad, she said.
Julia Hakeem said that before the students left Peru, the locals told them, “Please don’t forget our community.”
“I don’t plan on forgetting,” she said. “I plan to return one day as a doctor.”