Benji Zachariah screens a child for heart disease in China's Yunnan province
UCI junior Benji Zachariah screens a child for heart disease in China's Yunnan province during a summer internship with China California Heart Watch. Brandon Fini

Benji Zachariah sees the world as his classroom, and he encourages fellow UC Irvine students to do the same.

The public health sciences junior hopes one day to be a physician like his father. But instead of confining his education to the UCI campus, Zachariah spent a month this summer providing healthcare to Chinese farming families.

It’s an indescribable feeling, he says, to have made a difference in the lives of people living halfway around the world in conditions dramatically different from his own.

Zachariah found his calling during a student internship with China California Heart Watch, a nonprofit run by UCI radiology professor Dr. Robert Detrano that screens for heart disease and offers basic healthcare to the poor in rural China.

“For me, experiencing something firsthand is the best way to learn,” Zachariah says. “This program made me realize that caring for others around the globe is what I want to do with my life.”

In August, he and six other college students worked with villagers in Yunnan province, where he acquired new medical skills and learned about the local Chinese culture.

“But most of all, I gained an appreciation for what we have in life,” he says. “These rural farming families have so little, but they’re the happiest people I’ve ever met. The lesson is that you don’t need much to be happy – just a good outlook.”

In that spirit, Zachariah is trying to establish a campus club for UCI students interested in worldwide healthcare experiences. He’s also involved with a group called Global Connect, talking to high school classes about international issues like health, economics and politics.

“It’s important that students understand they can make a difference globally,” he says, “and that they seek out opportunities to do so.”

Zachariah plans to return to Yunnan with China California Heart Watch in January and bring the children books donated by Laguna Hills High School. After graduating from UCI, he would like to study medical anthropology at Oxford University before enrolling in medical school.

“I hope to do a lot with global health in the future,” he says. “But I need to know more about how healthcare is provided around the world. There are many points of view, and being familiar with foreign cultures will help you take the best approach.”