Immersion Trip Puts Bioethics in Perspective

Friday, February 4, 2011

While most students were settling into the last leg of winter break, 15 Saint Joseph’s University students embarked on a service immersion trip to Guatemala. The journey, which lasted from January 6 to 14, was the culmination of the fall 2010 Faith-Justice course, Just Health Care in Developing Nations, co-taught by Peter Clark, S.J., professor of theology and director of the Institute for Catholic Bioethics, and Ann Marie Jursca Keffer, assistant director of the Faith-Justice Institute.

Fr. Clark and Jean Smolen, Ph.D., associate professor of environmental chemistry, and biology graduate student/bioethics Fellow Michael Tecce led the trip, in partnership with the Augsburg College of Minneapolis, Minn., Center for Global Education. Through the Augsburg program, students enrolled in next fall’s course will be among the first American students to study health care conditions in Cuba.

Diving into Guatemalan culture, the student-ambassadors were confronted with beautiful landscapes, warm and receptive citizens, and the social justice issues facing a developing nation.

“The trip is designed to give students a global vision of health care and the needs of the third world,” says Fr. Clark. “One can study water and sanitation issues from a theoretical perspective, but to see people with names and faces struggling with these problems brings the issues to life.”

One site the students toured, Lake Atitlan, is both a cultural gem and a public health challenge, because it is famously beautiful and infamously polluted from the pesticide run-off of nearby farms. Their visit inspired the fellows of the Institute to develop two water filters, currently undergoing testing, that will hopefully provide a cost-effective model for sanitizing water in the third world.

Students toured numerous medical facilities, including the National Hospital, a women’s clinic, an institution for special needs children, and a hospice for children with HIV/AIDS. The study tour capitalized on the theoretical knowledge covered during the semester, and gave students a basis for action. They distributed 15 duffel bags full of medical supplies donated by the SJU community – each weighing around 50 pounds – among these facilities.

Junior interdisciplinary health major Joe Harrison says meeting the children at the hospice was one of the most exceptional parts of the trip. “They were really shy at first,” he says, “but when we took them to the playground they came to life.”

For many students, the interactions with Guatemalan citizens were the most memorable. Harrison, a bioethics Fellow, says that making contact was “critical for us to understand the public health issues throughout the developing world, and to see them from the standpoint of the Catholic medical ethics background we were given in class.”

Cameron Fick, a junior biology major, concurs with Harrison. “For me,” he says, “the trip to Guatemala put everything I learned into perspective, and put faces to all the statistics that I read about during the semester.”

These student reflections demonstrate the spirit of Catholic bioethics and echo an important objective Smolen outlines: “I like to think that these immersion trips are more about building relationships than they are about what ‘we’ can do for ‘them.’ I believe this trip fulfilled these goals.”

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