Opening Retreat: Fellows Bond Through Stories of Diversity and Courage

Opening Retreat: Fellows Bond Through Stories of Diversity and Courage

“We heard real stories (from Fellows) of courage to get through their difficulties in life. It was like watching a Netflix original series of very different, amazing stories around Southeast Asia that are very close to me, but I never had the chance to learn about.” - Ho Thai Binh (2024, Viet Nam), on the River of Life session- his personal highlight of the Opening Retreat

There’s always something special about the Opening Retreat, the beginning of the Induction Year. The first learning event aims to introduce Fellows to the entire EI staff and fellowship program, provoke thoughts on leadership and health equity concepts, and encourage appreciation of the diversity in Southeast Asia and China. All of this while bringing together 30 special individuals, the 2024 EI Fellows, who, in their own unique way, pursue health equity in the region. The week-long Opening Retreat, from 31 March to 5 April 2024 was held in Hue, Viet Nam, and this year did not disappoint.

Providing background knowledge and context for the year, Paul Cheh, EI’s Program Executive, encouraged Fellows to think about the complexity of ‘equity’ during the health equity sessions, ensuring Fellows have a baseline understanding of key concepts and frameworks to get the most out of the Induction Year. Le Nhan Phuong, EI’s Executive Director, encouraged Fellows to rethink leadership, as a process, with emphasis on collaboration and facilitation, over authority and position. A new component at Opening Retreat was Professor Kitti Prasirtsuk’s session about Southeast Asia’s Diversity, Similarity and Cultural Competency. In such a diverse region with siloed agendas, Professor Kitti grounds the Fellows understanding of how the region got to this point in history. As well, the Empathy Box exercise led by Shawn Cheng from Tribeless, introduced a conversational toolkit to help deepen the Fellows’ understanding of empathy, and present possibilities on how to have difficult yet crucial conversations within a safe space.

A highlight for many Fellows was the River of Life activity facilitated by Paul Marks, a staple of the Opening Retreat. Each Fellow was invited to sketch their life story as a river, explaining what brought them to the EI fellowship. All 30 Fellows shared personal and life-shaping experiences with each other- laughter and tears were shared. Eleanor Ong (2024, Singapore) shared that ‘It was really intense, but… really helped us understand each other a little more… I really felt connected with the Fellows...’

As Berti Malingara (2024) from Indonesia mentioned, that embracing self-care was an essential part of the retreat as well. This was especially seen in how well-attended each morning’s Tai-Chi, Yoga and Running sessions were at the start of each day, with yoga led by Fellows Song Gao (2024, China), Suan Ee Ong (2024, Malaysia), and running by Duong Vu (2024, Viet Nam), and Chatchai Aphibanpoonpon (2024, Thailand) daily! There was also time for Fellows to explore Hue- from visiting Thay Thich Nhat Hanh to learn about mindfulness practice, to visiting other historical sites to learn about the heritage, society, and history of Viet Nam. Other bonding activities included Vietnamese cooking class and the buddy system.

The Opening Retreat drew to a close with a Farewell Dinner and karaoke, accompanied with lots of laughter and camaraderie. Fellows will meet each other again in May for Global Learning I in Wellington, New Zealand, to explore health equity issues outside of our region. This time around, they’ll be reconnecting with familiar faces and smiles, ready to continue learning and growing together as a cohort.