College has long been known as a way to open doors, and sometimes those doors can lead to unexpected and exciting places. Alex Wolner, A 2017 graduate of Montevideo High School, recently had an opportunity ot set foot on another continent and experience first-hand the wonders and culture of another country.

Wolner, who is a junior biology and Spanish major at St. Olaf College, recently returned from a trip to Peru. Wolner said: “I am on the pre-med track and aspire to become a medical doctor as a future vocation. This January, I had the opportunity ot travel with the St. Olaf College biology department as part of a course named 'The Peruvian Medical Experience.' This exchange program was established 15 years ago and has been expanding ever since.”

College has long been known as a way to open doors, and sometimes those doors can lead to unexpected and exciting places. Alex Wolner, A 2017 graduate of Montevideo High School, recently had an opportunity ot set foot on another continent and experience first-hand the wonders and culture of another country.

Wolner, who is a junior biology and Spanish major at St. Olaf College, recently returned from a trip to Peru. Wolner said: “I am on the pre-med track and aspire to become a medical doctor as a future vocation. This January, I had the opportunity ot travel with the St. Olaf College biology department as part of a course named ‘The Peruvian Medical Experience.’ This exchange program was established 15 years ago and has been expanding ever since.”

The program is a joint collaboration between St. Olaf College and two non-profit organizations: Andean Community Partners and Health Bridges International.

Preparations for the journey began in March of 2019 when Wolner applied for the trip. “I applied, interviewed, and was selected along with 17 other students,” she said.

During this past fall semester, Wolner and the other students spent two hours each week learning about the course, and hearing guest speakers from healthcare and non-profits. They also discussed topics such as cultural humility, Peruvian history, and current events in South America. “Shortly after our Christmas break,” said Wolner, “our class packed up medical and dental supplies and then flew to Peru on Jan. 5.”

Accompanying the class on the three week journey were one professor, a pharmacist, three dentists, two nurses, and six physicians. the purpose of the trip was to provide health care to underserved communities in Peru.

Upon arriving in Peru, the group immediately set up a temporary clinic at a boy’s orphanage in Cusco. In order to do that, the group transformed classrooms into a clinical setting. Wolner said: “There were spaces for registration, physicians, dentists, and a pharmacy. During the week we were there, our patients included not only the boys from the orphanage, but also girls from another orphanage in Cusco, as well as community members who heard about the clinic.”

During the second week of their trip, the group relocated to the Sacred Valley where they stayed at a city called Ollantaytambo. Although based in Ollantaytambo, the group set their clinic up seven miles away in a rural mountain community called Huilloc.

Wolner described what she and her fellow students did when the clinics were open. She said: “First, we would register kids; taking height, weight, blood pressure, and saturation levels. Patients then proceeded to rotate through seeing pediatricians, learning about dental hygiene, visiting dentists, and received pharmaceutical care as needed.”

The students also assisted dentists with sith suctioning, rinsing, curing, hygiene education, instrument sterilization, and provided comfort for the patients.

“We would also interact with and befriend the children, which was a fun experience for all,” said Wolner. “We often had impromptu volleyball games, soccer games, drawings, and more!”

While in Huilloc, Wolner and her group spoke with villagers to learn more about traditional local medicine usage and their views of biomedicine. “This special afternoon was a great opportunity to learn more about a community and their day-to-day lives!” she said. For their final week in Peru, the group traveled to Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru, which is home to over one million people. They stayed in Alto Cayma, a suburb of Arequipa. Wolner said: “We had the opportunity to learn about public and private health care systems in Peru, volunteer at a local orphanage, shadow first responders, and go into the homes of an impoverished area with a local social worker.”

According to Wolner, the only real challenge the group faced while in Peru was the language barrier. Spanish is the most common language spoken in Peru, and there were only a handful of students within the group who were able to speak it. “It was a fun opportunity to practice our communication skills!” she said.

Another language barrier was encountered when they were at the mountain community of Huilloc. “They spoke a native language called Quecha, which required a Quecha to Spanish, then Spanish to English translator,’ said Wolner. “We learned that people do not need to speak the same language to connect. For example, it was still fun to play with kids through running around or playing soccer!”

Even though they had a very busy schedule, the group had time to do some sightseeing and learn about Peruvian culture. “Almost daily, we were given the opportunity to go on multiple hikes to see Inca ruins and sites.” said Wolner. We also visited local markets to practice our bartering skills! We also saw llamas and alpacas, went to a bullfight, tried new foods, and played against the Peruvians in soccer. We also took a day to visit the sacred and breathtaking site of Machu Picchu!”

For Wolner, spending time with the children and people of Peru was an eye-opening experience, and one she won’t soon forget. “It was a very emotional experience for all of us,” she said. “Conversations we had among ourselves included the guilt we felt while there, the poverty we saw, and some of the basic needs which we take for granted at home that people in Peru worry daily about.”

Getting to know the children was especially poignant for Wolner. “We heard their personal stories and what they have been through so far in their young lives. We found it was very difficult to leave after finally starting to open up to one another,” she said.

“I would say that one of the most impactful personal experiences for me happened our last week in Peru. With the aid of a local social worker, we were graciously welcomed into impoverished homes to discuss some of our hosts past and current hardships,” she continued.

The experiences and memories of her time in Peru will last throughout Wolner’s lifetime. “It was very transformative on a variety of levels. On one hand, we were exposed and integrated into an entirely new culture. This included being able to practice my skills of learning the Spanish language. I also became incredibly close with the other students, professionals, and Peruvian leaders traveling with us that will provide connections for the rest of our lives. Finally, I was given a firsthand look at and hands-on experiences in health care which have reaffirmed my desire to become a future healthcare provider.” To be sure, one doesn’t return unchanged from an adventure like Wolner was on, and she summed up her experience by saying: “One day during a brief lecture, the priest we were with said four words that stuck with me; ‘A life of service.’ This phrase represents my greatest takeaway from this experience, which I would describe as truly life-changing. I will move forward with these opportunities and lessons learned wherever my future takes me.”