Students bridge cultural gaps to aid TJ

    While thousands of students participated in this year’s annual Sun God Festival, a group of 64 UCSD students headed south of the border to Tijuana from May 15 to May 18. Were they aware that this was one of UCSD’s biggest traditions that only takes place once a year? Did they prefer a night of Safari-style clubbing over rocking out to the sounds of Bad Religion or enjoying the beats of Mos Def?

    Courtesy of UCSD Catholic Community

    Yes and no.

    These members of the UCSD Catholic Community eagerly dedicated their weekend, along with their hard labor, to travel down to Tijuana to help build houses at three different sites for three different families in need of homes.

    The annual Tijuana House Building project is one of the most popular service events that the Catholic Community at UCSD coordinates in cooperation with the worldwide service organization, Esperanza International Inc. Esperanza is both a consulting agency and a development agency that serves as a bridge between underprivileged individuals who wish to improve their lives but lack the resources to do so, and people who want to help and have the resources, time and willingness to lend a hand.

    Courtesy of UCSD Catholic Community

    “”One of the main reasons why the Catholic Community at UCSD chose to work with Esperanza is because they don’t just hand over the houses to the families,”” said Ruby Chen, a Thurgood Marshall College senior. “”It’s a community process where the families raise the money themselves. Everyone works together and it really builds a sense of community.””

    Participants, both religious and non-religious, had their own individual reasons for attending the trip. However, whether the motives were politically, spiritually or charitably-based, all students were able to experience a sense of communal effort and achievement.

    “”First and foremost, we are able to offer shelter to a family in need, but the weekend builds much more than walls,”” said Lynn Neu, the event coordinator. “”We raise awareness and a sense of community within our community. We bridge cultural gaps by working with and in another country, and we build confidence and dignity through families working to improve their lives.””

    Typically, building one of these houses in Tijuana can take up to three weeks. Although the group was not able to observe the final construction of the houses due to their brief three-day stay, the students dug foundations for the houses at two sites and built a retaining wall for the foundation of a house at a third site. These were very laborious tasks in which some students suffered from dehydration and numerous cuts and bruises during the course of the project.

    “”This was the hardest labor I have ever done in my entire life, because you are going for eight hours and, although you get a break, it is still very tiring,”” said Becky Muhs, a Marshall senior. “”We woke up at 6 a.m. each morning and worked the entire day.””

    The building process continued after these UCSD students departed Tijuana and a large group from Seattle arrived to continue the mission.

    The UCSD students did not toil alone. They worked alongside the families who would eventually live in the very houses that were being constructed.

    “”There are a lot of organizations that just go down and build houses and leave it for the families, and I think that strips the people of their dignity and selfworth,”” said Dang Nguyen, a Revelle College senior. “”Whereas, if we work alongside of them to help them build their own house, they can maintain that dignity.””

    The house-building process was indeed demanding, yet the students’ motivation to carry on was revealed in witnessing the very intensity of the family members’ work effort.

    “”The families are the hardest workers out there. They work so hard and give so much. You almost come back feeling selfish thinking about how much you got back from the trip and how much you actually put in,”” Nguyen said.

    These were also the same families who cooked lunches for the students for each of the days they spent at the sites.

    Through the ten years that the Catholic Community of UCSD has been participating in this particular event, they have observed great increases in both funding and participation for the trip. Recently, the organization was allowed to accommodate just over 60 students. During the previous eight years, the “”posada,”” or dormitory-like living quarters where the students dwell, were only large enough to house approximately 30 people.

    Henry’s Market contributed the largest donation, providing the students with cases of fruit, trail mix and water. Einstein Bros. bagels, Trader Joe’s and a few other supermarkets also contributed resources to the trip.

    “”As for the fundraising, we’ve come a long way. For the previous years, our goal was to reach $6,000 and now it has grown to $13,000,”” Nguyen said.

    Part of this money also went to the purchase of tools for Esperanza.

    The United States and Mexico are two bordering countries separated by an invisible line, yet each is distinct in its culture and standard of living. The Tijuana trip served as a big cultural shock for most of the students who embarked on the journey for the very first time and a meaningful reminiscence for the other returning students. These students had the opportunity to experience Tijuana community life during the daytime, away from the usual clubbing scene that many UCSD students are accustomed to. Students saw houses made out of basic wood and garage doors that were brought in from the United States.

    “”The trip really challenges a lot of your values. You realize how materialistic you were and you start to think about the things that you really need,”” Chen said. “”One of the main things that I have changed about my life after I went last year and continue to do so now is to simplify my life. I cut down on a lot of my expenses and I try to evaluate myself and see where my money is going toward.””

    So yes, the students did miss out on this year’s Sun God Festival and they very well may have wished they could have joined in on the festivities. Yet, they believed that the Tijuana journey offered them a little something more. It was a demanding but satisfying experience that will forever be embedded in their memories.

    “”I think it is an experience that every UCSD student should participate in,”” Muhs said. “”Especially living in La Jolla, we are so close to this location and to go down there and help out and not just think about how 18-year-olds can drink. There is just so much more significance.””

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