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Cyclones, floods and disasters: Union College class prepares students to help at home and abroad

Cyclones, floods and disasters: Union College class prepares students to help at home and abroad

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Editor's note: This is part of a regular series about the courses being taught at Nebraska's colleges and universities, as well as the instructors and students involved in them.

When one of the strongest tropical cyclones on record slammed into the eastern coast of Africa earlier this year, Union College students were immediately on the scene providing relief.

And when floodwaters and ice scraped across northeast Nebraska, destroying homes, roads and bridges, Union College students were there, managing a warehouse full of donated goods in Omaha.

Students enrolled in the International Rescue and Relief major at the Seventh-day Adventist school in Lincoln had trained and prepared for both disasters in a unique program designed for just such occasions.

The 14 students wrapping up a three-month expedition to Malawi in March were able to draw blood, administer medications and even help deliver a baby when Cyclone Idai struck the southeast African country.

Nearer to home, International Rescue and Relief students were tasked with organizing donations and volunteers after a massive storm system inundated large swaths of the state in mid-March.

Union College says its unique International Rescue and Relief program is meant to be a jumping off point for students interested in careers in the health professions, public safety and -- the newest focus -- global community development.

But it also prepares service-driven students to be ready to help when help is needed, said Andrew Saunders, an associate professor and alumnus of the Union College program, both in theory and in practice.

Students learn practical skills like how to conduct rescues in the wild using Lincoln's Wilderness Park as a classroom, apply a splint to a broken arm and extract patients from various disaster scenarios.

Through INRR 482, Development and Project Implementation, the students also spend time digging into the theories and best practices of development, and how aid programs are administered.

"I feel like a lot of Americans don't understand what the international market is doing and how countries have developed," said Saunders, who worked with internally displaced people in Iraq and Ukraine with a nongovernment organization before teaching.

This week, the class focused on efforts to improve health outcomes of underdeveloped countries around the world over the last half century, as well as using data when assessing the needs of each.

In Malawi, for example, the population is growing faster than all but two other countries in the world.

More people means a greater need for quality health care, the class concludes, if development is to take place.

"It doesn't help to develop a population if there aren't people to develop," says Dimitri Henderson, a senior International Rescue and Relief major from Arlington, Texas.

At the same time, Saunders interjects, the median age in Malawi is 16, meaning an overwhelming number of its people are younger and in need of important services like education and job training.

Another team of Union College students will live and work in Malawi for three months early next year.

Henderson, who is on the pre-med track within the program, said in an interview after class that the lessons in Development and Project Implementation complement the practical skills the International Rescue and Relief students learn.

"A lot of things we're learning are case studies about people going into an area to do good things, but their work backfires and creates more problems," he said.

Assessing a population's needs using data has helped Henderson think more systematically about how international development should be effective and efficient as well as consider the unintended consequences.

Saunders said by the end of the semester, students will be asked to build a development proposal using what they've learned in class.

The project must outline how the students would reach a population, the logic model, problem and solution trees for how development would take place, as well as the budgetary and staffing parameters of the development.

So far, this year's projects include improving waste management in Jamaica, improving food security in war-torn Yemen, and expanding emergency health care in Alaska.

"At the end, it's going to be a proposal that will meet industry standards," Saunders said.

To date, the program has turned out a wide array of graduates ready to work with governments, businesses and nongovernmental organizations in global development. Students and alumni of the program have worked in places like Iraq, India, Ukraine, Chad and the United Arab Emirates, Saunders said.

One recent graduate is now working to build a sustainable coffee-growing operation in Haiti, where natural disasters and government incompetence have created a humanitarian crisis, while another just got hired by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a data analyst.

"When people ask me about it, I tell them to think of it like a business degree," Saunders said. "It's wide open and you can do whatever you want with it."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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