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Breaking point

Participants in the Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip "The Emergency Room is Closed" explored health disparities in LA last week. (Courtesy of Justin Lam)

ASBs explore some of today’s most troublesome issues

Friday afternoon — a dozen students sprawled out on towels, enjoying the sun and sand at a beach in LA. Some were tanning, others texting and plugged into iPods. To the casual observer, they probably looked like any other group of crazy college kids, having fun at the beach, talking and laughing, partying and doing what college kids do on spring break.

But not quite.

Earlier that day, these students had shadowed physicians and observed several operations, including a gastric bypass surgery. And their conversation was about socioeconomic disparities in healthcare, sharing reflections and frustrations after a weeklong service-learning trip as one of Stanford’s 13 Alternative Spring Break (ASB) programs this year.

“After working on this for the past nine months, I’ve read a lot, but the most learning came from actually going on the trip,” said Matthew Anderson ‘11, one of the leaders of “The Emergency Room is Closed: Exploring Socioeconomic Disparities in Los Angeles Hospitals.” “This was the first time I really put myself into the shoes of a doctor.”

During the trip, a group of 14 students visited numerous healthcare facilities, including free clinics and both nonprofit and for-profit hospitals, where they spoke with physicians and administrators. For the students, many of whom are pre-med, it was an eye-opening experience that helped them develop a deeper understanding of how the healthcare system works — and doesn’t work.

“I came on the trip with much more naive ideas about what it means to be a doctor,” said Divya Nag ‘13.

Through ASB, students were exposed to the business of healthcare, including insurance, taxation and hospital management. The trip was especially pertinent due to the recent passing of healthcare reform legislation, and participants were able to speak with practitioners currently in the field about how reform will affect them.

“I always concentrated on the doctor-patient interaction and wasn’t aware of system-wide issues, but the whole system is so dysfunctional, out of date and even a bit ridiculous,” said Justin Lam ‘13.

A day at Neighborhood Legal Services, a free legal services provider, also gave students the opportunity to assist patients struggling with medical debt.

“You can’t fix everything, but you can still create impact,” said Andy Nguyen ‘12, who hopes to integrate his interests in health policy and law with medicine. “Regardless of where I end up, when dealing with people, one of the most important things is treating people with dignity.”

For Yvorn Aswad ‘11, the other co-leader, a big draw of the trip was its location, which brought him home to urban L.A.

“This system is broken because of balancing people’s wants — how do you figure out whose wants are greater?” Aswad asked. Students visited his high school, the King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, and observed efforts to encourage education and pursuit of health careers in an underserved community rife with poverty and gangs. Special programs allow high school students to shadow and volunteer with various health professionals, and administrators have carried on despite setbacks such as the closure of a local hospital.

“Education is really important,” said Emily Young ‘12, another graduate of King/Drew who was on the trip. “The situation is not unfixable, but it will require cooperation.”

This is now the 23rd year that ASB has been providing Stanford students with unique spring break experiences, and everything from trip coordination to leader selection is student-run. For many who are especially passionate about a particular social issue, leading an ASB was the perfect way to further their own understanding while sharing their passions with other students.

“Over the work I’ve done in HIV/AIDS throughout my undergraduate career, I’ve experienced in the Stanford community a lot of complacency, ivory tower distance and ignorance,” said Crystal Zheng ‘10, who was one of the leaders of “Silence is Death: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on HIV/AIDS in San Francisco.” “I led the trip because I wanted to expose students to the very real impacts of HIV/AIDS on a community only 30 minutes north of us.”

Trip leaders apply the spring of the previous year, are interviewed for suitability and then take a preparatory course in fall quarter with the Haas Center before teaching another course in winter quarter once trip participants have been selected. The Haas Center also assists with coordinating alumni relations, which have proved invaluable due to the wealth of connections to numerous organizations and diverse fields. Some trips also received help from alumni when it came to housing.

ASB is funded by Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) special fees as well as a small participant fee, although financial aid is available. ASB also offers small grants of $500 for participants to encourage further service once the week is over.

Two-year program director Christopher Khavarian ‘10 has been involved with ASB since freshman year and was a participant and trip leader of trips to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“The greatest things about ASB are the people — students are so passionate, and the energy is electrifying,” said Khavarian, who stresses the uniqueness of the learning aspects of ASB trips. “It really is one of the most impactful programs on campus. Understanding an issue from the bottom up makes the service more meaningful to the students and to the people affected.”

“It’s not just service, but service-learning,” said fellow coordinator Indu Premakumar ‘10, who has also been through the whole spectrum of ASB involvement. “Learning about things we don’t think about too much.”

Many students on the trips found their worldviews changed by the experience, or their idealism re-kindled.

“I’ve always been skeptical of people who say I’m going to change the world,” admitted Justin Lee ‘13. But after participating in “Social Entrepreneurship in the Bay Area,” meeting entrepreneurs — including the founders of Kiva.org — and volunteering with startups focused on tutoring underprivileged students, his position is wavering.

“Intense immersion for one week into this lifestyle — I realized that social entrepreneurship is not just a field or a vocation, it’s a lifestyle, a way of living.”

Vin Nie Ong ‘13 agreed. As part of the “Food for Thought” ASB, she learned all about sustainable agriculture and organic farms.

“We actually farmed — planted potatoes, lettuce and peas — collected eggs from chicken coops . . . it was really tiring, but I appreciate my food more, think about where it comes from and will try harder to get my vegetables from farmers’ markets in the future,” Ong said. “It was a break I’ll never forget — a lot of fun, and also much more productive than lying around watching movies or TV!”

Vineet Singal ‘12, who has written for The Daily, participated in “A Veteran’s Affair: In Pursuit of Health Care” in Washington, D.C. last year, and was inspired to lead the trip this year. Besides volunteering at an army medical center and a homeless shelter, students spoke with Bob Filner, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, to understand current health legislation. Singal’s involvement with ASB has also inspired him to pursue epilepsy research after learning about the injuries that many veterans sustain which can lead to the disorder.

“ASB really linked together my interests, and has been a catalyst for my on- and off-campus activities and academic life,” Singal said. He and his co-leader also volunteer at the nearby VA Hospital and are involved in other groups relating to veterans’ health.

More than anything else, ASB brought students together and thrust them out of the Stanford bubble, taking learning to a whole new level.

New friends, new mentors, new passions and new inspiration to start off Spring Quarter: it’s amazing what you can do in just seven days.

The author participated in “The Emergency Room is Closed.”

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