From Zero to 15,000 feet with De La Salle High School

By:  Dr. Meghan Mason

One of the things I value most about my job is the opportunity to travel internationally with some frequency. Recognizing that conferences are usually not held in the same location twice, I tend to pack my schedule (and my suitcase) with opportunity for exploration. But every previous international trip pales in comparison to the itinerary I shared with De La Salle high school students and faculty in Bolivia this past July.


Photo by Nate Ryan

In a unique collaboration between St. Kate’s Public Health, St. Kate’s Global Studies, De La Salle High School’s Global Advantage Program, and Carmen Pampa University, 21 high school students received college credit for an international course on the social determinants of health. Our in-country trip was just over two weeks long, and included stops in Madidi National Park, the hills of the Nor Yungas Provence, the capitol city of La Paz, and the beautiful waterscape of Lake Titicaca. At each stop, we discussed how the environment, socio-economic factors, human behaviors and culture shaped the health of the community while integrating elements of Catholic Social Teaching. I was fortunate to share this teaching experience with kind, knowledgeable, and energetic faculty from De La Salle High School: Ms. Keely Wojda (Theology), Mr. Martin Marrin (Social Studies) and Mr. Brad Casey (Social Studies).


Before leaving for Bolivia, St. Kate’s hosted an overnight for the students including two full days of instruction, service-learning and team-building. We heard from each faculty member on their area of expertise including the Geography of Bolivia, and Introduction to Catholic Social Teaching, and Public Health 101, and Ethnobotany. Then, we worked with the LEAD team to get to know each other a little better and problem solve together, skills that absolutely came in handy later in the jungle and the hillsides of Bolivia. Thanks to Residence Life and Admissions, students took a campus tour and spent a night in the dorms.


Fully refreshed, we set out to Mano a Mano on the second day to learn about the work their organization does to send medical supplies to Bolivia which was arranged by Community Work and Learning. Students helped fold hospital sheets and gowns, sorted and packed miscellaneous medical supplies, and wrapped wheelchairs and crutches for shipping. We closed our time on campus with a visit from Roslyn of the Multicultural and International Programs and Services office to help us form guiding principles for our trip and how to practice cultural humility.


By the time we got on the plane to Bolivia, our group felt ready to take on pretty much anything that was going to come our way. Good thing that was the case, because instead of landing in La Paz as planned, our plane detoured to the city of Santa Cruz. The temperature was too cold at the La Paz airport (elevation 13,323) and our plane hadn’t been de-iced in Miami. After a day of wandering the shops in town, a good meal or two at the hotel, warm showers, and a comfortable night’s rest, we successfully boarded a plane to La Paz, an onto our first official destination of Rurrenabaque.


Rurrenabaque, Bolivia, is a transit town. It sits along the Beni River, providing access into Madidi National Park. It was in Rurrenabaque where we were greeted by our hosts for the next several days, Madidi Travel. Our group divided ourselves in half and were served delightful pastries as we floated downstream for three hours. We climbed out at a non-descript bank along the river, helped up the eroding edges by staff of the Serere Eco-Reserve. For the next four days, we learned about the local flora and fauna and traditional medicines found in the rainforest. Students were in groups of five, and each group had their own guide. It was absolutely remarkable to witness the seemingly innate knowledge the guides had of how to find our way home after hours wandering the forest.


Photo by Nate Ryan


Photo by Nate Ryan

We reversed our route up-river, back to Rurrenabaque for an overnight, and then on to La Paz to meet the Carmen Pampa van, our hosts DeeDee and Nora, and travel to the Universidad Academica Campesina – Carmen Pampa (UAC). Travel to the UAC took several hours up to the altiplano and then down to about 6,000 ft. along a windy and narrow two-lane road. It was not for the faint of heart, or stomach. Arriving safely at the UAC, the students and faculty settled in for a good night’s rest. Over the next four days, community educators, students, and faculty at the UAC shared their culture, knowledge, and resources with us.



Photo by Nate Ryan

The UAC serves students from the surrounding Yungas region where poverty is pervasive and educates them in professions that will make their communities stronger: nursing, veterinary medicine, education, agronomy, and eco-tourism. One of the other services the UAC provides to nearby communities is access to a health clinic. It was at the health clinic that we were able to spend time with St. Kate’s MPH Student Jaclyn Schuldt, who was completing her practicum. Jaclyn explained how the clinic tracks infectious diseases, provides immunizations, and integrates traditional medicines into their practices. She also guided us to one of the closest communities they serve (a 45-minute walk each way) where we met with Dona Regina, a community member and coca farmer. She shared with us her perspective on culture and life in rural Bolivia, and the significance of coca with respect to health, as a source of employment, and tradition.


Photo by Nate Ryan


Photo by Nate Ryan

At the UAC, we also listened to an energetic talk from a faculty member about native roots, grains, and other plants, and their wealth of nutrients. We learned that as “super foods” like quinoa have a large market abroad, they are exported, and Bolivians eat grains of worse nutritional quality in their place. For most of our meals, we ate in the Cope, a student-run cooperative where lunch and dinner were primarily dishes of white rice with a meat and vegetable mixture on top. The sharing spirit of the Bolivians was alive in this space, hundreds eating the same food under the same roof.


Photo by Nate Ryan

Our time at the UAC concluded with a tour of their coffee plants and processing area. Alongside students, we picked coffee cherries, sorted and pressed them, and walked through the drying, sorting, and roasting spaces. The UAC coffee micro-business emphasizes sustainability to its students. The plants are fertilized with the chicken manure from the veterinary arm of the school, the harvesting, sorting, and processing, is done by hand, and the coffee plants are shade-grown. In addition to bringing homes bags of coffee, we were given sultana, the husks of the coffee which are brewed for tea.


Photo by Nate Ryan

From Carmen Pampa, we traveled through La Paz an on to Lake Titicaca and Sun Island to learn more about the history of the indigenous populations of Bolivia. We also attended mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana. Our guides mentioned how this mixing of indigenous beliefs and practices and Catholic establishment created a feeling of hope that permeated the community. One of the notable traditions in the area was the blessing of new cars. It looked like the cars were dressed up for New Year’s Eve every day of the year! However, my favorite part of our time in Copacabana was the traditional lunch we ate while overlooking the waters of Lake Titicaca. The meal included three or four different types of potatoes, the largest fava beans I’ve ever seen, dense corn on the cob, fish, chicken, eggs, and of course a cup of coca tea to aid digestion once we had eaten too much.


Photo by Nate Ryan

A few days after we returned to the Twin Cities, we gathered once more as a group at De La Salle High School to hear student presentations from the trip. Students worked in groups to select a health topic that interested them, and then described the relevant social determinants of health. We heard presentations on the pollution of Lake Titicaca, the importance of preserving Madidi Park, the ways in which students at the UAC transform the health of their communities, and the urban health concerns of La Paz. While the trip had ended, it was clear that the student learning had not. The students that I traveled with from De La Salle are critical thinkers, adventurers, and curious young adults eager to change the world.


Photo by Nate Ryan






One comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s