U of L students exemplify the spirit of World Humanitarian Day

University of Lethbridge students who have participated in humanitarian work say helping others has enriched their lives in ways they couldn’t have ever imagined.

U of L students say doing humanitarian work with groups such as these Malawi children, is an enriching experience.

Whether they worked with youth to help them learn ways of preventing malaria and HIV or nursed critically ill patients, humanitarian work has expanded their view of the world and whetted their appetites for more.

The United Nations established World Humanitarian Day in 2008, reserving Aug. 19 as the day to recognize humanitarian workers who have put their own lives at risk to help others.

For the past few years, U of L students have had the opportunity to put the theory they’ve learned in the classroom into practice in developing countries such as Malawi and Uganda.

The Malawi Field Study course is offered jointly by the Health Sciences and Fine Arts faculties and is open to students in any discipline. In partnership with Museums of Malawi, 14 U of L students participated in the course this year. Before the students left, they raised almost $22,000 to buy 1,750 mosquito nets to give to people in the communities they visited. Candace Douslin, Heather Nixdorff and Ellen Grossman were among those who spent three weeks teaching children about ways to prevent malaria and HIV. Dr. Jean Harrowing, a professor in the Faculty of Health Science’s nursing program, and Lisa Doolittle, a professor of theatre arts in the Faculty of Fine Arts, accompanied them.

Harrowing says the field study course is designed to nurture a student’s ability to think critically about social justice, equity, human rights and relational practice and identify opportunities for action in a global health setting.

“Students learn to examine their assumptions and acknowledge their privilege, while engaging in a meaningful way with other travellers on the planet,” says Harrowing. “Although information sharing and donated mosquito nets are important and tangible gifts, it is the engagement in human relationship, the creating of connections between people who really are not very different from one another, that is, to me, the essential and priceless experience of humanity for both the students and their hosts.”

The students visited 11 schools in Malawi where they worked with Grade 7 students. Using drama techniques, they helped create awareness about ways to prevent malaria and HIV infection. They also soaked up Malawian culture and discovered some new things about themselves in the process.

“I learned there are ways to work with people, even when there’s a language barrier,” says Douslin, a nursing student. “I learned that, because life can be different there from here, it doesn’t mean that either way is better or worse. No matter where you go, people care about their families and their loved ones and they want to be healthy and happy.”

“I loved it; I could have stayed there forever. It was definitely hard and tiring but it was so rewarding,” says Nixdorff, a public health student. “We learned more about ourselves than we did anything else, how much we take for granted here, how it’s possible to be resourceful with so little. Creating personal relationships with people makes it so much more real. You feel the need to make a difference.”

Ellen Grossman, also a public health student, says the field study gave her the chance to see public health in action.

“I would love to do more after this experience,” says Grossman. “In most places, I believe the messages about malaria and HIV did get across to the audience very well, but even if they didn’t I felt that this bit of intervention taught leadership to the kids.”

Tracey Christoffersen was one of five U of L nursing students who completed a preceptorship at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, Uganda.

“It was just the most rich experience,” she says. “Most people have very little but are extremely giving and generous with what they do have.”

Students in the U of L Rotaract Club are also supporting humanitarian service projects. They have fundraised to build a school in south Sudan, to support a microcredit bank in Costa Rica, and to help Flying Doctors of Canada in their work in Nicaragua.