2024 EI Fellows Connect at the Opening Retreat


“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.– Fellow Ho Thai Binh on the River of Life session, his personal highlight of the Opening Retreat.

The Equity Initiative’s Opening Retreat, the first learning event of induction year programming, introduces incoming Fellows to each other, provokes new thinking about leadership and health equity, and encourages appreciation of the diversity found in the region. For the 2024 EI Fellows, the Opening Retreat also was a chance to share their own health equity goals and to make new connections with others committed to improving the health and well-being of Southeast Asian communities, particularly underserved and vulnerable populations. The Opening Retreat was held 31 March to 5 April in Hue, Viet Nam.

During the initial health equity session, EI Program Executive Paul Cheh helped Fellows gain a baseline understanding of key equity concepts and frameworks. Le Nhan Phuong, EI’s Executive Director, encouraged Fellows to rethink the definition of leadership, viewing it as a process that emphasizes collaboration and facilitation rather than authority and position. A new component at this Opening Retreat was session about the diversity and shared characteristics of Southeast Asian societies and cultures, led by Professor Kitti Prasirtsuk of Thammasat University.

The “empathy box” exercise, led by Shawn Cheng from Tribeless, introduced a conversational toolkit to help deepen Fellows’ understanding of empathy, and suggest ways to initiate difficult yet crucial discussions. 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 life-shaping experiences with each other. Fellow Eleanor Ong shared that “It was really intense, but… really helped us understand each other a little more… I really felt connected with the Fellows....”

Embracing self-care was an essential part of the retreat as well, and each morning’s tai chi, yoga (led by Fellows Song Gao and Suan Ee Ong of Malaysia), and running sessions (led by Fellows Duong Vu and Chatchai Aphibanpoonpon) were well attended. There also was time for Fellows to explore the city of Hue, learn about Vietnamese history and society, and enjoy Vietnamese cuisine. The Opening Retreat drew to a close with a farewell dinner and karaoke, with the camaraderie that developed over the preceding week on full display.

Fellows will meet each other again in May for Global Learning I in Wellington, New Zealand, where they will have the opportunity to explore health equity issues outside of our region.