Students Log Hundreds of Hours Caring for the Underserved

By: Debra Holtz

As a teenager, Caroline Ko DPM ’19 attended a prestigious international school in Shanghai with classmates whose parents were the leaders of multinational corporations and who lived with nannies, housekeepers, and chauffeurs. On her way to school, Ko’s school bus passed by slums, where Chinese children in ragged clothes played in the dirt.

“While my peers were blessed with an unbelievable amount of wealth, poverty was prevalent in the country we lived in and benefited from,” she wrote of her motivation for performing more than 300 volunteer service hours over the past four years, qualifying her for admission to the Samuel Merritt University (SMU) Community Service Honor Society. “From that point on, I developed a sense of responsibility to improve the quality of life of the underprivileged.”

Born in the U.S. but raised in China and Korea, Ko said witnessing global income inequality inspired her to become a podiatric physician so that she could help those in need. She has traveled as far as Ghana and Cambodia to do medical volunteer work, and, for the past three years, co-directed the SMU California School of Podiatric Medicine’s annual service trip to San Ysidro — where students and faculty treat foot and ankle conditions and conduct health screenings for diabetes and vascular disease at the busiest U.S.-Mexico border crossing.

Community service mindset

At her recent graduation, Ko became one of 26 SMU students inducted into the Community Service Honor Society since it was created five years ago—together performing more than 4,000 volunteer hours for a wide variety of causes ranging from working in local food pantries to traveling on international medical missions. To qualify for the society, each applicant must contribute at least 45 hours of volunteer service per semester throughout their years of study.

“These are students who, while being successful in their intense and rigorous programs, continue to serve their communities and give their time,” said Craig Elliott, assistant vice president of SMU’s Enrollment and Student Services.

Elliott created the program with Barbara Puder, chair of the Department of Basic Sciences, to recognize students whose commitment to service reflects the University’s mission of improving health care in diverse communities.

“We didn’t want people to do it because it was a résumé builder, said Elliott. "We want to celebrate people who came in with a service mindset and are likely to continue to serve when they’re in practice.”

Club for aspiring nurses

Sadie Harden BSN ’19 was also admitted to the honor society this year and, along with Ko, received a red cord to wear on her graduation robe during the SMU commencement.

For Harden, community service began in childhood. Her family raised money to help the homeless and she volunteered every summer at a Bible camp. While attending SMU’s Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, she said community service kept her grounded while studying and working.

“Finding out about the honor program pushed me to continue to do what I love,” said Harden, who launched a club for aspiring nurses at an Oakland high school and helped put on a Christmas gift drive for foster children as part of her 540 hours of community service over the past two years.

“Changed my life forever”

One of the highlights of her volunteer work was participating last summer in SMU’s medical mission to Panama, an experience she calls “a trip of a lifetime.”

“In class, we learn about people in our community and all over the world who truly have nothing. It was hard for me to really comprehend this until I was in Panama,” Harden wrote in an essay required of all applicants to the honor society to provide reflections of their learning through service.

“My trip to Panama over the summer started out with a great way to see the world, but ended up changing my life forever,” wrote Harden, who said it put her life in perspective by helping her realize how fortunate she is.

Harden and Ko both say they plan to continue their volunteer work as they move into their professional practices, in particular participating on more international service trips.

“Volunteering has left me with a renewed sense of passion in my work,” said Ko, who notes that she chose Kaiser Permanente for her residency because the health care organization sponsors medical missions. “We all need an opportunity to remind ourselves of the reasons why we chose health care as our profession.”

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