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Published: June 26, 2017

UT Honors Student Finds Empowerment, Affirmation in Sri Lanka

Although Victoria Sunseri ’18 went to Sri Lanka to volunteer with the nonprofit social service organization Community Concern, the trip also became a journey of self-empowerment.

“The personal growth I experienced far surpassed anything I could have imagined,” Sunseri said. “This trip has really allowed me to put all of my fears into perspective, explore my connection with nature and how through nature we are reminded of our transcendent connection with one another and how to be truly confident in my own independence.”

Sunseri is the 2017 recipient of the Timothy M. Smith Inspiration Through Exploration Award, an annual grant given to stimulate international travel and writing among Honors Program students. The award was established to honor the life of Smith, a lawyer by trade, whose true passion was traveling the world.

Past recipients have studied mixed-ability dance concepts in England, learned about dolphin-assisted therapy in Turkey, volunteered with a nonprofit providing free cleft surgery to children in Ghana and researched homelessness in Dublin.

Sunseri, a psychology and public health double major from Long Island, NY, helped Community Concern with marketing-related tasks, such as establishing an Instagram account and creating Prezi presentations, training the staff on the use of both. She also conducted interviews with some of the recipients of the organization’s assistance, which will be used for their website and donor marketing.

Sunseri became connected to Community Concern through one of her UT professors, Julie Pennington, who introduced Sunseri to her colleague and founder of Community Concern, Sriyani Tidball. Sunseri provided research assistance to Tidball, a human rights activist, who is researching the migration of Sri Lankan women to the Middle East.

“It was a super empowering experience. I am so busy during the semester I don't get to reflect that often, and this trip really got me to slow down and appreciate things better,” Sunseri said.

Sunseri has a particular interest in human trafficking, which was piqued after an alternative spring break trip with UT’s PEACE Volunteer Center. PEACE works to educate students to be active citizens who make their community a priority in every decision they make and work to better it. The trip was to Atlanta to work with an organization that helps the victims of human trafficking and educate the public on the issue.

“(The organization's employees) just had so much grace. I know that’s a religious term, but for me it’s a spiritual term and a religious term interchangeably. Being able to be in those situations and the kindness they displayed — these are the kind of people I want to be when I get older,” Sunseri said.

She was so moved by the experience she talked her President’s Leadership Fellows cohort into making human trafficking the focus of their social change project.

“I don’t want people to think that it’s only an international issue, because it’s easier when you think of it as an international issue. But to think that it’s right in your backyard, it’s just something that’s unfathomable for people, because it’s so pervasive you just don’t see it at that point,” Sunseri said.

Sunseri isn’t new to international travel. In 2016, she was in associate professor Kevin Fridy’s travel course on community development that culminated in a trip to Ghana. She stayed behind after the course ended to volunteer in an orphanage.

“Someone can tell you that you’re going to go on a trip and your life will change,” she said. “But seeing how your life changes for yourself is a unique experience.”

Sunseri’s ideal career would marry her public health and psychology background, creating mental health interventions for people and trying to integrate behavioral health and medical health practices. Her time in Sri Lanka affirmed this.

“Working for the World Health Organization to help create and implement interventions to improve behavioral health and access to mental health services is where my passions lay and this experience only served to embolden my drive to achieve that goal,” she said. “This trip served to secure my confidence in the paths and steps I have taken academically thus far, to make my goals realities.”

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