Kukka Uimonen (DIS, 2016) and Julia Bärlund (Business Administration, 2016) are two of five student organizers of Hanyang University’s “Helping Hands Boracay Program”. Along with one staff member, they led 14 students to Boracay from February 20 to 27, 2018. In the following interview, the two students share their experiences working in the beautiful South-East Asian island.
1. How did you come across this experience?
Kukka: I heard of the competition from Julia. Then I received an email from Hanyang about a Global Volunteering Competition 2017 for full-time foreign students. The email invited students to submit proposals for volunteering projects abroad in order to contribute to the development of communities. It was also a chance to provide learning experiences for the participants. Our team of five Finnish girls got super interested in the competition because none of us had done anything like this before and found it a rare opportunity. We also participated in the Seventeen Hearts Festival where we promoted our program.
Julia: I was visiting the volunteering center for other reasons when I got introduced to this program. I realized this would be a program me and my friends would be interested in taking part in. So after briefly discussing and thinking about it, we decided to start planning our volunteering program proposal.
2. Tell us about the school program and your project.
Kukka: It was the first time the Helping Hands competition was held, and it was a great opportunity for foreign students at Hanyang. There are not many opportunities for foreign students, so we felt that we had to participate. We had to design a volunteering trip abroad, come up with programs, budget, find contacts, etc. Our team had five girls from Finland and we all had our own tasks to take care of. Surprisingly, our team was one of the two winners, so we had to make our proposal into reality, which was a bit more complicated than expected.
Julia: International students were able to make a volunteering program/trip plan for our school’s students according to our interests and realistic opportunities to actually make the plan happen. As it was directed toward international students, we wanted to show our interest in taking part in these kinds of programs. Our project’s main target was to protect the environment by raising awareness about environmental issues especially related to tourism and plastic-use.
3. What motivated you to start the project?
Kukka: I have been interested in environmental issues for some time now, so I wanted to focus on environmental issues in this volunteering trip. Julia and I met some good friends in Boracay in summer 2017 when we visited the island, and these friends told us about the issues there. We also fell in love with the island, so that’s why we decided to select Boracay as our location for the volunteering program. We also wanted to change the stereotypes people have about Boracay, since a lot of Koreans go there for holiday and they might think Boracay is a paradise island without any problems.
Julia: Kukka and I visited Boracay for the first time in the summer of 2017. We were expecting only the tourist location we could see on Facebook, but what we experienced was quite different. We got to know a lot of local people who actually live in Boracay, which let us to see other side of the island and how the massive amount of tourists affect the small island. Anywhere we go on this planet, there is environmental challenges but taking into consideration how many people come to Boracay every year (over 2 million in 2017), we felt that also tourists should realize what kind of consequences their actions might have on the lives of locals. Many people were perplexed about why we chose Boracay as the location to volunteer, but it made a lot of sense to us. It is important to realize that anywhere we go we have responsibilities to the local environment and everything might not be as perfect at it seems on the surface.
4. What was the preparation process leading up to Boracay?
Kukka: We first messaged our close friend in Boracay who works closely with the local government and asked him if it would be possible to go there with our university to do volunteering work. He helped us to get more contacts and then we developed our proposal after talking to them. We met as a team regularly, made plans, and designated roles for each of us. Then we held interviews for Hanyang students who wanted to join our program. After deciding our team members, we held an orientation where we told everyone about Boracay’s situation, our proposal and just hung out as a team. We also maintained communication with our contacts in Boracay and tried to make sure of everything was okay before traveling there. Finally, it was time to leave for Boracay!
5. What were some programs you did in Boracay? Tell us about the issues you were addressing.
Kukka: Our programs consisted of a coastal clean-up, educational program in the Indigenous people’s village, tree-planting, waste management educational lecture, and on-site visit and Red Cross Youth Camp. We had workshops everyday with our team to deepen the learning process and to get closer with each other. We also had a field trip day, where we had a lot of fun but also got to see the sad truth of corals’ current situation. During our trip, we were able to meet important people of Boracay, for example the mayor Ciceron Cawaling.
Our program mostly addressed the trash problem that Boracay (and the world) is facing nowadays. Tourism is important for Boracay’s economy, but it also brings many problems. Because of the high number of visitors Boracay gets on a yearly basis, they suffer from a huge amount of trash, and it is very expensive to bring the trash from the island to the Mainland. So, we wanted to encourage sustainable development on the island to prevent environmental degradation and promote responsible tourism to others and to our participants. One of the highlights from our trip was coastal clean-up, it really opened every participant’s eyes. Everyone realized the seriousness of the problem when we saw the amount of trash on the beach. I hope people realize that we really must start reducing our plastic use in our daily lives.
