Helen Pu

What was your class year and major/minor?

2010 Major: Neuroscience Minor: English

What is your current job, and city of residence?

NYC, Second year at Hofstra North Shore LIJ School of Medicine at Hofstra University

Did your academic or extracurricular experience at Bowdoin influence how you are involved in communities now? If yes, how so?

At Bowdoin I did a lot of informal education. Informal meaning not in a classroom. I was an academic mentor, writing assistant, proctor, and Qskills tutor. It was the foundation of a lot of the skills I needed for intentional relationship building where you and the person you're helping need to come to an understanding of each other and trust each other. This foundation was what I used in Peace Corps to slowly become part of a completely new community and to build the relationships needed to get community-wide health projects running. These individual relationships were also very important in running a classroom and appreciating the differences between my students. It's also the basis for a good doctor-patient relationship which is what I do now. As a doctor, the relationship with a patient determines the health of the patient and how much a doctor can really help them. The doctor can do all the right things and tell the patient all the information they need, but they need to trust the doctor to follow their advice because in the end the patient is the decision maker. A mutual understanding is necessary so the patient feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and asking questions. The doctor also needs to understand the patient so they can present information at the right level for the patient and with the right approach.

In what ways have you been engaged with the community since graduating from Bowdoin (both professionally and personally)?

I've been part of multiple communities since I graduated. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived with a host family in a small Cambodian village for 2 years. I was the only volunteer there so I depended on the community for all of my resources. As a Peace Corps volunteer there really is no separation between your job and your personal life. The family you live with is your family and you're constantly building relationships with co-workers, NGOs, government workers, and everyone else in the village. All my projects depended on volunteers from the village who I partnered with and, although sometimes frustrating, you cannot do anything without first convincing the community. After Peace Corps, I worked for a short time at a nonprofit called Women for Afghan Women in NYC. I started there by tutoring local kids after school and then started teaching women beginners citizenship classes. Most of these women did not speak English and were learning words like state and city for the first time. They knew America and USA, but didn't yet know what it stood for. I used the skills I had from Peace Corps and Bowdoin to build lessons that were at the right level for them but were also interesting and challenging. We learned together about each other and the history of the country we wanted to belong to. As a medical student it's often difficult to feel connected to a community. However, my school curriculum includes weekly hours with a few doctors that you work with for an entire year. Through them, I've been lucky enough to have multiple patients that I see almost every week and I've gotten to share their ups and downs. In a way, doctor's build their own communities within their practice.

What's been your favorite or most meaningful experience in public service since you graduated?

The experience of Peace Corps is life changing and it is a struggle. I often compare my first few months to being a baby again. You learn to eat, brush your teeth, shower, go to the bathroom, speak, and read all over again. All the social norms you're used to have gone out the window and you need to relearn how to be a member of society. There's a constant feeling of dissonance, especially the first few months, because all the rules and assumptions that you've used for the last 20 years no longer work and you're always trying to figure it out why. People always ask me to tell them about the weirdest thing, coolest thing, saddest thing, most awesome thing that has happened to me. By the end of 2 years you realize that, to someone from another world, every day will have all of those things in it, but you just don't notice it anymore because you've changed.  

Have any unexpected challenges or difficulties related to this work popped up along the way? If so, what did you learn from these challenges?

I think you realize how much you take for granted and I'm not referring to material goods. It's not the lack of electricity, sweltering heat, or pond water showers that bothered me most. In fact, you realize how much that stuff isn't always needed. The most challenging thing to lose was the understanding of how the world worked. For example, going to the bathroom became super complex. Which way do you face, what's the etiquette on flushing, what will get stuck and what won't, how do I know if it's occupied when there are no locks, what do I do when I'm wearing pants, what do I do when I'm wearing a super complicated skirt, what about socks? When eating, do you use your hand or a spoon, sit cross legged or sideways, ask for a third bowl of rice? For someone that didn't grow up in this world you have to learn by asking embarrassing questions, making lots of mistakes, and watching others. This might seem absurd but think about all the things we all do automatically everyday. 

What advice do you have for students who want to work for the common good after Bowdoin?

Good intentions can have bad consequences. Before you set out to do something, take the time to learn about the place, the people, the program (if you're going with one), and the mistakes that were made in the past. Before you give your time, money, and belongings away do your homework so you know it's going to help people and not going to government officials, a CEO's paycheck, or just a trash pile. You have limited resources, so make sure it's having the impact you want. Sometimes this means just going out there and talking to people for months before you even start anything. That in itself is a huge task. I think other important advice would be to learn from your mistakes and stick to your values. There's always an easy way to do things, but is it the best way?