Students Learn Unique Lessons in India
Lisette Hoeltzel did not expect to attend a funeral as part of her experience in India. Learning to insert a catheter into a cancer patient was unexpected for Erin Bernethy. However, growing close to the people of their host country has exposed the Alma students to some of the most intimate facets of life.
Undertaking a practicum in the Alma India Program, Hoeltzel, a junior sociology major from Clawson, and Erin Bernethy, a sophomore biology major from Linwood, have been learning unique lessons about education, service and life in the world's second most populated country.
The Alma India Program is a unique study abroad program that combines a significant portion of service work with traditional academic work. Two students volunteer at the Mathen Mappilai Memorial (MMM) School in Ayroor, Kerala, in southern India, and study with faculty from Mahatma Gandhi University for one academic term.
The program offers Alma students half of their academic credits for practicum work at the school and the government's Pushpagiri Hospital in Thiruvalla. The other half comes from Alma College faculty based on the students' consultations with the Indian university faculty. In addition to academic work, the students regularly visit the hospital every Wednesday to feed and care for the ill and dying cancer patients and poor patients.
"The hospital has been a great experience and I have been learning a lot," Hoeltzel writes in an e-mail home. "It is difficult because we are getting to know the patients and it is hard to see them suffer and pass away one by one. We recently went to the funeral of KT Abraham. He was one of the first patients Erin and I met at the PPC (Pain and Palliative Care Center) and we were sad to see him go, but we knew it would happen soon. Going to a funeral wasn't on my top ten list of things to do in India, but it was certainly a pleasure knowing Abraham and his wife."
The hospital visits provide Bernethy with valuable career experience for her pre-medical academic program. With an interest in oncology guiding her path, working directly with cancer patients is "nothing short of totally amazing."
"If I was volunteering at a hospital back home, I would more than likely be stuck behind a desk filing papers," Bernethy wrote in an e-mail. "There's no way I'd be allowed such intimate contact with the patients. One of our very first days at work in the PPC Center, we met a man with prostate cancer. The nurse took him into the one patient room that exists there, and then looked at Lisette and me and said 'well c'mon!' So there we found ourselves standing at the bedside of this man, learning how a bladder wash is done and how to insert a catheter...maybe not the first thing I wanted to know how to do, but nonetheless, quite the experience."
The students find it amazing that they can feed 200 people lunch for $10 total and disturbing that only a few organizations like the Red Cross or the PPC Center provide free services to the poor.
Bernethy writes in an e-mail about the PPC that she worries that she might run out of food before the end of the line comes, but the food seems to last. "And a constant smile as I look into the distant eyes of an old Hindu man, possibly still lost in prayer or sickness or both, or a Christian widow with safety pins holding together the once-tight saree blouse as it hangs off her small frame, or the mother of who knows what religion, expertly balancing her wide-eyed child on one hip while patiently holding her banana leaf out to receive the only meal they will both eat today. They all smile back, a grateful smile, a curious smile, a smile that says we may be in completely different stages in our lives but today, God has put us both right here."
Hoeltzel and Bernethy have found the experience is opening their eyes to new cultures and ideas and providing them with ways to integrate global ideas into their career paths.
"This trip has been a wonderful chance to provide some social service to people, and it also has helped open my eyes to a whole new realm of social issues and program involvement. I am now considering doing some international outreach work and research after graduation," Hoeltzel writes. "I have learned so much on this trip. My classes in the environment and Gandhian Thought have really changed the way I perceive the world around me. I have discovered new fields of interest and have grown tremendously as a student and as an individual. This will help direct my sociology and psychology studies at school, and it also has piqued my interests in environment, religion and politics."
For Bernethy, who realized from the beginning that her life in India in no way resembled the comfort of the United States, the choice was either get beaten down by the heat, the odors, the poverty, the language barrier, or open her eyes and heart to an incredible place.
"It's not easy, and I still haven't mastered it, but I'm learning to discipline every thought that crosses my mind. If I can control my thoughts here, in these circumstances, I know I'll have no problem when I get home and that will truly change my attitude about life and will hopefully radiate to others around me."
Contact Skip Traynor
Media Relations Editor
(989) 463-7232 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: Mon, November 1st, 2004 at 10:55AM