By Patricia Ward
Tyrell Russell, a sophomore Hunt Leadership Scholar from Riviera Beach, Florida, planned on taking an organic chemistry course over the summer. Instead, he embarked on “the trip of a lifetime” with fellow SMU students Katie Bernet, Melanie Enriquez and Prithvi Rudrappa. In June they met up with a group of volunteers led by former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush ’68 for a weeklong renovation of a cervical cancer screening and treatment center in Livingstone, Zambia.
Immersed in a situation in which limited material resources and a patriarchal culture have blocked progress in the past, the students witnessed the power of a community’s boundless determination bolstered by its international partners’ resolve to improve medical care. As hands-on participants in the clinic overhaul, the students not only assisted with a lifesaving project, but they also found new purpose as they continue their educations at SMU.
“The experience gave me a new perspective,” says Russell, a double major in biology and philosophy in Dedman College. “It inspired me to explore the humanities side of medicine, including the cultural barriers that prevent people from seeking treatment.”
The students were recommended for the project by their respective schools or programs. After submitting applications, they were interviewed by Eric G. Bing, who traveled with them to Africa. Bing, professor of global health in the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development and Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, serves as senior fellow and director for global health at the Bush Institute. The Bush Institute paid all expenses, except for students’ vaccinations and malaria pills.
In Africa, the students worked with local Zambians, U.S. Embassy officials and Bush Institute staff – including SMU alumna Hannah Abney ’02, director of communications for the Bush Institute – on the Mosi-Oa-Tunya Clinic. The clinic is part of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, the George W. Bush Institute’s flagship global health program. The public-private partnership focuses on cervical cancer prevention, screening and treatment, as well as breast and cervical cancer education efforts, in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
Cervical cancer is a growing public health concern in Africa. According to the World Health Organization, Zambia has the highest cervical cancer mortality rate globally, with 38.6 deaths per 100,000 women.
When the students arrived June 21, major construction had already been completed on the clinic, so the students pitched in on the finishing details, including interior and exterior painting and floor installation. The Bush Institute’s humanitarian project not only improved a critical medical resource, but it also created a cross-cultural bridge, says Enriquez, a Hunt Leadership Scholar from Corpus Christi, Texas.
“Working alongside Zambians daily during the renovation and speaking with the women at an operating cervical cancer clinic were priceless experiences,” says Enriquez, a sophomore on the pre-medical track in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. “Even though we have lived completely different lives on opposite sides of the world, in most cases, we shared the same core values of family, faith and education.”
The extraordinary opportunity “showed me that learning should not be limited to the classroom,” she says. “I will now seek more opportunities, such as a study abroad program, to enhance my academic experience.”
Rudrappa also has set his sights on a health-related career, which he is now considering in a global context. The son of a primary care physician in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Rudrappa began working at hospitals as a high school student. He spent summers in facilities as varied as a small clinic in rural Missouri and an urban medical center in Detroit.
Working in Zambia “made me realize what a powerful health-care tool education can be, which has inspired me to get involved in shaping global health policy,” says Rudrappa, a junior Dedman College Scholar studying biochemistry and finance in the Cox School of Business.
He is now assisting Bing with a project to determine the costs and efficiencies of scaling up cervical cancer screening and treatment in Tanzania, Botswana and Zambia, countries included in the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon initiative.
For Russell, a trip to a nearby village was a defining moment. “I was so impressed by the residents’ ingenuity and resourcefulness. They were able to find value in the smallest things,” he says. “It made me more appreciative of things that we often take for granted, like our health and family.”
The trip influenced Bernet, a junior advertising and photography major in Meadows School of the Arts, to visualize her future in broader terms. “I know that I want to do something that makes me feel the way I did during that trip,” she says, “like I’m a part of something that matters.”
Bernet, now a marketing and communications intern with the George W. Bush Presidential Center, used her photography talents for a project to highlight the women’s lives outside the medical setting.
“We distributed 19 disposable cameras and asked the women to take pictures of what they felt were the most important aspects of their lives,” she explains.
Most of the women photographed their children, families and homes, she says. “I have pictures of myself when I was young posing in the same way that a Zambian girl is posing in one of the photographs. We face vastly different circumstances, but underneath it all, we are very much the same.”
Hannah Abney recommends that students interested in global health and other Bush Institute focuses apply for internships.
“Because the Bush Center sits on the SMU campus, SMU students have a unique opportunity to volunteer and intern for projects that few other students have access to,” she says. “Whether it’s in global health or any of the other Bush Institute focus areas – including education, military service, women’s issues, human freedom and economic growth – one of the most exciting elements of the work is exposing SMU students to new and different ideas, and learning from them as well.”
Read about other SMU students making a difference around the world on the SMU Adventures blog site.