Hai-Ryung Sung ’15 M.A. Draws on Local and Global Rotary Relationships to Promote WaSH
Hai-Ryung Sung '15 M.A.
Hai-Ryung Sung ’15 M.A. hails from Jecheon City, South Korea, in the North Chungcheong Province, an area known for its beautiful mountains and lakes. Jecheon is called the “healing city,” a fitting hometown for Sung, who, despite earning an undergraduate degree in computer science, has devoted her career to advancing public health.
“During my senior year at Semyung University, I made a decision that has impacted everything that I have done since then,” Sung says. “While my classmates were making definite decisions about their career paths, I chose to take some time to do community work.”
Sung went on to work for several nongovernmental organizations after she graduated, including MediPeace as a program officer. She assisted Koruyin (ethnic Koreans in the post-Soviet states) with basic health care, promoted sanitation measures and healthcare access for children left behind by families in rural China and raised funds for an AIDS center in South Africa.
Sung’s interest in health affairs began earlier, during her first year of college, when she joined Rotaract, a youth branch of Rotary International for young adults aged 18 to 30. As a Rotaract member, Sung made weekly visits to SaeHa’s House, a home for children with mental and physical disabilities. “I became the hands and feet of the precious people I met, listening to their concerns and just being their friend,” she recalled.
The experience was formative, and her relationship with Rotary International would eventually bring her to Chapel Hill, where she continues to work to improve children’s health outcomes. She earned her master’s degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Department of Maternal and Child Health in 2015, while a fellow at the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center. Today, Sung is a doctoral student at the Water Institute of UNC in the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
From Seoul to Chapel Hill to Siem Reap
Rotary International, of which Rotaract is a part, is a global service organization. Started in Chicago in 1905, its first branch outside the U.S. was established in 1911. Just sixteen years after its founding, Rotary had clubs on six continents. Over the past century, it has grown into a truly global enterprise, with a majority of its current members living outside of North America. Members from Sung’s South Korea make the nation the fourth largest donor to Rotary International after the United States, Japan and India.
Those donations fund global projects in six broad areas that Rotary supports: peace promotion, disease prevention, access to clean water and sanitation, maternal and child health, education and literacy, and community development. Of its many civic campaigns, Rotary’s commitment to immunize the world’s children against polio by 2005 may be its best known.
In 2002, Rotary established the Rotary Peace Fellowship Program in memory of its founder, Paul P. Harris, which today includes six peace centers around the world. The Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center is the only center in North America and the only center to be co-hosted by two universities.
Sung learned of the Rotary Peace Centers from former Rotary International president Wilfrid J. Wilkinson, who first met Sung during her time with Rotaract. Years later, Wilkinson still recalled Sung’s frankness and directness. Upon learning about her work with MediPeace, Wilkinson recommended that she apply to the program.
Sung explained that before she arrived at the center, she had a somewhat narrow view of peace and conflict issues, but her cohort’s work opened her eyes to the many avenues to peace and conflict resolution.
Her cohort at the center included fellows working in international development policy, child and maternal health, public health leadership and Russian and Eastern European Studies. They are from places as diverse as Azerbaijan, Mexico and Sierra Leone.
Fellows earn a master’s degree in global studies, sustainable development, public health, social work or in other fields and have the opportunity to earn the UNC Graduate Certificate in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Though the group meets for a core Rotary class every semester, each fellow has a home department either at Duke or UNC that benefits from their rich interdisciplinary and international perspectives. To help them adjust to U.S. culture, fellows are matched with host families, which have them over for meals, holidays, and assist with logistics, such as securing housing.
“The Rotary Peace Fellowship Program is a really unique opportunity for someone passionate about the field of peacebuilding and how it links to the many sectors within international development,” said Margaret Bentley, UNC faculty director for the center and associate dean for global health at the Gillings School of Global Public Health.
“UNC and Duke are so fortunate to have partnered with Rotary International for the past 14 years to host one of the peace centers,” Bentley elaborated. “Over this period, we have welcomed 122 Rotary Peace Fellows from 56 countries, enriching our university communities. Our alumni go on to do important work around the world, including with the UN Development Program in Laos, the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., and as part of the peace negotiation team with the Colombian government.”
Sung’s current project, improving maternal and child health through better WaSH (water, sanitation and hygiene) in health care facilities in Siem Reap, Cambodia, addresses the impact water and sanitation deficiencies have on child and maternal health in rural Cambodia.
“I had a summer internship for the project on environmental pathways and implications of antibiotic resistant bacteria on human health with Dr. Mark Sobsey,” Sung said. “While working on this project, I realized that much research is needed on water, sanitation and hygiene as it relates to maternal and child health.”
Sung explained that while people in the U.S. and South Korea largely take clean water for granted, it’s not a given in Cambodia, one of the world’s poorest countries. She said that it’s important to her to work in Southeast Asia, her own backyard, where too many people are without access to clean water and sanitary toilets. Sung was drawn to Cambodia, in part, due to its proximity to her home country and the fact that it faces these challenges despite being surrounded by relatively prosperous neighbors.
In addition to its poverty rate, Cambodia also has high rates of child and infant mortality. The World Bank data puts the percentage of rural population with improved water source access at just 66 percent (2012). Decades of civil war and genocide have fostered this widespread poverty and contributed to a large population of households headed by single women.
