I’d like to introduce you all to Alex Kriefall, a senior philosophy major here at Fredonia. Alex was born in Bishop, CA, a small desert-town roughly an hour away from Los Angeles. At a young age, he moved to Schenectady, NY, and has lived in the area ever since.
Recently, Alex studied abroad in Vietnam. He enrolled in a program through SUNY Brockport, and spent four weeks overseas.
Alex wasn’t always considering studying abroad. At first, he only foresaw himself completing his four years in a traditional college campus setting.
As time went on, he heard more and more stories from his friends about their experiences abroad. This inspired him to go out and see what else the world has to offer. He views the experience as “killing two birds with one stone”, by earning school credit while traveling and exposing yourself to an unfamiliar culture.
The group arrived in Vietnam after twenty hours of travel time, not including layovers. The program was based out of Da Nang, a city located on the coast of central Vietnam. They stayed in the Brockport Vietnam Program House. All classes took place within the program house, including plenty of lessons on history, politics, culture and language.
While Alex did spend a lot of time in the classroom, the program was primarily service-based. There were plenty of opportunities to get involved and help out in the community. Alex spent a lot of time at local orphanages and schools for autistic children, playing with the kids and participating in activities. He also volunteered at welfare centers, serving meals to needy families.
Alex says he also met a few families that were genetically mutated by agent orange, a deadly herbicide used by the US military during the Vietnam War (or otherwise known as “Kháng chiến chống Mỹ” in Vietnamese, which translates to “Resistance War Against America“).
The US Air Force sprayed agent orange all throughout South Vietnam, which has had lasting effects on many Vietnamese families. As a result, innocent children are born with cerebral palsy, autism and other physical / mental diseases. Despite the hardship, the effected families were more than happy to share their stories with the students.
Aside from classes and community service, the group went on plenty of excursions throughout the trip. They explored caves and Buddhist temples on the nearby Marble Mountains, and experienced a lantern festival in Hoi An, an ancient city not far from Da Nang. They also regularly visited the beach five minutes away from the program house.
Alex told me plenty of stories about the interesting people he met while overseas. One story in particular really stood out to me. At one of the orphanages, there was a baby that was abandoned by her mentally-handicapped mother. Although the infant had a rough upbringing, she was very calm and relaxed the entire time Alex was with her. He felt such a strong connection with her, and remembers wishing he could have brought her home.
One thing Alex took away from this experience was the realization that you don’t need as much as you think you need in order to be happy. Despite living in poor conditions, the people Alex met were all mild-mannered, and a pleasure to be around. It really shows how materialistic most Americans are compared to the rest of the world. Alex says that we all could learn a lot from a place like Vietnam.
I asked Alex if he has any advice for anyone considering studying abroad. He suggested stepping far outside of your comfort zone, and also followed up with these words of wisdom:
“If you’re thinking about it, just go for it…There’s no time like the present to get out there and see it all.”
All photos courtesy of Alex Kriefall.
Recently, Alex hooked me up with some traditional Vietnamese music. This song in particular is a banger.