Studying abroad changed student’s world view

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The trip changed her life

Confused. Scared. Mortified.

UNMC medical student Kelley Keefe will never forget the look on that young woman’s face.

Or her story.

Kelley stood in shock as she listened to the young woman, who’d been admitted into a rural South African hospital where Kelley was volunteering three summers ago.

The young woman was having “psychogenic” seizures, the doctor had explained. That means that they were an involuntary physical reaction from a psychological disturbance.

In her case, they came from a traumatic history of sex abuse.

Says Kelley: “Her mother prostituted her 10 years ago – at the age of 13.”

A few days later, another girl confided in Kelley that she’d been raped five years before by her fifth-grade teacher. The girl had developed severe depression and thoughts of suicide.

“There is a lot of rape and domestic violence there,” Kelley says. And gender injustice. And lack of resources to help victims heal. That girl had to travel five hours from the town to talk to a psychiatrist. And there is a lack of hope.

The patients who lacked hope seemed less likely to heal.

Kelley is in her fourth year of medical school. Her trip to South Africa happened the summer after her first year of medical school.

That trip changed her life.

Every patient has a story, she says. Her time abroad taught her that sometimes, listening is the best thing a doctor can do.

That summer she also worked at an HIV outreach program in a small town where about a third of the people were infected with the virus. She tried to learn what struggles those people had so she could tailor resources from the organization she was working for to fit their needs.

She helped set up support groups for people who were living, and dying, with HIV and AIDS. She helped teach people to take their medicines properly and encouraged them to follow up with their doctor.

She knows that the time she’s spent abroad will help her when she is a doctor in the United States someday.

“I think it’s really important for people my age to go abroad, even if it’s not to Third World or developing countries,” Kelley says. “I think giving people a different perspective on how the world works and stepping outside their comfort zone is very enlightening. And a lot of people don’t have that chance.”

To pay for her travels, Kelley lived in her parents’ Omaha basement to save on rent. She thinks it’s unfortunate some young people don’t have this opportunity because of financial reasons.

Kelley also has spent time as a volunteer in Nicaragua, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

“It had a huge impact on me,” she says. “I had been reading about a lot of the stuff in books, and it’s very different when you see it in real life. I mean, books and statistics don’t do it justice.”

Global engagement is one of the top priorities of the Campaign for Nebraska. If you’d like to support the university’s effort to promote global engagement – and help students like Kelley learn about themselves and other people in other cultures – please give online or contact the University of Nebraska Foundation at 800-432-3216.

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