Now a doctoral candidate working with advisor Jamie Bartram, Don and Jennifer Holzworth Distinguished Professor and director of the Water Institute at UNC, Sung has a new team of colleagues working on WaSH in healthcare facilities to draw on for expertise and advice on her project in Siem Reap.
“Through this project,” Sung explained, “we can reduce morbidity and mortality associated with poor drinking water in an especially vulnerable population—children under age five.”
Sung hopes the project will serve as a model for future public health interventions.
Drawing on a Global—and Personal—Network
When Sung gets to work in Siem Reap, she does it with the help of the network that first brought her to Chapel Hill. Though the Rotary Peace Centers sponsor peace and conflict resolution by drawing on the talents of a select group of individuals, Rotary’s strength and influence is derived from the commitment and efforts of its local chapters. And it’s these chapters that ultimately approve and support projects like Sung’s intervention in Cambodia.
Sung approached clubs in the U.S., South Korea, Cambodia and Thailand to build support for her project and to apply for funding, successfully earning a Global Grant Project from Rotary International. Sung will join representatives from several of the sponsoring clubs to formally sign an agreement initiating the project at the Rotary International Convention in Seoul, Korea, in May and June 2016.
Acquiring support from Rotary for the project required Sung to be her own advocate, and to honor a time-honored Rotary tradition: presenting her work to local club meetings.
Serge Dihoff, former board member and community liaison for the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, explains that the fellows are in high demand and have been invited to speak to local clubs across the state, nationally and internationally. While at UNC, Sung has presented to clubs in Research Triangle Park, Durham, Chapel Hill and Roxboro, North Carolina.
In Roxboro, Sung’s audience included an arts center director, surgeon and local business owners. The Roxboro Rotary Club draws its members from all over Person County, North Carolina, a rural county of roughly 40,000 residents. The club was established early in Rotary’s history, in 1924.
Recent and ongoing projects include everything from distributing supplies to local teachers to supporting disaster relief and rebuilding efforts after a tornado. The Roxboro club has long been involved with international projects as well. Sergeant at Arms Lacy Winstead, who joined in 1973, explained that early in his time with Rotary the club to donated funds to build wells in the Philippines and currently works with a miners’ organization in Bolivia to improve working conditions.
Members’ investment in their community is evident in more than their Rotary work. Winstead and his wife Claudia Berryhill purchased and renovated an abandoned storefront on the historic main street, repurposing it as an event space, The Gathering Place, at which the club meets monthly, while recent resident and president-elect Erin Ganey Hill works as the director and instructor at the cultural arts program at the Kirby Cultural Arts Complex, which serves as the heart of cultural programming in Person.
“I love our service projects… the good that we do in the community,” Hill said. “Rotary is completely in line with my own desires to do good within my position.”
Projects are proposed by members and community guests. Guest speakers like Sung play an important role in educating members about possible projects and provide historical and social context for local and global topics.
At her talk at The Gathering Place, Sung was welcomed by Don Buckner, past Rotary District 7710 governor and current Rotary Foundation chair. During his remarks, Buckner spoke with admiration about former Rotary International president Dong Kurn Lee, a native of Seoul, South Korea.
During his tenure, Lee’s theme for Rotary International was “make dreams real.” Buckner presented Sung with a lapel pin inscribed with the theme—Lee had once given a similar pin to Buckner—explaining that Sung had the necessary qualities to help others realize their dreams through her work. Buckner had been stationed in Seoul as an American serviceman during the Korean War in the 1950s, and after her presentation, talked with Sung about his experience as a combatant.
For her presentation, Sung chose to wear Hanbok, the traditional Korean dress. “We wear a Hanbok on formal occasions and special days,” she explained. “While I am staying the U.S., I feel like I need to serve as a goodwill ambassador… and give presentations about my homelands to Rotary clubs. Presenting in Rotary clubs is a very special occasion, so I wore Hanbok.”
While in Chapel Hill, Sung has been active participant at the Durham area’s committee meeting, which draws members from seven local Rotary clubs to discuss international service projects. She’s been involved with the community in other ways, volunteering with her host family, Amy Cole, program assistant at the Rotary center, and her husband Chris, at TABLE, a local organization that provides food aid to children in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, and serving as president of the Korean Association of Students and Scholars in 2014-15 school year.
And while her family worried about her adjusting to small town life after living in Seoul—Sung laughed that it makes it easier to focus on her studies—she’s found a receptive and helpful community. She described the Coles as “my second family… I admire them as they have two children to take care of and busy lives but they also take care of me.”
“As I was a member of Rotaract for ten years, I know that the Rotary program is well-organized, but I have been further impressed by the Rotary Peace program. [Former director] Jim Peacock and [managing director] Susan Carroll are incredibly supportive and easy to talk to,” Sung said. She also expressed admiration for maternal and child health professors Sian Curtis and Lewis Margolis for their support and encouragement for her as an international student in a new environment.
“I feel very fortunate to have such a great support system [at UNC],” she said.
Reflecting on the process of initiating the WaSH initiative in Cambodia, Sung is quick to say that “this project is not just my project,” or just a Rotary project or even a Water Institute project. Instead, Sung emphasizes the collaborative nature of the effort.
This summer, after the better health through WaSH initiative is formally launched in Seoul, Sung will travel back to Siem Reap. Her first step will be to identify a local non-governmental organization (NGO) to partner with. Building a project that’s sustainable in the long-term will depend a lot on this decision. Of course, Sung already knows how important relationships are to the success of her work.
October 22, 2020