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Beth Gallagher

African visit changed co-op student’s life

May 28, 2009

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A three-month international co-op term in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, Africa proved to be a life-altering experience for graduand Beth Gallagher.

"It sure didn’t look like a World Vision TV commercial," says the biology major who taught Grade 9 English, biology, physics and chemistry to refugee students aged 14 to 21.

Instead, she says the camp of 11,000 people looked like a big, crowded village. The site of a former prison, it included brick buildings as well as thatched-roof mud huts. The refugees, from war-torn countries such as Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are prohibited from working legally in Malawi and rely on the Red Cross and World Food Programs for survival.

Despite the refugees’ poor situation, Gallagher found they weren’t the miserable victims depicted in the commercials. "These people are far more resilient than most here in Canada."

Gallagher’s choice to work in Africa isn’t surprising, given her extensive work on campus with Canadian Students for Darfur, which included a three-year stint as president of the SFU chapter.

Curious to see Africa for herself, she organized her co-op term through the World University Services of Canada (WUSC), which was establishing the Malawian camp’s first on-site high school program.

"I’m dying to go back again and teach," she says, despite the program’s lack of educational resources, funds and staff. "I connected with my students. They wanted to learn about my culture and I wanted to learn about theirs."

It may be some time before she returns, however, and when she does, it will more likely be as a medical doctor with a specialty in tropical diseases, as she has just been accepted to UBC’s medical school. Malawi, she says, has a population of 12 million with fewer than 200 physicians to serve them. "Studying medicine doesn’t close any doors," she says. "It will just open a whole bunch more for me."

Gallagher won SFU’s 2009 biological sciences Merit Award.

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