Virginia Tech's Common Book Project is used to create a sense of community for undergraduate students and enrich the first-year experience. 

For Shannon Mann of Stafford, Virginia, a junior majoring in biological science in the College of Science, reading "Little Princes" by Conor Grennan has enriched her life experience.

As a teaching assistant for the DaVinci Living and Learning Community for students in the biological sciences, Mann was reading the book along with her freshmen charges when she made a decision that has changed her life.

“I got about half way through the first chapter when I realized the author was going abroad to do volunteer work,” she said. “At that point I put the book down and went online to research volunteering abroad. I’ve always loved volunteer work, so the idea of traveling and volunteering in a much bigger community or in a different country than your own was really exciting to me.”

When she approached her mother, a former Marine, about her desire to go to Nepal, the answer came back lightning fast and unequivocal. 

“She just said, ‘yes, absolutely’ which really kind of surprised me,” Mann said. Her father, a retired Marine, was not so easily swayed. “It took some convincing, but ultimately they both supported the decision.”

Working through a company called Experiential Learning International, Mann was connected to an opportunity working at an orphanage in Kathmandu with lodging at a volunteer house with several other volunteers from around the world.

“I was originally assigned to the orphanage but there were two others there so they asked me to teach English at a monastery,” she said. “I ended up doing the teaching in the morning and working at the orphanage in the afternoon and it was really amazing but it’s also hard to describe. It’s such a beautiful country.

“But it’s also dirty and dusty and there are days you can’t see more than 200 feet because there’s just a solid wall of dust," she said. "The people don’t have the things we take for granted, like running water and electricity, but they appreciate everything they have. They are spiritual and religious and they love their families and each other and everything they’re given. It’s a beautiful way of thinking. With so little they can appreciate so much more. It’s a nice way of thinking that I was able to bring back with me.”

A good deal of the experience of Nepal for Mann involved travel. The trek to the mountaintop monastery involved a commute that was an experience unto itself.

“The monastery is beautiful and peaceful,” she said. “But the journey to get there is very stressful. I left about two hours before I needed to be there, taking a long walk, about 45 minutes, though Kathmandu. There are seemingly no traffic laws, lights, or speed limits; the traffic is dangerous and there are no sidewalks and often construction which means there are really large piles of rubble you have to make your way through. 

"After the walk," she continued, "I’d get on a micro-bus which is basically a van with as many benches as they can cram inside and then with as many people as they can cram in them. People are completely pressed up against you holding onto your arm or your leg for support and I got a lot of stares because there are so few white people. After the bus ride it was another 20 minute walk up the mountain.”

The trip, Mann said, helped her get outside her comfort zone frequently and helped shape her attitude toward tasks and experiences now that she’s back.

“I find myself reminding myself how far outside my comfort zone I went,” she said. “Until I flew out of the U.S. it hadn’t sunk in I was going to Nepal for a month by myself. After 23 hours in the plane, it was sinking in and I thought I was going to throw up I was so nervous. But I kept doing things like the microbus and the monastery, and now when I hesitate about doing something uncomfortable I remind myself that I just did this whole thing and I can do other things too.”

One thing Mann said she will do again, is continue to lead the discussion of the Common Book. “I hope to be able to connect with other students and show them opportunities like volunteering abroad are possible and doable,” she said.