Cameron Conner '20 made his first trip to Nepal before he had even learned to walk. He celebrated his second birthday at a Katmandu rooftop restaurant. And his parents gave him the middle name "Norbu" after their longtime friend Norbu Lhama, a Tibetan refugee who owns a teashop there.
Most recently, the Spokane native and his high school classmate Grant Gallaher '20 dedicated their gap year to doing relief work in Nepal in the wake of last year's 7.8 magnitude earthquake.
Conner's connection to Nepal goes back to 1984, when his parents took a two-month trek through central Nepal's Annapurna mountain range. The trip planted the seeds of Ganesh Himal Trading, a business that connects American consumers with Nepali artisan goods. Today, Conner's parents run the business and sell wholesale to roughly 300 U.S. and Canadian companies.
Conner remembers the trips to Nepal as a staple of his childhood.
"It seemed completely normal," he said.
As Ganesh Himal Trading grew, Conner's family began funding humanitarian efforts in the communities where they did business, raising money to construct a clinic in the remote village of Besari and founding a scholarship program for girls' education. Between his sophomore and junior years in high school, Conner created a 501(c)(3) nonprofit called the Conscious Connections Foundation (CCF) to oversee these projects and facilitate his gap year plan.
When the earthquake struck, Conner knew immediately that he would be deferring his enrollment at Whitman. But he was shocked when Gallaher, his childhood friend, chose to do the same.
"I thought he was joking," Conner said. "Grant is super career-focused. It completely hit me out of left field that he wanted to do this."
Conner and Gallaher's gap year didn't conform to the stereotypes of all-night debauchery at swank European bars or pre-packaged "cultural experiences" in developing countries. Their work began immediately after graduation with a 10-week course on how to ethically and effectively evaluate aid and training trips to Mt. Rainier in preparation for Himalayan hikes.
In October of 2015, they flew to Nepal and spent the next two months interviewing residents of small towns where CCF had delivered aid. Rom Karki, the guide who had led Conner's parents more than 30 years before, and his son Pradeep, who is the same age as Conner and Gallaher, traveled with the them and served as translators.
"It was a kind of cultural translation as well as verbal," Conner said. "We couldn't have done it without them."
Back home in Spokane, the two compiled their data into an official evaluation of humanitarian aid, while Gallaher recovered from a vicious stomach bug.
"The entire last month of Nepal, I was just living off of bread," he said. "I lost so much weight."
Nevertheless, Gallaher rallied to return to Nepal in March. On this second trip, he and Connor focused on the reconstruction of the Besari clinic: its new walls, made of Styrofoam and concrete from a Nepali company called Ghorka Eco Panel, are now earthquake-resistant up to magnitude 9.0.
While Conner helped dig the foundation for the clinic, Gallaher was still too sick, subsisting on rice and protein bars.
"Cameron was all gung-ho and working his butt off in the hot sun and I couldn't," Gallaher said. "I spent a lot of time watching the projects and taking notes and a lot of time sitting in the mountains reading."
Their last stop before Whitman was Greece, where Conner and Gallaher worked for five weeks at the Idomeni refugee camp on the border with Macedonia, constructing wooden tent floors for refugee housing.
Now finishing up their first semester together at Whitman, Conner and Gallaher remain close.
In September, they attended a Whitman-sponsored lecture by Pippa Biddle, a writer focused on what she calls "voluntourism," or the practice of tourists paying to volunteer in poor countries.
"I think just as ‘voluntourism' builds a lot of dependency and builds a lot of one-sided relationships, aid does the exact same thing," Conner said. "Part of my work over my gap year was to conduct an evaluation of the aid that we did and part of the issue was that there was a lack of ownership in these projects."
The "voluntourism" talk prompted Gallaher to draw a distinction between disaster and non-disaster relief work.
"I agree there a lot of problems with ‘voluntourism,'" he said. "Unskilled labor is not needed in 95 percent of non-disaster scenarios. But disaster aid is very different. In disaster scenarios, people are grieving over family members, trying to get money again. And in that case it is a lot more helpful to just have hands on the ground to do what people need done."
Conner and Gallaher both contend that providing effective aid requires building relationships with the recipients, which is a slow process.
"I came to realize that when you're in a place for a really short period of time, you really only have time to appreciate the differences—the different language, the customs, the food—but when you spend more time there, you come to appreciate how similar it actually is," Gallaher said. "Even though I don't really know how it is to experience a natural disaster, we are humans together and there's something powerful in that."
For Connor, the most successful charity work stems from preexisting connections with people.
"My personal take on where you can have the biggest impact is: go work in your own community," he said. "It just so happens that I have a wonderful community in Nepal."