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Mind the Gap

CŽsar Mendoza Davila, Class of 2014, East Campus
11 November 2015

Mind the Gap

After I graduated from UWCSEA I decided to take a gap year as a way to explore new opportunities and pursue things I am passionate about: volunteering is one of them. After graduation I decided to volunteer at Lihuk Panaghiusa Inc. an NGO that provides scholarships to students who cannot otherwise afford an education in the Phlippines.

I participated in several projects; house-building was one of them. I travelled from Cebu City to Bantayan island in northern Cebu. Bantayan is one the islands that was  struck by the typhoon Haiyan leaving hundreds of people without a roof and starving. After spending a few days in the island I started building houses. As I looked around me I realised that people have been building houses with any materials they could find: leaves, wooden blocks, bricks, and recycled pieces of metal or doors that were taken from abandoned houses. 

The house building project begun and there I was with nothing else but a hammer and a camera trying to communicate with the villagers who seemed to look at me and think that I was not going to be very helpful for two main reasons:

1. Some villagers told me I should not work as I was going to get calluses and spoil my hands and others told me that I was going to get sunburn.

2. I couldn’t speak Cebuano and the villagers only spoke very “small English” (as they would say).

However, after a few days I learnt to say the words: hammer, nail, cut, and to hammer, which allowed me to perform such tasks - and to help them whenever they needed a tool.

I had arrived very optimistic, cheerfully looking forward to helping people build their houses, to provide them with a roof, and to feeling good about doing good things for others. However, it turned out that I was the weakest human being on the whole island. Villagers are used to strenuous physical activity everyday when they fish, and build houses in the sun. They are also used to eating seafood 365 days a year. However, after four days of eating seafood I got food poisoning and was in bed for two days feeling very ill. All that enthusiasm and energy that I arrived to the island with were diminished by a weak body.

Perhaps, what struck me the most was that villagers catch food they need to survive every day. I was invited to fish and catch crabs with them, these were every day tasks which required a lot of effort. I was shocked, as we have “food insurance” and we only go to a supermarket when we need food.

The second experience that comes to mind is the opportunity I had when I volunteered at Bohol State Prison, an experience that changed my paradigm.

As I walked into the prison several things that struck me. First, the state prison has a new way of treating inmates. The prison is referred to as a "therapeutic community" where the boarders (inmates) have rooms (cells) that are equally shared amongst them. Inmates are in for all kinds of crimes, however, they are all in the same area and we were not informed of what crimes each inmate committed.

The activities ran smoothly. Inmates were very friendly hugged each other and asked me to take pictures with them. Fun was something that we all had. We stopped being strangers to them and the inmates were just people that we got to know.

Reflecting on the activity later on that day I realized that I was scared of going into the prison with the inmates, who turned out to be very amicable people that I spent a great evening with. As I through more about that day's activity I could not help but to think about psychology and societies. If we take a society and try to objectively study it we would see that at its most basic level, human beings and their interactions work on the basis of action and response, or more specifically: how, due to conditioned behaviour, we respond to stereotypes. I was prejudging people without even knowing them. A mistake that many human beings often make.

Towards my last days at the NGO I fixed around 30 computers in the school. I also updated and redesigned the NGO’s website (, learning HTML and CSS from the internet as I did.

Finally, the last experience, which felt every day like a heavy load on my back, was that hungry children on the streets came to me asking for food. I’d buy bread for four of them, and as I walked a way many more would show up. I was doing something knowing that I would fail as soon as I bought the bread. This brought to mind how important organisations that “teach men to fish instead of giving them a fish to feed them” are. Temporary handouts and food don’t solve the problem, but helping or creating an NGO that provides people with skills can help unprivileged people break the poor vicious cycle they’re in.

Who knows what new things you could learn when you are in your own in a new place that could challenge you in unexpected ways. Regardless of whether your are a student or a parent and you want to help, approach the Gap Year office or PACE at UWCSEA and you could help someone else have a better life because “you have never lived until you have done something for someone who can’t pay you back” -unknown-.

So, mind the gap.

César Mendoza Davila
Class of 2014

César spent time at PACE's partner NGO, Lihuk Panaghiusa Inc in Cebu, Philippines after his graduation from UWCSEA. The Gap Year placement is just one of the way that the UWCSEA community is connected to Lihik Panaghiusa, a partnership that has grown over several years to include sponsorship of scholars, a feeding programme for students, community outreach and more.