For a dedicated group of pre-professional students at Mississippi State, service isn’t just a word emblazoned on the university’s seal. For the members of the university’s Global Medical and Dental Brigades chapter, service is a way of life.
Students are willing to travel anywhere in the world —wherever they’re needed—to improve quality of life through service. At the same time, years before they’ll have opportunities to practice in the United States, members are performing routine healthcare and dentistry tests. By overcoming language barriers to work one-on-one with patients, these young people are connecting with communities around the world.
Senior Angela Maher of Gulfport knew even before she transferred to Mississippi State from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College that she wanted to be part of Global Brigades, the largest student-led health and sustainability service organization in the world.
However, when the bio-chemistry major concentrating in pre-dental studies came to Starkville as a junior in 2013, she soon discovered that Mississippi State didn’t have a chapter.
“I wanted to be part of a student-led mission team,” she remembers. “It’s not a religious mission; it’s a mission to help others. Because it’s the students who are the leaders in Global Brigades, we’re the ones who are making the decisions, and that’s what’s preparing us for dental school and medical school.
“So I knew right away I had to find a way to bring Global Brigades to Mississippi State.”
Maher began networking with some of her close friends, including seniors Lauren Peterman, a biochemistry major concentrating in pre-medicine, and Charlotte Read, a biological sciences major concentrating in pre-dental studies. Peterman is from Gulfport, while Read is from Starkville.
“They were like, let’s make it happen, so we held an information session. And people came,” Maher recalls. “Then Dr. Mary Reese, the director of undergrad advising, agreed to be our faculty adviser, and she has just been amazing. We go everywhere, all over campus, to different student organizations, different clubs, and we tell other students about our organization.”
Read cleans a Honduran resident’s teeth.
Because the initial organizers were enrolled in pre-dentistry and pre-medical programs at Mississippi State, the students formed medical and dental brigades, just two of the nine available pre-professional Global Brigades focus areas, along with business, architecture, environment, human rights, micro-finance, public health or water.
Soon, Maher’s peers elected her chapter president of the Mississippi State Global Medical and Dental Brigades chapter, while Peterman was named historian and Read became president of the dental brigade.
During its first year, 2013-14, Global Brigades at Mississippi State organized an international trip to provide medical and dental assistance to communities in the Republic of Honduras, a Latin American nation a little larger than the U.S. state of Tennessee.
“I was the co-chair for fundraising, but none of us knew how to fundraise. We were all a little nervous, but I got out and started asking for people and businesses to donate,” says senior Brittany McCrary from Athens, Alabama.
The biological engineering major concentrating in biomedical engineering explains she became quite adept at her elevator speech convincing businesses to donate to the Mississippi State Global Brigades chapter. Instead of requesting regular donations, McCrary asked businesses to donate a portion of the sale to the organization when customers mentioned “Global Brigades.” She also spearheaded a variety of fundraising initiatives, including bake sales, crowdfunding efforts and on-campus events.
Though the fundraisers did help fund the trip, the students who went to Honduras had to supply what wasn’t covered. They also had to learn some Spanish, the primary language spoken in the tiny Caribbean nation. Some of the young people had never flown, much less traveled overseas. However, the team faced the challenges head on.
Members agree that going to Honduras was completely worth it.
Honduras was already on the Global Brigades Association’s radar, Maher says. Chapters from around the U.S. had already visited various Honduran communities, or departments, to offer assistance associated with one or more of the nine pre-professional focus areas.
In late May 2014, the Mississippi State Global Medical and Dental Brigades chapter paired with a water brigade from Arizona State University to assist Hondurans. The Mississippi State team brought medical and dental care, while the water brigade was tasked with developing potable water to individual communities.
Read is already a registered dental hygienist, and the secretary of the Mississippi Dental Hygiene Association says she appreciated the chance to share her expertise overseas.
