"We ask of incoming Baylor students a paradox," she said.
"We want you to find yourself, but at the same time to lose yourself into something much larger than you."
Preparing this speech for you today, I realize how much I have fallen for that paradox. Its truth resonates in the experiences I-as a Baylor bear-have had the privilege of engaging in over the last 4 years.
As a freshman and sophomore, I got lost in several premed organizations, the Honors College, and the National Genomics Research Initiative. It was Baylor's first year to participate in this national effort sponsored by Howard Hughes Medical Institute to provide incoming freshman with an exploration of viruses that infect bacteria. This research resulted in a publication, contributed data to the fight against Tuberculosis, and provided a unique understanding of what it meant to "do" science.
It was in the Honors College that I was then given the opportunity to escape my health science discipline and investigate the writings of scientists along with the writings of poets, historians, and philosophers. In a community of like-minded thinkers, challenging classes probed my disciplinary boundary and the nature of truth, cultivated my mind, and nourished my spirit.
Kind professors and encouraging friends were patient with me as my meager understanding of the world began to change. As books and conversations and experiences would leave me with many unanswered questions. As I struggled to doubt, to be angry, to be hopeful, to be inspired, and to truly understand service and the Latin root of "compassion" which literally means "suffering with."
As if I wasn’t lost enough already, junior year is when I started wandering the "path less traveled by." The one that has "made all the difference."
I went to Maastricht, the Netherlands on a premed study abroad program. Through a series of integrated premedical courses, my professors revolutionized the way I thought about the world around me as well as how I thought about myself.
Traveling through Europe, I met medicine at its humble beginnings. In France, I visited the Pasteur Institute where Louis Pasteur developed his Germ Theory. In Germany, I visited the Charité Hospital where Virchow made his first breakthroughs in Cell Theory. And in Italy, I visited the anatomical theatre where Vesalius performed the first human dissections. Studying on weekend trips through Belgium, Spain, England, and Ireland, my professors taught me the "yum, yum, eat em’ up" approach to Pathophysiology, Clinical Decision Making, and Epidemiology. I learned to value the patient narrative as essential to my clinical role, the beginning steps of a differential diagnosis, and how to use statistics to make informed decisions.
While these courses added to my academic foundation, cheese and gelato and tapas along with adventures in Cinque Terre, the Cliffs of Moher, and Montserrat equipped me with valuable emotional and spiritual principles. I was taught to "lean in," to live a "three-dimensional life," and to be a great citizen of the world. My professors believed in me and told me to "find something that pull[ed me] ... to do something that really mattered." They said, "You don’t have to wait until you finish medical school ... You can start right now."
With that advice, I went to Kenya with an 8-page survey, prenatal vitamins, and many questions: Why is it that a woman dies every minute from preventable complications related to childbirth? Contributing to 1/2 of a million women dying each year. Why is it that motherhood--such a positive and fulfilling experience for so many of us--is associated with such pain, suffering, and frequently death for others? With 99 percent of these deaths occurring in low-and-middle income countries. Most importantly, what is keeping the women on the Upper Nyakach Plateau in rural Western Kenya from seeking deliveries at health facilities?
I traveled with a non-profit organization called Straw to Bread and, over the course of two trips, have spent 3 months in Kenya. After setting up a temporary clinic with 60 other team members, seeing more than a 1,000 patients in 10 days, and building a primary school, I extended my stay to live with a Luo family. With no running water or electricity, no material distractions, only my toothbrush, Chacos, and long flowy skirt, I started "finding myself."
A mzungu or "white person"--in fact a Dutch mzungu living in the Lone Star State of Texas--"finding herself" amongst the beautiful dark eyes and skin of her Kenyan friends ... Another paradox.
I encountered difficult stories of bitter poverty, hunger, and injustice. However, I also experienced the deepest level of joy. The love every woman has for her children. Compelling stories of graceful and quiet redemption. Dancing with the orphans and elders of Bethlehem Home. Praising God under a beautiful tree on Sundays. And above all, learning how to live.
I took great gulps of life, and I let that experience wash over me, refine my spirit, and solidify my passions and aspirations. I had successfully lost myself into something much bigger and greater than Jolene.
Sitting in Kenya's lush green grass or inside a dark smoky hut, I interviewed 90 women about their pregnancies and deliveries. I will never forget my last interview in July. Rain was pounding on and leaking through the roof above us. My flashlight lit up the mud walls to illuminate 4 women huddled together to discuss something unique to our gender. Something that seemed to tie us together despite our many differences.
After analyzing stacks of data at Baylor, I learned that transportation was the predominant barrier to maternal health services. All of the women I interviewed valued and preferred a health center delivery, yet less than half were able to achieve one. Because of rough terrain, dangerous obstacles, rainy seasons, and a great burden of responsibility, these women were forced to pay more for a delivery that they did not want--one with an unskilled traditional birth attendant and her unsterile razor blades.
To the moms out there: Can you imagine walking--pardon me, hiking--for 3 miles to the nearest health facility once in labor? With one child on your back, three more trailing behind, and food perfectly balanced for the journey on your head?
These numbers meant so much to me. These statistics represented the faces and families of mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters, and I had the privilege of using my knowledge and skills to draw conclusions that could better those lives. With the odds piled up against them, I was embraced by a moral imperative. I was gifted with a determination to improve pregnancy outcomes on the Upper Nyakach Plateau.
