News from Alumni House

The lesson of persistence

Abraar Karan ’11 is applying to medical schools this summer.

When I was offered admission to Yale College, I had to decide whether to turn down a place at another university that would guarantee me admission to its medical school. It was one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make. But I was not positive I wanted to be a physician, and I became a Bulldog instead. During my freshman year, I began working in a laboratory in the immunobiology department and tried to convince myself that I enjoyed pipetting cells into dishes. When I heard about the first annual Yale Alumni Service Corps (YASC) trip to the Dominican Republic, I took my chances and was one of just three freshmen who were able to sneak onto the team of mostly seniors and alumni.

It still surprises me that a single week was so transformative for my career choice and worldview. The group that I was assigned to was the Derrumbadero medical clinic. Derrumbadero is a small town in the mountains a few hours from San Juan de la Maguana. I was working with Yale alumni physicians and nurses as a Spanish-English medical translator in a makeshift medical clinic at a local school. The week consisted of cold water in the showers, a scorching sun overhead, and dusty dirt paths over which our flatbed trucks would navigate. The people would always be waiting for hours before we arrived and there would be many more arriving as the clinic was closing. The dynamic push and pull between poverty and persistence on the part of the local people—something I had never seen before—was the factor that reframed my perception of where I most wanted to commit myself in my academic study and subsequent career. After my first trip with the YASC, I realized that global health inequality was a manifestation of the injustices of poverty. I had found my field.

Since this first trip, I have continued to volunteer with the YASC as well as serve on the board, and each of the three trips since the first one has taught me more about medicine, health, volunteering, and the idea of a global community that cannot move forward without moving together. The next two service trips were in slum communities in Monterrey, Mexico, and from each, I learned about the art of human interaction, which is perhaps the core of what medicine and global health are about.

During my second trip to Monterrey, Mexico, we were confronted with the task of teaching sexual health education to adolescents in the community of Alianza Real, and we were initially met with no audience. However, we soon realized that community involvement means bringing yourself into the community, and we disembarked from our station to begin demonstrating proper condom usage to the Alianza youth with bananas from a supermarket. A local nonprofit that had been trying to bring the somewhat reluctant young men to learn about sexual health was shocked at our success. The persistence I witnessed in the patients who visited our clinic in Derrumbadero on the previous trip was a quality I hoped to find in myself. Just as they need to persevere to overcome poverty and ill health, so did we need to persevere in order to gain acceptance in a foreign community and to help.

This past year, my fourth Yale Service Trip was in the Dominican Republic. I worked in three areas—medical translating, public health, and dancing. Though much of this was now familiar territory for me, during the week I realized that one thing had remained constant in all the service trips over the years. The one thing that had been present—in each community; in each project; in each man, woman, and child; in each volunteer—was persistence in the effort to improve the local communities in the face of hardship. Whether this was persistence in the daily work (pushing through the hot sun to move bricks, or seeing one more patient when that afternoon migraine was kicking in) or persistence on a larger level (returning to Monterrey for a second year despite the ongoing drug wars, or continuing to work in the Dominican Republic despite the programmatic challenges of the first trip), it was at the heart of our individual and community-based successes. The four service trips are easily the most meaningful experiences of my undergraduate career. They inspired me to pursue global health and recommit to medicine. They also taught me about the approach and outlook that will enable me to achieve my goals in public health.

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