Altogether, Mississippi State supplied 29 participants, 27 of whom were students. One Arkansas State University student, the friend of a Mississippi State student, joined them, and a parent, a physician.
“One of the parents is a doctor in New Orleans,” says junior Hunter Swanzy, a biochemistry major concentrating in pre-medicine. “She called one week before we were going to leave, and she said, ‘I want to do this, too,’ so of course we were excited to have her.”
The doctor’s influence and assistance were critical, the Mississippi State chapter vice president from Biloxi explains.
“We went in, and we spent a week in these communities. We spent our first day sorting meds, so then, when we got to the people, it was easier to fill out the prescription of what they needed,” Swanzy says. “The next three days, we had a mobile clinic set up in schools. There were bars on the window and the desks were just broken apart, so we used what we could.
“We saw 800 patients in three days, and those were three days of emphasizing public health and three days of healing.”
Junior biological engineering major Aalaap Desai, left, of Ridgeland and biological sciences pre-dental student Charlotte Read prepare their tools to assist in bringing clean water to a Honduran community.
The entire team of Mississippi State students saw with their own eyes that not everyone has access to clean water or antibiotics. Swanzy says this epiphany only enhanced the students’ intense determination to help, and the Hondurans really appreciated their assistance.
“As we approached the schoolyard-based medical compound we would be working out of for the next three days, the eyes of the Honduran men and women lit up at the sight of our group of young Americans,” he remembers. “Our goals were ambitious, but we met them.”
The doctors in Honduras showed the Mississippi State students how to conduct medical tests, and they allowed them to perform them.
“They emphasized the importance of hygiene. They would want us to see them do the test, then apply it ourselves. We got a lot of really good service-learning in,” Swanzy says.
Maher was able to participate in cavity filling, while McCrary learned how to match diagnoses with appropriate medicines.
“Even the American doctor who came with us would tell us to come watch and learn from her,” McCrary says. “She would say, ‘You’re not going to learn that back home for years, so come learn over here right now.’”
Though their stay was short —only a week—the students agree the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives had changed their own lives for the better.
The Global Brigades Association continues contact with all the communities where student-led groups offer assistance. Thus students in the Mississippi State chapter, through online resources like Facebook and Twitter, are able to continue the conversations they began—albeit in Spanish—with people from the Honduran communities they visited.
“They love to get news about what’s going on in the organization, and they keep us updated on what they are doing,” says Maher. “These are people who want to be able to take care of themselves.”
Not only are they keeping up with the communities they’ve already visited, but members of the Mississippi State Global Medical and Dental Brigades chapter are working to expand. A group of business students will form a business brigade set to be in place by fall 2015, and efforts to form an architecture brigade are continuing.
Maher says members will pilot a public health brigade to complement the medical and dental brigades during their next mission trip to Nicaragua, May 17-25.
Fundraising has already begun. Students are encouraging donations of medical and dental supplies, as well as funds for the trip itself. Mississippi State Global Brigades members are referring prospective contributors to http://bit.ly/empowered_MSU.
Nicaragua, one of the largest nations in Central America, will offer the Mississippi State Global Brigades team many of the same opportunities they had in Honduras—completing routine medical and dental tests and assisting with pharmaceutical distribution. The public health component will enable the students to assist in collecting electronic patient records and monitoring community health.
“Each public health brigade will work with individual families, local schools and community leaders with a focus on holistic and preventative health measures on both an individual and community-wide scale,” says Tabitha Baca, chapter advisor for Global Brigades Inc., Nicaragua.
Mississippi State members are also hoping to recruit area dentists and doctors to join them; visit www.facebook.com/MSUGlobalBrigades to open a conversation about volunteering.
“Being part of this really changes your life,” says McCrary. “Global Brigades can become the flagship service program for Mississippi State because so many different students can get involved in so many different ways. Students can serve in ways they never thought they could serve.
“Just thinking about being able to do that can set you on a path to changing people’s lives.”
By Leah Barbour