One of the great things about attending a liberal arts college is that you don’t have to have your whole life figured out by the time you’re 18. Or 19. And how could you possibly know what’s right for you if you haven’t tried it out yet? At Sweet Briar, the Anne Gary Pannell Merit Scholarship helps sophomores explore their particular academic interests for an entire year.
Kasey Stewart is an aspiring doctor who, in addition to double-majoring in art history and Spanish, is taking pre-med courses and minoring in Latin American studies. Her Pannell project, “Doctors Without Borders: Step One,” combines her passion for language with her dreams of becoming a doctor and helping children.
To explore her career goal of working as a pediatrician in Guatemala, Stewart has been analyzing Costa Rica’s health care system, its culture, and the history and inner workings of Doctors Without Borders. She also used the scholarship money to travel to Costa Rica in December and January to volunteer at an orphanage, which allowed her to experience the country’s culture and health care system first hand.
“I hope to apply this knowledge to suggest how Doctors Without Borders, or another health NGO, could help Guatemala achieve the same level of health services that Costa Rica has obtained,” she explained before the trip.
“My ultimate career goal is to lead Doctors Without Borders missions in Latin American countries. Experiencing a successful Latin American health care system, as well as getting the Spanish-speaking and cultural experience, will all help me be the best mission leader that I can possibly be.”
The trip also gave the South Carolina native a taste of what it would be like to live abroad — and what it’s like when plans don’t work out.
Upon her arrival in San Jose, the orientation she was supposed to receive was canceled, leaving her to figure out everything on her own for the first few days.
“I thought I was prepared to travel alone, but I definitely wasn’t,” she admits.
Thankfully, she didn’t have to for very long. Fellow Sweet Briar student Ariel Taylor ’14 joined her two weeks later to also volunteer at the orphanage. Along with several other international students, the two spent weekdays tending to the young children and traveled around the country on the weekends, getting to know Costa Rica’s culture and wildlife — overall a “fantastic” experience, Stewart says.
But as things go with exploratory research projects, they don’t always yield the results one may have expected.
“Working with the children definitely reassured me that I want to work in pediatrics, but I also really enjoyed teaching the kids and I have always been passionate about education,” she said.
Stewart says she is now more interested in developmental pediatrics than emergency care, which is the primary focus of Doctors Without Borders.
“You can’t really volunteer in behavioral pediatrics,” she explained, adding that her goals have changed somewhat. While she still wants to work abroad as a doctor, it will have to be a more permanent position than those provided by Doctors Without Borders, since developmental pediatricians have to build relationships with their patients.
Stewart hopes to intern with a doctor in her hometown near Columbia during spring break to further explore the field. She’s also researching other international organizations that operate in Spanish-speaking countries.
Along with the practical experience she gained in Costa Rica, Stewart’s research has broadened her perspective on international health care aid, including its limitations.
“I have seen both the good and the bad side of international health care aid,” she said. “Obviously, western medicine has done wonders for the world, but there are also secret indigenous methods that are very important to those cultures and have clearly been working. Unfortunately, western medicine and international aid have a tendency to wipe out these wonderful health care approaches.”
Going forward, Stewart continues to explore everything there is to know about the subject — “good” or “bad.” It’s all part of the process that will get her one step closer to realizing her goals.