Guelph master's student Mitchell Gillespie

After spending three months volunteering in Vietnam, Mitchell Gillespie, B.Sc. ’08, remains modest about his impact there. “I still feel like I got more out of it than they did,” he says, adding that many U of G students who volunteer abroad often want to do more after they return.

Gillespie, who now lives in Toronto and is pursuing a M.Sc. in applied computer science at Guelph, vows to use his knowledge to help close the “digital divide” that exists between developing and industrialized countries.

As an undergraduate student in computing and information science, Gillespie spent his last co-op term in the summer of 2007 working in Vietnam with the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), an organization that links student volunteers with development projects abroad. He was also a member of WUSC’s U of G chapter.

Gillespie worked without pay in WUSC’s Hanoi office and raised the money to cover his travel costs. He developed a website that helps Vietnamese students find opportunities to study in Canada. He also taught the organization’s staff members how to use Microsoft Office programs.

“I just wanted to try something different,” says Gillespie, adding that he didn’t want a “stereotypical office job where you’re in a cubicle working on the same tasks that aren’t really challenging you, especially on a level of social engagement. I was looking for an opportunity where I could place myself in a completely new experience and grow from it because that’s the main purpose of co-op.”

After he returned to Guelph, he gave presentations about his experience in Vietnam to encourage other students to volunteer abroad. When asked if he plans to return to Vietnam or another developing country after he completes his master’s degree, he replies without hesitation: “Absolutely. As soon as I finish up my master’s, I can pretty much guarantee that I will be trekking somewhere to take my new knowledge and help someone.”

Gillespie encourages students to expand their horizons, both academically and personally, by volunteering abroad. “An international experience, especially in a developing country, opens your eyes and forces you to think about your place in society,” he says, adding that he gained a new perspective on the world, how fortunate he is to live in Canada and the importance of giving back.

As part of his undergraduate studies at U of G, he took a course on capacity development, which broadened his understanding of the challenges facing information technology in developing countries. “Understanding the digital divide that exists and approaching it in a sustainable way is very difficult,” he says.

His volunteer work in Vietnam earned him the Colin Cureatz Memorial Award for Co-op Student Involvement and a spot on the Guelph Mercury’s 40 Under 40 list.

Gillespie is now working with Prof. Steve Crawford, Integrative Biology, who is developing a computational system for First Nation communities to model fish populations in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The project has enabled Gillespie to apply his experience in international development at the local level. “The beautiful thing about this prototype is that it allows them to interact with these systems without having the mathematical and statistical knowledge required to run population models,” he says.

He credits the University for preparing him “in so many ways” for his volunteer placement in Vietnam. “Guelph isn’t named one of the top comprehensive universities for nothing,” says the Owen Sound native. “Take a chance and put yourself in a situation where you’re not comfortable and learn from it. When you’re not comfortable, that’s the most effective learning experience.”