Student Blogger Study Abroad

How did I get here?

Group of twelve students with Phil Sandro sitting and standing, smiling at the camerca

Each term, one participant from each HECUA program takes on the role of student blogger, sending regular dispatches from the field. Elle Nelson is HECUA’s student blogger for the Inequality in America program this fall. Elle is a student at Bethel University, majoring in Biology and Reconciliation Studies. Read on her for first post!

If someone would have told my first-year self that I would be doing an off-campus program centered on inequality and politics I would have paused, raised my eyebrows, smiled slightly, looked to my left and then to the right and laughed at how clearly this person did not know me. “I’m going to medical school and I hate politics,” I would have said shutting down their obvious confusion about who I was.

I was raised up in the medical field as a patient. I am the first in my lineage to house a genetic mutation that has many effects on who I am. There are prominent physical effects that come along with Hypophosphatemic Rickets, of course, but what I wanted to build my career off of was my understanding of the medical world. Growing up, I’d interacted with more medical personnel that I could ever begin to count. I knew what made a good pediatrician, a good orthopedic surgeon, a good anesthesiologist, a good nephrologist, endocrinologist, rheumatologist, a good nurse, a good phlebotomist, even a good receptionist. I even knew which nurses were going to successfully draw my blood on the first poke and which ones were going to poke me twice, give up and then call on someone else to do the job. My plan was to use these skills along with my natural liking for academics to become a doctor who knew what it was like to be the person detailed in the medical chart.

So, naturally, I took advantage of all the privileges that life handed me and I initiated step one: getting an undergraduate degree in biology. That lasted, on its own, for about one semester. Everything began to change for me when I took my first Reconciliation Studies course in the Spring of 2017. The course was titled, MLK, Malcolm X, and Our Multicultural Society and I took it to cover a general requirement. This was really the first time that I was introduced to issues of inequality in the US. Since then, I have been pursuing majors in both Biology and Reconciliation Studies. I have been compelled to understand the experiences of those on the margins of society. It began with an interest in learning about truths that I really didn’t see before. It began a shifting and expansion of my worldview, a process that I’m still in and hopefully always will be.

For me, understanding the world around me led to a greater understanding of myself. This included uncovering some emotional scars that being a career patient inflicted on me. With this self-understanding came a resentment towards the medical field and pretty much anyone in it. I no longer really want to be a doctor. My future is open for dreaming.

I was introduced to HECUA when Julia K. Dinsmore (Community Faculty for Inequality in America) came into one of my classes as a guest speaker and gave a plug for the Inequality in America program at the end of her talk. At the time I thought it would have been impossible to fit the program into my schedule, but I took one of her cards anyways. One thing led to another and with my newfound clear slate for future plans came a hunger to find out, what else is out there for me? I ended up turning down a full semester studying at Oxford University in England to be in this program. I’m now a month and a half into the HECUA semester and I would make the same decision over and over and over again.

What’s so great about this program you ask? The short answer is the people and the depth of content. The experience that my beloved peers and instructors bring to the table seriously pales in experience to the academic rigor of Oxford University. I can confidently say this because I just did the summer program at Oxford a few months ago. It was marvelous, don’t get me wrong. My studies there focused on creative writing and investigating the evolution of conflict narrative between science and religion from a historical perspective. Again, I am incredibly grateful for that experience, but the learning I’m experiencing here is so pivotal to who I will be as a member of society.

Our instructor, Phil, opens the door and welcomes each of us as we trickle in every morning. One by one we fill in the semi-circle of chairs in the basement of Dreamland Arts in the Midway St. Paul neighborhood. Phil puts on a pot of coffee for anyone who needs more sleep, and we talk about the really hard things. We talk about silenced people, silenced histories, the poverty industry, institutionalized racism, gender inequality, power structures, political frameworks, government structure, etc. Sometimes the content leaves myself and my classmates feeling small and powerless. We exist in this finite time amidst deep histories of perpetuating problems. The learning isn’t always uplifting. But it doesn’t stop there. We are turning a corner in the semester into topics around ushering tangible change. There are obviously no easy answers, but often our learning involves examples of past efforts that have prevailed. Sometimes Phil even shares stories of his own experience as an activist.

We often connect our work at our internship sites to class material and we fill each other in on what progress is happening. Our group also strives to push traditional educational boundaries by seeing each individual as both the teacher and the learner, even the instructors. This way people are welcomed to bring expertise from their own life into the group, if they so choose.

Going forward I am excited to see how people continue to expand in their ideas and passions but also how we will bloom as a community. We are about half way through the program and I already get sad when I think of the experience ending.

Group of twelve students making silly faces at the camera
Inequality in America cohort, Fall 2019

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