Spending summer vacation 7,000 miles from home in a foreign country, with no access to to the internet, sounds like any college student’s worst nightmare; but for one, it was the experience of a lifetime. Sam Leifeld, a senior History major at UW-Eau Claire, spent four weeks of his summer renovating elementary schools on the island of Fiji. He was then able to count this time towards his service-learning requirement. While there, he lived amongst the locals and had no access to phone service. Although a majority of young adults would find this lack of screen time terrifying, Sam saw it differently. “I’ve found that people tend to bury themselves in their phones when they have nothing else to do. When I didn’t have cell service, this wasn’t an option for me. I had no choice but to talk to the people around me, and I got to know my fellow volunteers really well. It was a lot of fun,” Sam says of his off-the-grid experience.
Not having access to phone service freed up more time for volunteer work, and allowed him to give it his full time and attention. Sam and his fellow volunteers split the work evenly, with some volunteers teaching and playing sports with the students, while Sam focused heavily on the construction. “My project was construction, so I would go into local schools and do various projects such as painting, mixing cement, and pouring sidewalks,” Sam explained. Throughout his time in Fiji, not only did Sam strengthen his understanding of a foreign culture, he also learned the value of counting your blessings and realizing, in the grand scheme of things, what makes people happy. “The most important thing I learned in Fiji was the importance of finding what truly makes you happy. In our culture, we place great focus on material things, we try to achieve happiness by gaining more ‘things’. Being in Fiji, and comparing their culture to ours, they have very little in a material sense. Yet, they are so much happier than we are. It opened my eyes to the idea that it’s the people in life who truly make you happy, not the things,” Sam explained. Overall, he knew his time in Fiji would be focused on helping and inspiring the school children. What he couldn’t predict, however, was how profoundly they returned the favor.