Student's humanitarian work inspires professor
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Academic internships mark the start of a student's professional journey. But for some, it is an opportunity simply to do the work they love while also making a difference in the lives of others, including their professors.
When Kalkidan Streit decided to complete her internship with In Deed and Truth Ministries, a humanitarian mission organization that serves the people of South Sudan, Africa, her adviser Jim Herbert was amazed.
"I was inspired that Kalkidan made the conscious decision to do something that I think was incredibly courageous and unselfish," said Herbert, professor-in-charge of rehabilitation and human services (RHS) at Penn State.
"Here is a young woman who is 'walking the walk' and living her spiritual beliefs that impact people every day. Even in her young age, she has already helped to improve the quality of life of more people than many of us will do in a lifetime."
— Jim Herbert, professor-in-charge of rehabilitation and human services
But for Streit, an RHS senior who will graduate from the College of Education in May, the decision was easy.
"My dad has always had a huge heart for the people of Sudan," she said. "Throughout the '90s, he learned more about Sudan and the Lost Boys of Sudan. He also had a good friend who was working in Sudan at that time, which was during the war, and so he did what he could to raise support."
"I was very young, but I kind of knew that eventually I would want to see South Sudan and experience this culture," she said, adding that her father always made sure that she and her siblings were aware of the situation in Sudan.
Three months ago, when Streit arrived in Tonj, a small town located in northwestern South Sudan, she was assigned to work with a humanitarian medical group.
"I've been working with trauma patients and women who have been raped and abused," she said. "I also work with the children, most of whom are malnourished, and pregnant women."
Streit said she also volunteers at the local government hospital where she works with a surgeon on various cases, and visits neighboring villages to provide health education.
Although she had previously traveled internationally, Streit said she was struck by what she called the "wild west" environment of Tonj, where people seemingly do whatever they want.
"That's something I'm not accustomed to experiencing from my American background," she said, adding that the extreme heat and torrential rainstorms also take time to adjust to.
She said she also hears of or witnesses human rights violations regularly.
"You have mass amounts of children and adults that are not being educated or have grown up without education due to the 22-year civil war," she said.
"I've seen so many populations, so many people who have no voice," she said. "It's hard because when you have so much educational poverty, which I've seen here in South Sudan, it's hard to know that you even have rights. How do you even begin to fight for rights if you don't know you have them? That's a hard reality I've seen here."
Streit detailed those realities in her weekly internship logs, which Herbert regularly reviews.
"Reading her logs was very impactful as she described the poverty, lack of food, medicine and housing that exists as well as how people with disabilities and women, many of whom have been physically and sexually abused, have been treated in this country," Herbert said. "It was heartbreaking to read."
Streit, a devout Christian, said having faith in God is just as important in this line of work as providing services.
"I am a Christian and my faith means so much to me. It really does," she said. "To have your own faith in the God of the Bible is the only way to really face the trials of this life. If you can share the truth of Christianity, I think that is most important. It's good to give them food and medical attention and shelter, but I think also, if you can give them faith or the education in Christianity, I think that's important."
Herbert said Streit's outlook and resilience continue to inspire him.
"Here is a young woman who is 'walking the walk' and living her spiritual beliefs that impact people every day," he said. "Even in her young age, she has already helped to improve the quality of life of more people than many of us will do in a lifetime."
That commitment and devotion inspired Herbert to re-examine assumptions about his own life.
"While I was trying to provide emotional support to Kalkidan as she was facing some very difficult situations, I was struck by the different worlds of her existence and my own — one that I so often take for granted," he said. "I live in a comfortable home where I can adjust the thermostat to accommodate the temperature as opposed to living in a hut where daytime temperatures are 118 degrees. If I'm hungry, I can go to the kitchen and fix something to eat as opposed to not having food for a day or two. If I have to go somewhere, I can use my car that quickly takes me there without worrying about the weather as opposed to having to walk for several hours to get to a certain destination. If I'm sick, I can see a doctor relatively quickly as opposed to having no access to any medical care."
"In my world, life is fairly easy when thinking about these comforts — not so much in South Sudan," he said.
Herbert, who also plays for a local band named Group Therapy, said this reflection made him realize that even though he is not in South Sudan with Streit, he can still honor the work she and people like her do, and help those who live in constant suffering.
He spoke with his bandmates and they will host a benefit concert to raise funds to support the residents of South Sudan. The show is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. Monday, April 17, and will be held in Eisenhower Chapel. There is a $5 donation fee, with all proceeds going to In Deed and Truth Ministries, the nonprofit for which Streit is interning. The concert will feature cover songs as well as original material, including a song titled "Fallen Stars" that Herbert wrote after reading Streit's logs.
"The song is about people who are called on to make this world a better place for those who have been discarded — the 'fallen stars' — and act on it, while many of us, myself included, tend to be more casual observers," Herbert said.
It's important to realize that taking care of the "fallen stars" requires one to have a strong will, Streit said.
"Coming to South Sudan, coming to conflict areas, it will change you," she said. "You can't go to these places and expect to return back to the U.S. or wherever you are from and think that your eyes won't be opened. Your eyes will be opened to experiences you most likely are not ready for."
Having her own eyes opened to these experiences has confirmed for Streit that humanitarian and mission work is where her future lies. She will start her first post-college job Aug. 10 working as a child activist/advocate and programs assistant in Mozambique, where she will remain for one year.
"This experience has helped me to really decide that this is something I want to do with my career and use my RHS degree to continue doing humanitarian work," Streit said, adding that without her faith in God and the support from her mom and dad, she never would have been able to intern in South Sudan.
"My mom has been tremendously supportive to me while being in South Sudan," she said. "She is one of the strongest people I have ever known and is an inspiration to me. I couldn't have done this without her."
"When I chose this internship, people warned me that South Sudan is a very hard place to go to and it definitely made me question whether I really wanted to do this," she said. "But I do not at all regret coming here in any way."
By Jessica Buterbaugh (April 2017)