The Undergraduate in the Room: on Ophelia Dahl & Ken Himmelman’s Visit to Chiapas

IMG_5163Members of the Compañeros En Salud team walk back after a patient visit in the community of Soledad

Ken said something that day that struck me, “It’s interesting, but I’ve found that students only know what they really majored in when they look back on their experience in college.” 

Looking at the delicious bowl of deep brown mole and the seemingly bottomless pile of tortillas before me, I mulled over his words. After visiting a patient with a local community health worker, we had just broken for lunch in Soledad, a gem of a community tucked in the cradle of the Sierra Madre Mountains of Chiapas. Ken Himmelman, the Chief Program Officer for Partners in Health (PIH), and Ophelia Dahl, co-founder and Executive Director of PIH, were both visiting one of the Compañeros En Salud (CES) clinics here. Though I had spoken with Ophelia before on her visits to Harvard, I had never met Ken. Like me, he was someone who had recently been very much immersed in the undergraduate world in his former job as Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Bennington College and had since translated those experiences into his passion for healthcare delivery. As the only undergraduate in the room, his words resonated particularly with me.

IMG_5159A Compañeros En Salud community health worker listens and provides advice as a patient describes the localized pain she is feeling

“A ver.”  Let’s see, says the doctor. I have heard this phrase many times during my time in Chiapas, and it’s the phrase that came to mind as I thought back on my experiences as a Harvard undergraduate who is participating in the inaugural Global Health Equity Option (GHEO) Scholars program as a student, researcher, and volunteer with CES. As we talked over lunch, Ken pushed me to think about what this experience might mean for my future and asked me how I hoped it would impact my education and career after graduation. Having been surrounded by doctors for most of my time here, I’ll admit that the fact that I am not yet trained in the delivery of clinical services came to mind as something that has been particularly salient.

Let me explain.

In working with PIH’s sister organization for the past month, I have come to realize just how grateful I am for my inexperience. After all, this is what has granted me the greatest opportunity to learn. I am free to experience life in its many rich and diverse forms here–from walking with my host mother to sell milpa (the leaves of the corn plant) around the community, to observing visiting dermatologists interact with local patients, to helping my host brother with his English homework. I have had the opportunity to know and love this community both within and outside the walls of the clinic. This is the freedom of the undergraduate experience, and it exists here just as much as it does in Harvard Yard or at Bennington. As students, we not only have the chance to choose our course of study, but too to shift in and out of various roles since we do not have an obligation to any one.

As an aspiring physician I will one day have an obligation to my patients, but first I would hope to be their friends in the same way that the CES social service year physicians are here. My inexperience has helped me in this regard, too, for it is what has cushioned my falls through every cultural gaffe and left me warmly in the hands of people who are willing to form those relationships with a Sri Lankan-American college student who, as I’ve been told, could also easily be part Mexican. In the course of an average day in the community of Honduras, I will have spent a morning observing consultations with the social service year physician who works in the local clinic, visiting the cafetal (coffee field) with my host father, and playing fútbol with my host sister’s team on an elevated field that is far more beautiful than any I have seen in the United States. These are not just the experiences of an undergraduate, but too of a young woman who desires more than anything to know and love the people who have welcomed her into their lives.

So, I couldn’t answer Ken’s question. Well, at least not fully. In truth, I’m still figuring out my answer, but I could appreciate what he had said about many students only truly understanding what they “majored” in after leaving college and looking back on the way in which their courses and life experiences shaped one another. As part of the GHEO Scholars Program, I am continuing to take my classes via videoconference with my Harvard professors while I spend my days working with PIH and breathing in the air of communities that truly are the small wonders of the Sierra Madre. With one foot in both worlds, being here has taught me about the critical junction where school meets life.

“Give it one more try,” I urged Ophelia as we both stood at the traditional stone hearth with the masa (corn dough) and the nifty silver machine for pressing tortillas before us. This was before lunch, and after making a few tortillas myself, I had asked Ophelia if she wanted to learn how to tortillar. Her first attempt had ended much like my own, crumpled on the hearth as the dough split unceremoniously like a dancer experiencing her first fall. But Ophelia kept her cheery attitude and I reassured her that achieving that seemingly perfect full moon shape is no easy feat for those of us who are new to the Chiapanecan culinary arts.

IMG_4833The traditional masa dough used to make tortillas

“I bet you didn’t think you’d learn how to make tortillas when you went to Harvard!”

I looked up to see Ken smiling broadly as he observed my attempts to teach Ophelia. I laughed as I flipped another tortilla on the hearth. That was certainly true. But then again, I suppose I will only truly know all that I have learned here after my semester abroad with CES is over and I have taken the time to look in the rearview mirror. I realized that this must be what Ophelia and Ken were doing too–in taking the time to visit the projects that began under the auspice of PIH many years ago, they were looking back on what had been achieved in order to learn how things could be made even better in the future. Just like the process of delivering healthcare in some of the most resource-constrained regions of the world, the process of learning as an undergraduate is far more complex and iterative than can be described under the umbrella of one “major” alone. Ken had helped me realize that.

And with that, I took a final softly browned full moon off the hearth and added it to the pile.

It was time to eat.

*The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent PIH’s positions or opinions.


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