Discovering Your True Calling While Volunteering Abroad

Interview with GLA Global Ambassador Atoosa Haghani

Name: Atoosa Haghani
Hometown: Springfield, VA
Grade in school: Senior
GLA program: Ghana: Children of Africa (2016), Peru: Service in the Sacred Valley (2017)
Passion or dream: To become a renowned pediatric surgeon and serve on Doctors Without Borders

Atoosa Haghani doesn't like to sit still. Prior to joining GLA on her first trip to Ghana, she had already volunteered at an orphanage in Iran with her family, spoke English and Farsi fluently, studied Spanish, loved to bake and was nicknamed “HB”—history buff—by her friends.

But she still wasn't certain of her passion or calling in life. “My entire high school career was spent trying to find that one passion,” says Atoosa. “I felt like I was lost somewhere in the Milky Way, while my peers were one by one uncovering the paths to their futures.” Not for long. Atoosa traveled to Ghana with GLA last summer and felt her life was changed when she made connections with the local children. She noticed that a little boy had an abdominal bulge, and she couldn't ignore it. After returning home and doing additional research, Atoosa found out that it indicated an umbilical hernia—a physical defect treatable by surgery only, resulting from drinking contaminated water and lack of access to prescription medication. 

From that moment on, Atoosa knew what she wanted to pursue: knowledge of how to diagnose and treat diseases, so she could heal patients who were barred from affording proper care.

“I grew up within those two weeks I spent in Ghana, and the instant I got home, I knew my work there was not over. The long journey to medical school still lay ahead, along with the dream of joining Doctors Without Borders. I consider myself fortunate to even be able to consider graduate school. In the long run, I want to leave my mark on this world, healing one patient at a time.”

This summer, Atoosa went on another GLA trip, this time to Peru, where a different set of public health issues challenges the local community. Here are some of her thoughts.

What did you think of your community service project in Peru?

“Service in Peru was extremely intense. I was forewarned by my Enrollment Advisor that the program I picked was a tough one, but I didn't realize just how tough it would be! We woke up very early and moved countless bricks each day at altitude, in order to build cuy houses. At the same time, the difficulty made it more rewarding. I loved feeling sore afterward, like I had really worked hard.”

How did your group come together to overcome challenges?

“My group’s communication skills were on point. We worked great together as a team, and there was always positive reinforcement from someone. When it seemed like just about everyone was tired and ready to throw in the towel, another individual would step up to bring encouragement back to our circle, or work extra hard to see the group through the tough moment."

Did you undergo any changes or personal development through your second trip that you didn't with your first?

“Before this trip I still looked at myself as a child, with someone else being responsible for me. I didn't feel truly accountable for my actions. To be honest, I realized how coddled I was. Being one of the older students on my last trip, a GLA alum and an Ambassador, I had many more opportunities to act as a leader, and even to advocate for students who were new to GLA or to traveling abroad. This helped me grow in maturity and perceive myself as more of an adult.”

Being someone who wants to go to medical school and become a doctor, did you observe anything on this trip related to public health issues in Peru?

“Yes, our community service project wasn't just building houses for cuy, which are guinea pigs that Peruvians eat. The project was connected to a larger initiative addressing the difficulty of growing food in remote, high altitude communities, which in turn leads to malnutrition of the residents. Living in the Andes means that these people are out of the reach of many government resources, and local efforts to improve diets, health education and availability of whole nutrients matter even more.”

What cultural elements of Peru did you enjoy most?

“The trek we did to Machu Picchu was a lot of fun. The scenery was just so beautiful, and the mountains… it wasn’t something I was used to, being someone who lives in Virginia. The final night of the program we had an awesome farewell party at an authentic Peruvian restaurant. There was dancing, and music, and all kinds of local dishes we got to try. I won't forget it.”