IU School of Dentistry students see profession from different perspective after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro

August 12, 2014

A trip to Moi University in Western Kenya this summer offered an unusual “high” for three IU School of Dentistry students this summer: They capped their trip by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

After completing the three-week academic exchange through the IU-Kenya Partnership, John Seely, Kendall Frazier and Victor Vellon boarded a flight to nearby Tanzania where they met their guides and began their eight-day challenge.

They were part of a 12-member group of students and faculty from the dental school who took part in the fifth annual program organized by Karen Yoder, the director of civic engagement and health policy for the School of Dentistry.

Yoder believes the program provides valuable educational opportunities for students from both the IU and Moi schools of dentistry. In the program, IU School of Dentistry students work side-by-side with Moi counterparts; in return, IUSD hosts two Moi dental students for five weeks in Indianapolis each fall. They travel with Moi medical students hosted by the School of Medicine.

“The IU-Kenya Partnership offers an unparalleled framework and venue for a broad learning opportunities in an environment that enables meaningful interaction with diverse people in diverse settings,” Yoder said.

As part of the relationship, IU and Moi students provide dental screening in community-based settings and identify children who need treatment at the Moi University Dental Clinic. Locations involve schools, orphanages, a youth detention center and a drop-in center for children who live on the streets without adult support or supervision.

For Frazier, the climb wasn’t as valuable as the impact the trip had on his career. He had planned to open his own practice after spending up to eight years working either for Veterans Affairs or in an existing practice. But his Moi experience has him contemplating another path.

“My time in Kenya made me think about practicing in a safety-net dental clinic or working in a developing country,” he said. “We had a great learning experience, seeing types of pathology that our Indiana classmates will only see in textbooks.”

IU student Lakshay Bhardwaj learned a lot by working with medical and dental students from Moi, and from faculty members from both universities. It gave him a new perspective on dentistry, as well.

“That’s the rationale behind the program,” Yoder noted. “Spending time in the classroom, clinics, hospitals and the community with inter-professional teams offers a rich learning experience.”

That lesson clicked with Bhardwaj, who “learned to appreciate the patient as a whole, to be aware of not only their oral health, but their overall health,” he said. It also drove home the importance of medical and dental professions working closely together in clinical settings.

Preparing to study abroad offers challenges, Frazier said, and he had some advice for those considering even short-term programs.

“Attend every scheduled pre-trip orientation session,” he said. “And do as much research as you can about the country so you have a baseline of expectations.”

The best advice, Frazier said, is to “be flexible and open to change.” That allows students to “get out of their comfort zones. You never know what you might learn about yourself,” he added.

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