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Oles explore vocation, perform service in Tanzania

By Claire Carlson '12
July 29, 2010

A group of St. Olaf students recently spent three weeks in Tanzania as part of a new service-learning program that prompts Oles considering careers in medicine to examine the concept of a vocation and how they might use their skills to help those in need.

Bill Stauffer '88 (far left) joined St. Olaf students (from left) Greg Carlson '11, Cary Schlick '11, Sarah Morrison '12, Angie Volkert '11, and Jacob Reinhart '11 on a recent service-learning trip to Tanzania. Photo provided by Morrison.

Greg Carlson ‘11, Jacob Reinhart ‘11, Cary Schlick ‘11, Angie Volkert ‘11, and Sarah Morrison ‘12 learned about the complexities of providing health care and preventing disease in a developing country, built a water collection system in a rural village, and led activities for local children at schools and clinics.

“I want to incorporate service into my medical practice someday, and I thought that this would be a great opportunity to see how it is done on an international level in a developing country,” Volkert says.

The group was led by St. Olaf Professor of Biology Dave Van Wylen ‘80 and his wife, Pat Van Wylen ‘80, the visiting scholar coordinator at St. Olaf. The Oles were also joined by Bill Stauffer ‘88, an M.D. who has worked extensively in Tanzania and is a technical advisor for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as an assistant professor of infectious diseases at the University of Minnesota.

Meaningful work
Many of the students applied for the program because of an interest in public health issues. “I was most interested in learning about how economics, politics, religion, culture, and poverty are all intertwined and impact the concept of global health,” says Carlson. “It is all really fascinating, yet kind of overwhelming.”

Cary Schlick '11 works with a child at Plaster House, a health care facility in Tanzania for children recovering from burns, orthopedic conditions, or surgeries for broken bones. Photo provided by Madison Van Wylen.

Supported by a Lilly International Service Learning Grant, the program aimed to connect service activities to academic work, coordinate experiential learning with academic learning, and bring the experiences back to campus to enlighten and enrich the St. Olaf learning environment.

The students read Parker Palmer’s book Let Your Life Speak and reflected on their own vocational ideas in journal entries and group discussions. They also asked doctors and other health care workers they met over the course of their trip about their understanding of what vocation meant, how they had made career choices, and if they had a sense of calling for the work they did on a daily basis.

When working at the Selian Lutheran Hospital, the group attended the morning chapel services and took note of the religious elements integrated into the house calls they made with hospice practitioners. On those visits they observed comprehensive and holistic care. “You can’t help but appreciate the power and the reassurance that comes through songs and prayer, and what that means for the patient,” says Dave Van Wylen.

Learning through service
Although they weren’t able to provide direct medical service, the Oles found other ways to serve. Malnutrition stemming from food scarcity is a significant health issue in Tanzania, and in one afternoon the group built a water collection system in a rural village. The system will reduce food insecurity for an entire family by providing water for livestock and crops.

The Oles also led activities for the children at St. Margaret’s Academy and the “Plaster House,” a care facility for children recovering from burns, orthopedic conditions, or surgeries for broken bones. When the children arrive at the house, they are relatively healthy but cannot go home for fear that their wounds will get infected or their casts broken.

St. Olaf students help construct a water collection system in rural Tanzania. Photo provided by Sarah Morrison '12.

”Travel constraints and risk of infection from home environment are not hurdles that typical American patients face,” says Reinhart. “Our experience at Plaster House showed me that patient needs differ drastically in developing countries like Tanzania.”

In addition to differing patient needs, the students noted a disparity in medical services. Accustomed to sterile and high-tech American health care facilities, their first experience at the Selian Lutheran Hospital was a jarring entry into the world of Tanzanian health care. “It was a lot to take in,” says Morrison. ”Dirty floors, doors that don't close correctly, malnourished babies with cries that sound more like coughs, the lack of simple medical equipment like a child-sized oxygen mask, and a mother wailing outside the hospital chapel because her four-year-old son just died of pneumonia.”

Even in the saddest of situations, the students spoke of the strength they saw in the people they met. ”Despite their hardships, it was inspiring to see that Tanzanians thrive on positive attitude and innate happiness,” says Reinhart. Morrison agreed. “Everyone we met, no matter the situation, was quick to smile and had a genuine light behind their eyes,” she says.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or