James Lioi, ’15: Taking a Meaningful Detour
June 12, 2017 by Lisa M. McMahon, MA'09
Like most students who aspire to careers as physicians, James Lioi, ’15, applied to several medical schools during his senior year in the biology program at Niagara University. Unlike his peers, however, James’ path took a slight detour when he decided to take on a year of service in Indonesia.
In August of 2015, James took a 40-hour flight to the southeast Asian nation, where he would spend the next 11 months as a volunteer with SALT (Service and Learning Together), a cross-cultural service experience sponsored by the Mennonite Central Committee.
His first two months were in Java, the geographic and economic center of Indonesia, where he lived with a host family while he became accustomed to both the climate—“imagine the hottest August day, add a few more degrees and a little more humidity, and that’s daily life for the most part”—and the culture. Through activities and classes, James learned how to communicate with the Indonesian people and navigate his way through the city.
He then moved on to Papua, where he volunteered with a support group for HIV and AIDS patients and in the HIV and tuberculosis ward at the hospital where one of the group’s organizers worked as a nurse. As he got to know the patients better, James began visiting them in their homes, sometimes to bring medicine, but more often, just to share stories and spend time with them.
He also attended conferences, where he learned how to provide counseling in a culture where the stigma of HIV prevailed and being a Caucasian gave you celebrity status.
“I probably took several thousand photos with random strangers,” James says. “Classes of school kids came up to me to take a photo.” He was also given the privilege of lighting a ceremonial bonfire after a weekend with a youth group, although he acknowledges that, while he felt honored, he also felt uncomfortable “because there were a lot of people who put in a lot more work than I did.”
His skin color presented a challenge when doing home visits, because his presence could attract unwanted attention from neighbors. To honor the privacy of the people he served, most of whom were children, James would often explain that he was giving lessons in the English language.
When he wasn’t volunteering, James enjoyed spending time with his host family: Freddy and Kasirah Agaki Wanda and their daughters, Rhestie and Riska. Part of the mission of SALT is to build relationships, and James embraced this aspect passionately. He began using his host family’s surname, which pleased his surrogate father and created a bond between them.
“That was also why we were there, to join their society,” James says, “and that was the mentality that I had going into this. I wanted to learn as much as I could, I wanted to honor and respect who they were and become part of their family, because they were gracious enough to open their home to me.”
James returned to the states in July 2016, and is now working as a research technician in a biochemistry lab at the University at Buffalo. He is also applying to medical schools again, but his focus has changed a bit. He still wants to be a doctor, preferably working with infectious diseases, but hopes to work with an international organization, rather than in a hospital, to help improve healthcare systems in underdeveloped countries, a need he saw during his year abroad.
Reflecting on what he has done since he left Monteagle Ridge, James is content with the choices he made.
“Things didn’t go as I wanted for medical school,” he admits, “but I’m very happy now, looking back, because my life would have gone a completely different way and I wouldn’t have grown as much as I did during that year.”