Taking Leadership to Heart

Student volunteer Jamie Erkoboni has crisscrossed continents with Operation Smile as a conference leader and health care educator — and it all started with her first International Student Leadership Conference. 

Photos and stories by Lilly Deljoo, Student Programs Media Intern

Even after a long day of coast-to-coast travel, Jamie Erkoboni said she arrived home “ready to take on the world” after her first International Student Leadership Conference in 2016. 

And she did just that. From attending more ISLCs 2017 in Rome as an assistant team leader and 2018 in Seattle as a team leader to serving as a health care educator on a medical mission in Lima, Peru, Jamie’s first conference experience led to a never-ending amount of involvement and support for the organization.

I worked my way up,” said Jamie, who’s from Bel Air, Maryland. “Each ISLC I had a new role, and I think that helped a lot with my leadership abilities because I stuck with something for multiple years. I never got discouraged by it. I always saw it as how to do something bigger next time.” 

Jamie poses for a photo with her small group she led as a Team Leader at ISLC 2018 in Seattle, Washington (Courtesy Photo by Jamie Erkoboni). 

Jamie first heard about Operation Smile Student Programs through her cousins, who were involved in a club at their school in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Wanting to get involved with the organization herself, she started an Operation Smile club in her sophomore year of high school and “took off with it ever since.” 

For Jamie, her leadership opportunities with the organization not only helped her to raise more smiles, but “it shaped [her] life in so many other ways.” From her academic career to getting her first job, Jamie attributes her Operation Smile experience to teaching her “a way of life and how to do things.” 

When Jamie first arrived at her mission site in Lima, Peru, she had no idea what to expect — but, soon enough, Jamie knew she had made the right choice. 

“It was honestly the greatest experience of my whole life because I just saw a whole other side of the world that I needed to see to form my beliefs and passions,” Jamie said.

After her mission in Peru, Jamie knew she wanted to work with children in her career and that this would not be her last mission experience.

“It just showed me that side of myself,” said Jamie, who’s studying nursing at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

But her leadership skills were not the only thing Jamie developed through her time with Operation Smile Jamie made friends she still keeps up with today.

“The friends I have met through Op Smile are really important to me. Honestly, these are relationships I just cannot get anywhere else,” she said. 

As a rising junior at university, Jamie stays involved with the organization through starting a chapter there and reconnecting with old friends at Step Up, Operation Smile’s annual university gathering at the organization’s headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She also served on the College Leadership Council (CLC) for one year, and she takes part in Student Programs’ new pilot program called the Cook Stove Project.

Jamie has been preparing for the first-ever Cook Stove mission for months. The team was supposed to head to Chiapas, Mexico, during the summer of 2020 to replace families’ inefficient cook stoves; however, the mission has been postponed due to COVID-19.

I am really excited for [the Cookstove Project] …it’s more research, it’s more exploratory and it’s like the groundwork for something that needs to happen,” said the nursing major.

From attending one conference in high school, Jamie was able to cultivate her Operation Smile experience to continue to help those in need and to develop friendships that could last a lifetime. With passion and commitment to the cause, you can change the world one smile at a time just like Jamie.

Lilly studies at the University of California Los Angeles and got her start with Operation Smile in high school. She attended a medical mission in Lu’an, Anhui, China in April 2019.