Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Yongjun Heo ’09 received the Clinton Global Initiative University Outstanding Commitment $7,500 grant for his ongoing work in PemÃ²n, Venezuela. The Daily Gazette sat down with Heo to discuss his plans and goals for the future of PemÃ²n Health.
Daily Gazette: What first got you involved in Venezuela over the summer of 2007?
Yongjun Heo: I spoke to one of my friends here who’s from Venezuela and…he gave me the email address of somebody who treats patients in middle of the jungle…Over that summer, I went to the villages with him and basically treated a lot of patients with conditions like malaria. During that time, what I realized was that there wasn’t any public health initiative there to focus on prevention of these diseases and infections. I knew that I couldn’t do field work because I didn’t have a medical degree but I knew that as a college student, I could do public health, educational health work, preventative medicine, and things of that nature.
DG: What really inspired you to come back?
YJH: After that summer, the village captain asked me when I was coming back. It hit me hard and I realized that even if I gave vaccinations or treated patients, that wouldn’t be an everlasting effect. We needed to treat the root causes of these symptoms…Luckily for me, when I came back to Swarthmore…I talked about my summer and there were a number of students who said they would love to do that kind of work. There was a lot of student interest in actually doing hands-on community work…so at the beginning of that year, we established the [PemÃ²n health] organization and moved forward with some planning for the next summer.
DG: With this college support that you received on campus, did you come back this summer with a lot of Swatties?
YJH: PemÃ²n health is fifty percent giving students the opportunity to do hands-on public health work and fifty percent helping the village. So it’s a collaboration and we do that through a summer program where college students can come and do that type of work. A total of 11 people had gone, two of which are from two other colleges… Also, there are students from Swarthmore who…haven’t gone…[but] are part of the planning and administrative process and the implementation team.
DG: So tell me about the Clinton Global Initiative award (CGI).
YJH: The CGI is Clinton’s efforts to get influential individuals involved in local development in four categories: climate change, poverty alleviation, education, and global health. His goal is to get people who are interested in these things to commit to do something, the term he uses is commitment to action…Another part of CGI is CGI university, which is where my affiliations are. So Wal-Mart gave CGI University a $500,000 grant, which would go to two universities and individual student projects. My project was picked other several hundred applications…44 students were chosen in total and 5 were invited to go to the CGI conference. It was an incredible experience to get to meet so many incredible people.
DG: What do you hope to do with your $7500 funding?
YJH: Basically, this past summer, we created a waste management system…[through a] simple recycling program. Planes that come in with goods would leave with recyclable goods that would be sent to recycling companies in the cities… [Now] our next step is to establish an agricultural program in the areas that would basically fight malnutrition.
DG: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the PemÃ²n area?
YJH: Well there are many challenges. First and foremost, we need the government to approve our plans. We have the support of the indigenous federation there but we need the Venezuelan government’s approval. [We must also make] sure the level of trust that we gained from this [past] summer is sustained in our projects…we also need quantifiable evidence to show that we are actually helping.
DG: After you graduate Swarthmore, are you planning to return to Venezuela?
YJH: So my plan for Venezuela is to always return throughout my lifetime. I don’t really have a set plan because it depends on what kind of funding I receive next year, but I plan on going every single summer.
DG: Again, congratulations on your award and do have any remaining comments that you would like to inform Swatties about?
YJH: First of all, in general, I encourage all students to look into summer internships [early] in the year, particularly freshmen. Next, with PemÃ²n Health, we would like to have devoted, competent individuals who would like to do hands-on work and if anyone is interested, they should contact [me] (yeho1),
Elisabeth Louveau (elouvea1) or Erin Schlag (eschlag1) Erin Scanlon (escanlo1) or Elisa Lopez (elopez1). The beautiful thing about PemÃ²n Health is that you don’t have to be interested in public health. If students are interested in sustainability, climate change, education, this [PemÃ²n Health program] is a great internship opportunity for students to find their own niche. I see PemÃ²n Health as the opportunity for students to take what they learned at Swarthmore and apply to the real world. It bridges the gap between the theory based knowledge we gain here and practical real world experience.