Julia: Our goals were mostly to raise awareness and to educate people as well as educating ourselves on the way. Our main themes were reducing plastic use, recycling our waste, and reviving nature. For example, coastal clean-up is done every morning on the island but the waves bring trash from the sea the same amount – every single morning. As we started our daily schedule with this activity, I am sure that it also made all of us students realize the seriousness of the issue with plastic and trash since we did not just read about it but actually saw the amount of garbage on the beach: from small candy wrappers to different kinds of shoes. After this experience we were able to educate the children on our workshops as well as in Ati village better, since we saw with our own eyes the problem. Single-use plastics are a huge problem, and all the people should realize this. We also experienced practical activities (e.g. tree planting) which made it easier for us to teach about the issues and made our own learning experience a lot more powerful.
6. How has it been since you came back?
Kukka: The experience really changed my mind-set and gave me a lot of inspiration. I get very anxious when going to E-mart and I see all the fruits and vegetables wrapped in plastic individually, or when I order coffee and it’s in a plastic cup with a straw. So, I have been trying my best to recycle, and reduce my plastic use by refusing plastic bags and straws. After this volunteering program, I realized I might want to work with environmental issues in the future after graduating from DIS. I also got new amazing friends from Hanyang, who participated in this program!
Julia: After such a time consuming project, it was weird to be done with it. As we as organizers of this trip learnt a lot, we feel that the HYU students that came with us also learnt a lot. We made new friends and a ton of memories we can never forget. Personally, this opportunity made me even more interested about environmental issues and deepened my passion to find solutions to these urgent matters. I miss Boracay, and especially due to the current situation of the island, I wish I could do more to help the environment and people there.
7. What were some challenges and is there anything you would have done differently?
Julia: It was challenging to manage such a big project for the first time; after all, it was 15 people going as a group this time. As we realize now, we might have divided responsibilities more evenly between the students, but this was also a learning experience for us. We had also some issues related to cultural differences with our contacts in the Philippines, since it was hard to make an exact and detailed schedule without meeting people face-to-face
Kukka: I’d have divided the responsibilities more among the participants. It would also have been handy if one or two of us organizers could have gone to Boracay beforehand to check the schedule and our volunteering locations before the rest of the group arrived.
Julia: Firstly, we could have made more preparations together with all of the students before the volunteering trip. Secondly, I agree with Kukka that two from our group should have gone a few days earlier to the island to make preparations, check the schedules and volunteering locations to avoid uncertainty and last-minute changes. In the end we got to do everything we planned on doing, but maybe next time we would opt for smaller group of people, studying more from different resources as well as being more concentrated on finding long-term future solutions together with the locals for their concerns. But all in all, it is hard to make long-term changes in just one week’s time, so the program should be continuous and long-term to actually achieve these long-term goals. In the end everything turned out well, and the bumps in the road made the trip an even more unforgettable adventure!
8. Do you still follow up with the situation in Boracay?
Kukka: Yes, and it will be very interesting to see what happens in Boracay in the future since it has been gaining a lot of media attention lately. I am also still messaging with my friends in Boracay and trying to get their opinions and updates. The locals are very stressed out and worried about the situation so I hope the best for them. I have really fallen in love with the island and locals there, so I wish I can visit and help them more in the future.
Julia: Yes. As many might have seen from the news, Boracay is going to be closed for six months from the end of April. We hope that it helps the islands situation: we hope that they find solutions and are able to implement them in this short period of time. What I am concerned about though is the fact that there will be a lot of people out of jobs while tourists are not coming to the island. I hope that the government has taken these issues also into consideration, even though I do agree that it is good in the long-term for Boracay to (at least try to) fix the problem with the sewage system.
9. What do you recommend other students do to help your cause?
Kukka: I wish all Hanyang students would consider their consumption habits more and reduce their plastic use. Easy ways to help the environment and oceans is to carry a canvas bag with you everywhere you go, so you don’t need to take plastic bags. Also, by carrying a reusable water bottle to school is a good option so you both save money and the nature by not always buying plastic water bottles. Furthermore, when you travel you can do it eco-friendly. Be a responsible traveler and respect the places and the people you visit.
Julia: The simplest way for everybody to contribute, not only to Boracay’s environmental situation, but to any travel location you visit, is to study about responsible tourism and act accordingly. Do not bring a lot of disposable plastics with you, and make smart, environmentally friendly and ethical choices locally as a consumer. For example, just say no to plastic straws, and carry your own shopping bag so that you do not need to get plastic bags every time you buy something. Big changes start from small actions, and we can all contribute to these problems.