Learn by Serving: How Business Majors Han Le and Osvaldo Reyes-Ramirez Learned While Having an Impact in South Africa

Two students pose outside the business building

Osvaldo Reyes-Ramirez and Han Lee participated in the Alternative Breaks program, put on by the Cal Poly Center for Service in Action (Photo/Jack Sann)

Written by March 16, 2024

While taking part in an immersive learning program in South Africa, two business students visited Robben Island, where Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.

“The person who was giving us the tour was actually a prisoner on the island,” said accounting student Osvaldo Reyes-Ramirez. “Being able to directly hear his story, it felt like we were living in history in that moment.”

Every year, the Cal Poly Center for Service in Action organizes immersive learning opportunities abroad with a social justice perspective. The Alternative Breaks program brings together groups of students looking to make a positive impact on the world while learning more about it.

In spring of 2022, they traveled to New Orleans to aid in disaster relief in areas impacted by hurricanes. Throughout 2024, students will travel to Puerto Rico and Nepal to work on issues around youth education and climate relief. And in the summer of 2023, a cohort of Cal Poly students headed to build houses South Africa.

Among the cohort of students were Han Le and Osvaldo Reyes-Ramirez. Both Le and Reyes-Ramirez are transfer students with a passion for service and getting involved in their community. When they heard about the Alternative Breaks program, they knew they needed to get involved.

Reyes-Ramirez’s interest was piqued in part due to his experience in service of a different kind. Between 2015 and 2019, he served as a combat engineer in the United States Marine Corps. One of the most memorable experiences of his service was building a school in the Philippines.

Alex Wiens (left) Osvaldo Reyes (Middle) and Alex Lara (right) are priming one of three Wendy houses to prepare to paint. (Photo courtesy of Osvaldo Reyes-Ramirez)

“When we built that school in the Philippines, it was community service, but at the same time, it was also my job,” said Reyes-Ramirez. “Being able to build a school in an area where the families live in poverty made me feel like I was really making a difference. The closest school was almost an hour away. Bringing a school to that community is something that I am really proud of.”

Le, an information systems student, also came from a background of service, albeit a different kind.

“I think seeing the smiles of the community and the impact of our work was definitely the best reward of the trip.”

— Osvaldo Reyes-Ramirez

“I volunteered at an elderly rehabilitation center for a long time,” Le said. “I ran all sorts of activities for them, like bingo and daily exercise. I loved being able to listen to people and getting to know their background. It makes me more empathetic, I would say. And it just feels good.”

Both Reyes-Ramirez and Le qualified for a full sponsorship to participate in the trip as business transfer students. They learned more about the program at an information session they attended soon after finding out about the trip, and before long, they were both registered.

Upon arriving in South Africa, they got to work on their service project: building Wendy houses. Wendy houses are wooden structures that serve as accommodation for families and live-in domestic workers. Cal Poly students worked together with Film School Africa students, painting walls, working on flooring, and getting to know their South African peers while they were at it.

previous arrow
next arrow
Photo Gallery: Osvaldo Reyes-Ramirez and Han Lee in South Africa. (Photos/Courtesy of Osvaldo Reyes-Ramirez)

For every member of the team, working on the Wendy homes was as grueling as it was rewarding.

“Some of the work was more physically demanding, while some of it was more detail oriented,” said Reyes-Ramirez. “For example, when we were creating pathways, we had to transport sandbags from place to place, and they weighed between twenty-five and seventy pounds. While we painted the houses, we had to ensure we were evenly applying coats of paint and had to switch between rollers and brushes, which was tiring when standing up all day.”

Kids and teenagers who worked at local shelters also came out and helped, making the experience one of true, community-oriented immersion. Students in the cohort were learning about life from the local people’s perspective; not just from the lens of service, but also culture.

Please support the Orfalea College of Business

“It was a really contagious good energy,” said Le. “Hearing their stories and getting to know them was awesome. It helped us better understand the cultural aspect of how we grow up versus how they’re growing up. And it made us think about what doing this service means to us, and what it means to them.”

Cal Poly students also watched some of the films their FSA peers created and discussed their respective experiences – how they could relate to each one another and how they felt they were different.

“We each share passion to succeed for a different reason,” Reyes-Ramirez said. “But we have also faced different obstacles throughout our lives and being able to pursue an education is a great gift that we have all received.”

When the students weren’t busy constructing houses or making friends with their new peers, they went on excursions to learn more about South Africa’s culture and history. Every aspect of their experience – from building houses, to learning about Nelson Mandela while walking the roads of the very island on which he was imprisoned, to bonding with locals – helped Le and Reyes-Ramirez walk away with new perspectives.

“What I’m taking from this experience is that I want to keep doing community service,” Reyes-Ramirez shared. “It was rewarding to work with the community and learn about others, and that’s something I want to make more time for in the future. I think seeing the smiles of the community and the impact of our work was definitely the best reward of the trip.”

The Cal Poly Center for Service in Action will continue to host multiple Alternative Breaks trips throughout each year, providing students with the opportunity to serve their global community while exploring outside their positions of privilege.

Domestic service trips occur every winter and spring breaks, and global service trips occur during the beginning of summer break.


Check out the latest news and features from the Orfalea College of Business.

Visit the Newsroom