Moral discernment reflecting Christian values and a commitment to social justice are two of the key principles in Saint Joseph’s University’s mission statement. Recently, 14 students fully emulated these values when they embarked on an immersion and study tour of health care facilities in Nicaragua during the first week of January.
The trip, which was led by Peter Clark, S.J., professor of theology and health services and director of the Institute for Catholic Bioethics, and Jean Smolen, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and director of environmental science, encompassed a seven-day study tour that followed a packed itinerary consisting of visits to health care centers, meeting with the members of the Jesuit Volunteer Community and speaking with locals about life in rural Nicaragua. During the semester prior to the trip, students were enrolled in “Just Health Care in Developing Nations,” a service-learning course which was held during the fall semester and included the immersion trip to Nicaragua. The course was taught by Fr. Clark and Ann Marie Jursca Keffer, M.S.W., associate director of the Faith-Justice Institute.
In the classroom, “[the students] learn about public and global health, infectious disease, access to water, and sanitation,” says Keffer. “They gain an understanding of the realities of the hardships that people experience throughout the world.”
Participants put their health care knowledge to use when they visited hospitals in Nicaragua, where they discovered that private hospitals have access to advanced technology, but public hospitals have extremely limited access to much-needed medicine and equipment. Experiencing these discrepancies in person allowed students to understand the vast differences between both health care systems.
“The public hospitals had about six patients per room and the facilities appeared to be very unsanitary,” says Caitlin Callaghan ’13, a biology and French double major. “The private hospitals had state-of-the-art equipment and only one patient per room.”
Lucia Krahe ’13, an interdisciplinary health services major, notes that in the public hospitals there were terrible odors and no air conditioning, as well as cracked floors that harvested bacteria. “The rooms were overcrowded with patients and their visiting family members,” says Krahe.
Both Krahe and Callaghan agree that this experience gave them the inspiration to help provide medical care to third world countries.
“This trip has inspired me to dedicate my career to the poor and serve those who really need it,” says Krahe. “After traveling to a place like Nicaragua, I don’t know how I couldn’t go back.”
In addition to visiting hospitals, the students also met with representatives of Nicaraguan Haciendo Oportunidades Por la Educacion. This group provides education and job opportunities to youth who would otherwise be forced to work in garbage pits, making less than two dollars per day.
“There are young people who basically make a living by collecting material from the city dump,” Smolen says. “Through this experience, students were able to see the harsh conditions that many Nicaraguans are forced to live in, especially young children.”
A highlight of the trip for many was meeting Fernando Cardenal, S.J., the former Nicaraguan Minister of Education. Fr. Cardenal’s commitment to helping the people of Nicaragua led him to start a Literacy Campaign in 1980 that successfully taught basic reading skills to more than half a million people.
“We talk a lot about Jesuit ideals, but [Fr. Cardenal] didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk,” says Fr. Clark. “I think it was good for our students to meet someone of his caliber.”
Krahe was also deeply affected by her interactions with Fr. Cardenal. “The talk with Fr. Cardenal changed my life,” Krahe says. “He radiated love and humility and really inspired me to make a difference.”