Heading south for the winter

sarah global brigade blog

Working with my friend Alondra at a Chicago Bears game.

Tonight I’m tangled in my blanket of clouds, dreaming aloud…

This winter break, I’ll be doing something I’ve never done before — traveling to Central America! More specifically, I’ll be joining the UIC Global Brigades group in traveling to Panama, where we’ll be working in community clinics as volunteers to help provide healthcare where access is limited.

I’ve heard from my friends who participated in Global Brigades before that it’s simply a fantastic experience — they saw and learned a lot while becoming very close to the students they traveled with. I first became interested in doing something like this during my freshmen year, but I never applied because of the daunting price of the trips. I never took it off my “UIC bucket list” though — there’s a lot I want to do here before I graduate, and I always wanted to go on some sort of volunteer trip, whether it was with Global Brigades or with Alternative Spring Break.

Finally, last spring, I scrambled to throw together an application on the day of the deadline in order to join the UIC Medical/Public Health Brigade. To my delight, I was accepted and notified that I would be traveling to Panama.

I chose the Medical Brigade because I knew we’d be working on rotations in clinics, mainly by shadowing physicians. I’m still a little apprehensive because I want to prove myself useful in whatever way I can, and I know my clinical exposure is rather limited. I was told that for every student who volunteers with the Global Medical Brigade, about 60 patients can see a doctor who otherwise would not be able to.

I’m looking forward to being part of something that beneficial to a community and learning new skills in the process. I hear from past Brigaders that we’re not given very difficult jobs, but it’s easy to see the difference that the group makes. No matter what we end up helping with, I’m sure that it’ll be a very eye-opening experience to live in a community—even if it’s only for 10 days—where something as critical as medical care is limited.

Another component of the brigade (which is actually optional) is participating in community education of both children and adults. This includes giving presentations on personal hygiene and dental health, and I’ve been told that it can be an astounding experience. Some of the children have never seen a toothbrush before. Just the other day, I was brushing my teeth in the morning with my electric toothbrush, and I couldn’t help but marvel at how privileged I am …

In addition to the medical brigade, our group is also piloting the very first UIC Environmental Brigade. This was actually sprung upon us without warning — originally we were all signed up to do the Public Health and Medical Brigade, but we were suddenly told a few months ago that we’re being switched to be the first ever UIC EnviroMed brigade. Mainly this will entail working on reforestation projects in Panama, and no one is entirely sure what to expect since it’ll be new to everyone.

When it comes to adapting to the culture, small living quarters, and lack of Internet, I’m not very worried because I’m a fairly flexible person. I learned that from studying and living abroad before. My biggest concern about the trip was raising the money I needed, which came out to be $1,876 total. However, this entire sum is not just for my plane ticket and board. As the medical brigade, our trips tend to be more costly for everyone because we have to purchase medication to bring with us to Panama. As a result, the cost of medication is shared amongst our group.

For the cause, everyone had to start and online Empowered account, which is similar to other online fundraising sites like Kickstarter or indiegogo. The purpose was to share our personal fundraising page with our friends and family to fund our trip, but quite honestly I always feel awkward about sharing these sorts of links on social media … I would be hypocritical to expect my friends to donate for my trips when I rarely ever contribute when I see these links. The fact of the matter is that we’re all largely broke college students. Fortunately, spoiled as I am, my family made huge contributions to my page and I have about $1,000 left right now.

(If you, dear reader, would like to donate to me, here’s the link! Of course there’s no obligation to donate to me — there are so many other good causes to donate to after all … but if you do donate something to me, I’d be ever grateful! The deadline for funds is Dec. 21, so I’ll definitely have to scrape together funds before then somehow. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to!)

global brigade blogWith this fundraising is the expectation that we all work together at Soldier Field concession stands. This was a very new experience for me, as I’ve never worked in any kind of food preparation before. Working events mainly entailed preparing concession food, including burgers, fries, ribs, drinks … generally the load of overpriced, greasy food you imagine purchasing at a concert or football game.

It can get extremely hectic, especially during halftime of a game when everyone wants to buy beer. (On the plus side, I learned how to minimize foam when pouring beer from tap! That’s a valuable skill, right?)

During the summer and early fall, our group mostly works concert events. Once concert season ends, we start working at the Sunday Chicago Bears games. Personally, I worked the One Direction concert in August and then three Bears games … and after working my mandatory four Soldier Field events, it quickly became apparent to me that I do not enjoy this kind of customer service work!

Haha does that make me seem like spoiled child who has never worked a hard-earning job in her life? Probably! But the highlight of working these 8+ hours events is that we get to bond with other people in UIC Brigades. As an organization, there’s a huge diversity in age and majors of students involved, and I rarely if ever see the other students on campus. I enjoyed getting to know the other UIC students, especially those that I know I’ll be living in very close proximity with in Panama!

As the semester is winding up to its end, I’m counting down the days … because I leave for Panama the day after my last final exam on the Friday of exams week. It’s crazy to think about because I don’t even know when I’ll have time to go home and pack! There’s so much to prepare for and although I’ve read through the information and webinars, I feel like I still don’t know exactly what to expect. We all have to be at O’Hare airport by 4:00 AM on that Saturday morning to catch our flight, and then we have a transfer in Florida to get down to Panama — at least I’m sure I’ll be able to sleep on the plane.

I’m so incredibly pumped to go on this journey …

I’ve never been in Central or South America before! I get excited even thinking about it. I wonder if the three years of Spanish I took in high school might prove itself useful somehow…even though I’m certain I’ve forgotten nearly all of it, or it was replaced by Russian in my brain. But who knows, maybe some of it will come back to me! I can’t wait to go on this adventure … definitely be on the lookout for a blog about my experience come December!

If you walk out on me, I’m walking after you ♪♫♪

(Walking After You – Foo Fighters)


Sarah Lee (F)


Sarah Lee is a junior studying neuroscience and Russian in the GPPA Medicine program at UIC. She’s still trying to figure out exactly what she wants to do, but some of  life goals include running a marathon, exploring Eastern Europe and becoming fluent in Russian. In her free time, she loves running, playing piano and guitar, and reading. A Naperville native, Sarah is a peer mentor in the Courtyard residence hall.


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