Spotlights & Profiles

Faculty & Staff Spotlights

Changing lives abroad

March 26, 2013

In the late 1970s, Timothy Carlson and his wife, Ann, traveled to Haiti to take part in a dental service trip he describes as “an experience that changed my life, frankly.” And for the past 13 years, the School of Dentistry faculty member has done his best to share that feeling with a significant number of the more than 300 dental school students who have been part of the school’s service learning program in nine nations on four continents.

The Carlsons’ trip came in 1977, a year before he earned his DDS degree, and it affected him so profoundly that he and Ann returned to Haiti for a couple of years after graduation. By the time he returned to the U.S. to teach, a seed had been planted in his mind: He believed that future students could expand their personal and professional horizons through similar service-focused trips.

Through his years at the School of Dentistry, Carlson periodically promoted the idea, but couldn’t get the idea approved. But by 2000, he and fellow faculty members Karen Yoder and Angeles Martínez Mier had allied themselves and in early 2001, their shared dream came to fruition. That year, two teams eschewed the traditional fun-in-the-sun spring breaks in favor of an “alternative spring break” bound for Haiti (with Carlson at the helm) and Calnali, Mexico (an IU School of Medicine-initiated program with a new dental component led by Martínez Mier, who was born in nearby Veracruz).

Alternative spring break, now known as the International Service Learning program, caught on with students, who were willing -- even eager -- to share their expertise with people who had had relatively little contact with dentists in their lives. But Carlson, Yoder and Martínez Mier had something bigger in mind.

“The trips in those first two or three years were primarily service trips,” Carlson said. “But we all wanted it to become part of our students’ academic training, a true service learning opportunity.” In the intervening years, the academic component became a crucial part of the experience. And even the extra work -- participants are required to keep journals on their trips, and do homework and take quizzes beforehand -- didn’t sway the school’s eager participants.

The numbers make the program’s popularity clear: in its 13-year history, 320 students have participated in at least one trip. Nearly three dozen have gone more than once, even though the students have to raise a significant amount to money to go. And interest isn’t waning; last year’s class had 43 percent of its members sign up, though safety concerns forced two trips to be cancelled.

Students aren’t the only ones who find the service learning trips rewarding. More than 20 IUSD faculty have been part of the program, and the trips have attracted participation by seven alumni members -- people who were part of a trip as students, and wanted to go again as alumni. Former participants also contribute resources to the program, “paying it forward” to help others enjoy the experience.

Through the years, Carlson has noticed that students benefit both in the short and long term. The immediate return, he said, is the “sense of satisfaction that comes with cooperating with a local partner and helping meet people’s needs.” But he suspects the long-term gains may be even more significant. “When students see how much bigger the world is than the one they know in Indiana, it can change their values. You can wind up choosing to use your personal time and resources in ways that benefit others, not yourself.”

On the trips, students test themselves, often in less than optimal conditions. “You have to learn to make do sometimes,” Carlson said with a smile. Some of the dental settings have clinics and dental chairs the students recognize. “But often, we have to make do with benches and tables and chairs, and settings in churches, schools and other places,” the veteran faculty member said. “It all depends on what our community partners can find for us.”

There are future professional benefits, as well, especially in an era in which Spanish-speaking people are moving into Indianapolis and other cities throughout the region.

“Our students know they need to become comfortable relating to patients from other cultures and with other points of view, because that’s part of what they will face when they have practices of their own,” Carlson said. “The service learning trips are an opportunity for them to do just that.”

Whether they are faculty or students, the school’s travelers get a first-hand look at how much basic dental services can mean to people who have limited access to such care. “You don’t often get a chance to see the difference you can make in the life of another,” Carlson said. “That is something you’ll remember all your life.”

See all photos »