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 Ellenelle Gilliam, Rebecca Brosch and Alexander Lobo
From left, ATLAS winners Ellenelle Gilliam, Rebecca Brosch and Alexander Lobo. (Not present: Alyssa Hernandez)

Shaping their futures through lessons in Africa

The friendship between a student and his mentor brought about a program that makes life-changing learning experiences in Africa open to more students.

The student was Vikings' basketball star and accounting grad Matt Pelton ’10. The mentor was Kim Brunner '71, a member of Augustana's Board of Trustees.

Pelton participated in study abroad program in Ghana and Senegal as a senior.

"After graduation, with Kim Brunner's recommendation, Matt began a highly competitive job at Governmental Accounting Standards Board in Connecticut," said Dr. John Pfautz, who leads Africa trips. "Matt continued to work on Africa projects through his time at KPMG, and eventually moved to Kenya to work on entrepreneurship and education initiatives with the African Leadership Group."

Pelton's work with nonprofits in Ghana changed his perspective on how he wanted to spend the rest of his life," said Dr. Allen Bertsche, director of international and off-campus programs.

Brunner wanted to share this life-changing gift with other students by providing them with funding to learn in Africa. And so, Augustana Transformative Learning and Service (ATLAS) was born.

ATLAS encourages students to engage with Africa through experiential learning, either through an Augustana-led program or through an approved external service learning, internship or volunteer abroad experience. For approved applicants, it provides a $2,000 grant that can be paired with Augie Choice (another $2,000 grant program available to every student) or used independently.

"We are really interested in student growth," Bertsche said. "We want to provide funding to give students the opportunity to be the person they want to be and decide where they want to focus their life. We want to expand student horizons."

Here are the students approved for ATLAS grants this year:

Rebecca Brosch

Majors: political science and graphic design
Future plans: interested in global health care
ATLAS journey: three-week project in Ghana last February/March through Projects Abroad

Brosch did her Senior Inquiry project on health care in Ghana. She got to see firsthand how cultural attitudes affect nongovernmental organizations giving medicine to children.

"Even when it's one pill per year for free, parental attitudes are very negative," she said. “As disheartening as that was, it also gave me a better understanding of the cultural aspects of public health that I'll keep in mind in grad school."

Her experience also involved learning a local language, trying different foods (many heavily spiced), staying with kind host family, and volunteering 6-7 hours every day. It also involved limited resources.

"Power would often not be on. Water may not work for days. It was a matter of figuring out how to keep your routine going when you couldn't wash your hands. I'd walk to a well, get a bucket full of water, and carry it back to the sink. It helps you realize the things we take for granted," Brosch said.

"This type of opportunity is not something you'll have the chance to do again in your life," she said. "I'm so thankful for the ATLAS grant and all of the support I received."

Ellenelle Gilliam

Major: music education
Future plans: student teaching in August, possibly teaching overseas
ATLAS journey: three-week program in Tanzania this June

This isn't Ellenelle Gilliam's first international journey — she's been to Europe and completed mission work in the Caribbean — but it will be her first journey in Africa. A junior, she will graduate early this year.

She'll accompany Dr. John Pfautz, her project mentor, to teach music education workshops. In exchange, they'll learn traditional African drumming and dance.

"I'd like to gain a deeper understanding of how music works across borders, how we affect each other thousands of miles apart," she said.

Part of her adventure already included getting "more shots than I can count" to go on the trip, but she knows it'll be worth it to gain "things you can't learn sitting in a classroom and things I'll be able to share with students I teach in less than a year."

Gilliam's advice to other students interested in applying for ATLAS is simple: "If it sparks your interest, ask questions. Go talk to a professor, talk to peers, do research on place you want to go."

Alexander Lobo

Majors: biology and neuroscience
Future plans: to be a physician or researcher
ATLAS journey: three-week program last February/March in Tanzania through Projects Abroad

Junior Alexander Lobo was up for an adventure. "I wanted to do study abroad, something super-related to my field, that I'd enjoy and would be a good experience," he said. Lobo took his ATLAS journey during spring break and was glad not to have to take a term off.

He did pediatric surgical rounds in a hospital every day, which was more hands-on and emotionally challenging than he expected. Lobo often saw five or sixpediatric burn victims per day. (Tanzanians must dispose of garbage by burning it, and often children get hurt.)

When Lobo held a 12-year-old-girl's hand while getting her wounds cleaned, he knew enough Swahili to understand that other medical professionals were chiding him (since a cultural norm for some tribes is not to show pain).

"The lack of empathy for patients was hard to watch and made me question, 'Can I do this?'" he said. "But it didn't deter me; it encouraged me. I saw what I didn't want to be, and it strengthened my resolve on what kind of physician or researcher I want to be."

Though Lobo feels he made a small difference, the high point of his trip was hiking to a waterfall and through villages. He'd love to return to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

"I'd do it all over in a heartbeat," he said. "It was the most amazing thing I've ever done."

Alyssa Hernandez

Majors: public health and communications
Future plans: interested in maternal and infant care, possibly internationally
ATLAS journey: three-week program in Uganda this June through Child Family Health International

Alyssa Hernandez got an Augustana email: Do you want to go to Africa? "I've always known Africa has many health disparities and not a lot of help," she said. "It's one of my dreams to go to Africa to do public health and try to improve communication."

For the application process, the junior wrote a purpose statement. "I had to think outside my comfort zone. You have to show you're connected to it and passionate about it. It's really my heart's desire."

Hernandez will volunteer at a clinic, helping pregnant women and children with HIV and AIDS, as well as doing community outreach through public health radio.

She thinks about writing her reflection paper when she returns. "I anticipate a greater sense of appreciation for what I have here and a greater passion to reach out and help others, especially in developing countries. I want to come back and be a better person."

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