I pushed back my MCAT and therefore medical school for a year in order to finish my thesis early and return to Kenya with a solution. This time, I brought back to Kenya my completed thesis in its green cover and gold lettering as well as a $1,500 grant from Baylor’s Interdisciplinary Poverty Initiative. I once again "found myself" as I presented my research to familiar faces, family, and friends.
With the community's suggestions, enthusiasm, and blessing, I started a program called Mothers On the Move or MOM. MOM uses piki pikis, or motorcycle taxis, to transport expectant mothers to the nearest health facility when they go into labor. I know it sounds awful: a heavily pregnant woman, in labor, on the back of a dirt bike. However, this is the only vehicle that can maneuver those boulders, ruts, ditches, and cows!
And I promise, it works. In the last eleven and a half months, we have safely transported 198 women to Sigoti Health Center and further transported 33 to St. Joseph’s Nyabondo Hospital for complicated deliveries.
In fact, less than 12 hours after launching Mothers On the Move, I was introduced to a 3-HOUR old baby boy wrapped in the arms of a proud, new mother that had arrived at Sigoti Health Center with our services. That’s when I realized that this is what it was all about.
It wasn't about me. It wasn't about fulfilling a requirement for Baylor's Honors College. It was about identifying and meeting a need. It was about practicing pragmatic solidarity, or "common cause with those in need." It was about glorifying God and participating and engaging in His mission.
Little did I know, my Honors thesis would grow into a community-based participatory intervention. Little did I know, that it would transcend cultural and communication barriers; teach me to be joyful, open, grateful, and to listen generously; and finally to ground me in a universal human condition. Little did I know it would take me to Notre Dame and Yale University as well as to present to you distinguished guests tonight.
Returning to Baylor, I wanted to share that experience with others and inspire students for worldwide leadership. I became president of Students Improving Global Health Together or SIGHT and adopted its mission of educating, equipping, and empowering students for future service in global health. I pray that our readings, discussions, speakers, and fundraisers have kindled a fire in the hearts of our members to not only recognize the public health needs of the marginalized, but more importantly to respond, to engage scholarship in the practical problems of our world, and to "be the change [they] wish[ed] to see."
After "finding myself" in the faces of those little babies in Africa--one of whom was later named Jolene Gloria Apollo after I interviewed her mother with little Jolene still in the womb--I, of course, couldn't stay away. I really enjoyed volunteering at Providence's Emergency Department, but I left to start feeding the homeless breakfast with Baylor's branch of Mission Waco. Through Mission Waco, I soon became involved with a local non-profit that works with families from the Kate Ross government-housing neighborhood of South Waco. As a classroom volunteer at Talitha Koum, a mental health therapeutic nurture center, I have spent the last year on the floor with 6 sweet 2 year-olds; their colorful blocks, dolls, and books; and their "Bye Bye Buggies." Offering brain development and care to at-risk children from eight weeks old to Kindergarten, Talitha Koum attempts to deter the life-long repercussions of multigenerational urban poverty.
These children have significant developmental delays as a result of stressful environments. I would continue to "find myself" in the confused faces of my friends when I came home each week exclaiming, "Zaiden finally sat in my lap!" or "I finally cleaned Calissa’s diaper!" Each small step of a child overcoming attachment difficulties, stranger anxiety, and an inability to self-regulate became a victory.
This experience among others deepened my comprehension of health as incredibly complex and requiring a collaboration among all disciplines. I discovered that cycle of poverty--where poverty causes disease and disease causes poverty--and I knew I wanted to pursue medicine in order to intervene, alleviate that suffering, and serve. I realize now that I needed these last 4 years to stretch my limits, to define my passion, and to solidify my calling in order to grow into a proficient medical school applicant.
I realize now how much I needed a university that would foster the transformation of the whole person. One that would shatter what I once held true and compose new ideas that would forever interplay with my career goals, my beliefs, my experiences, my relationships, and my dreams.
An institution that would give me the education I needed to identify a need in the world and then give me the tools to meet it. An institution that is now my home. My alma mater. The place where I spent 4 incredible years (and will therefore shamelessly spend the next 4 convincing my younger brother to choose the same).
I can't believe that I will be graduating tomorrow afternoon with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Medical Humanities. I'm so excited to spend the next year working at Baylor College of Medicine's National School of Tropical Medicine, serving as a Graduate Assistant for Baylor's premed study abroad program in Maastricht, and building Mothers On the Move's sustainability. I'm looking forward to starting my medical school applications next week and returning to Kenya permanently as a physician in the future.
Finally, after losing myself in these blessed opportunities, I am grateful that Baylor shared with me the overwhelming sense that WE are all a part of something much larger than us. I am so grateful that Baylor helped ME "find myself again" in a place where "my deep gladness can meet [one of] the world’s deep need[s]." In a vocation that grants the humble opportunity to participate in another life--particularly in improving the health and therefore quality of that life.
I want to end with a quotation from my favorite book, Half the Sky: "Talent is universal, but opportunity is not." To my wonderful parents and brother, and my grandparents that flew in from the Netherlands to be here tonight, I can't thank you enough for supporting me in choosing Baylor. To Baylor and its professors, mentors, and friends, thank you for these blessed opportunities. To the Board of Regents and Baylor alumni, thank you for choosing to give back to Baylor. It is your contribution and your legacy that have made Baylor the beautiful, sacred place that it is TODAY.
Sic' em bears, and good night!