Learning Beyond The Comfort Zone

December 4, 2006

As a health education major at Baylor, Shannon Thiel had plenty of contact with what the department called service learning -- 
learning through experience. Classroom lessons about drug and alcohol abuse education, nutrition, health screenings and wellness clinics invariably found real-world experience in Waco community health projects. So when Thiel, 22, heard about Baylor in Brazil, a new study abroad program headed by health, human performance and recreation associate professor Eva Doyle and her husband Robert, Baylor's biology department chair, she felt it might provide some hands-on answers. Could her training in health education allow her to serve God overseas in community health work? What's it like to live in a country where other faiths dominate, where poverty is prevalent, away from one's native language, culture and lifestyle?
In four weeks spent this summer in two Brazilian cities more than 3,000 miles away, Thiel and Baylor students Meg Davis, Patty Woo and Hannah Belk encountered a new flavor of service learning. They found experience sometimes teaches in roundabout ways, that love and compassion need no language and that, in a pinch, cucumbers can replace green beans. 
"It's a hard, difficult trip, emotionally and mentally challenging," says Thiel, a Baylor graduate now preparing for nursing studies in Houston. "But you walk away knowing you've connected, one-on-one, with another person. You're fulfilled knowing you've helped people."
For Doyle, 49, Baylor in Brazil realized an idea that had percolated since she and her husband, a wetlands ecologist, moved to Baylor five years ago. "Health and missions go hand in hand in my heart," she says. Comfortable in professorships at Texas Woman's University (Eva) and the University of North Texas (Robert), they felt Baylor offered something more, a chance to integrate more fully their Christian faith with their teaching. 
Missions led Doyle to Brazil in 1979 and Brazil changed her life. Then a recent Wayland Baptist University graduate, Eva Cheatham joined 24 other young Southern Baptist volunteers in a nine-month evangelism project in which they lived and worked with Brazilian churches and families. She met Robert, the son of longtime Amazonian missionaries Lonnie and Janelle Doyle. He put off his Baylor senior year to join the group as a translator and facilitator. They fell in love, married after their return and found Brazil entwined in their life together. 
In 1989 the couple moved to Manaus, Brazil, with their young son Eric to work on their doctorates from the University of Maryland. She and Robert left with more than higher degrees, as son Brandon was born there.
Some 15 years later, the health professor felt the time was right to propose a study program within Baylor's Center for International Education that would fuse cross-cultural, hands-on health education with mission work through Brazilian Baptist churches. The center approved her proposal and Baylor in Brazil was born. 
The Doyles' past guided their selection of the cities for the program. Robert Doyle's parents had helped establish Baptist churches in Porto Velho, a bustling city of 335,000 people in Brazil's northwest interior. The Baylor group, in fact, would witness the naming of the Baptist seminary there after Robert Doyle's father; his sister Margaret McNabb, a nurse, also was on hand to act as a translator. 
On the opposite side of Brazil on its Atlantic coast, was Anchieta, a fishing and farming community of some 22,000, whose First Baptist Church had partnered with the Doyles' Waco church Crossroads Fellowship in past mission work. The two cities and their different cultures gave Baylor students a deeper taste of Brazil's diversity. The busy, blue-collar work ethic they encountered in Porto Velho contrasted with the slower pace of coastal Anchieta, where high unemployment led to increased alcoholism and drug abuse. Yet in Anchieta the Baylor students found an appreciation for personal relationships. "Everyone wanted our time," recalls Belk, who graduates from Baylor in December. "Both the church and the children we worked with cried when we left." 
Days filled with health classes, community health fairs, glucose screenings, blood pressure readings, talks and demonstrations taught the Baylor students the missionary mantra, "Be flexible." Thiel's talk on creating a healthy diet with such vegetables as green beans drew puzzled looks. She soon realized green beans weren't a part of the Brazilian diet. Cucumbers, on the other hand, were. Belk had no "drunk goggles," which simulate alcohol-impaired senses. So she created her own, using cheap sunglasses and petroleum jelly. They proved a smash hit with her youthful audiences.
The Baylor students saw firsthand the importance of community health education. Thiel's talks to young mothers on practical measures to curb diarrhea in their infants won her the nickname of "the diarrhea lady" within the group. What her stateside friends might find amusing, however, is deadly serious in a country where diarrhea kills tens of thousands of infants annually. Thiel's affordable, common-sense tips could literally save lives among her listeners -- service learning with dramatic results.
Unexpected lessons abounded. Discussions on health issues took twice as long because they had to be translated into Portuguese. Preventive care -- lifestyle changes made to avoid future health problems -- didn't register fully with impoverished listeners whose horizons rarely stretched beyond short-term survival. Organized, punctual students had to adjust to a more casual perception of time. And green-and-gold Baylor T-shirts proved welcome gifts in a country whose national colors are the same.
The four experienced, in varying measure, the shock of immersion in another culture: frustration with language, homesickness, loneliness, fatigue, stress, spiritual growth.
It was there that Belk felt her greatest pain and greatest growth, thanks in large part to long talks with the Doyles on bus trips, in hotel rooms and on plane flights. "I grew significantly," the 22-year-old Spring native said of her spiritual journey. "My heart has softened to Christians and the church... The Doyles became an extension of my family -- I will invite them to my wedding. I will send them pictures of my children."
Doyle already is recruiting students and raising funds for next summer's Baylor in Brazil. She's encouraging students in fields such as social work, pre-med, nursing or church missions to consider the study abroad program. There's room for volunteers to assist the program's community health projects and serve as mentors for students (approximate cost: $3,500 to $3,900). Financial donations also are encouraged to lower the cost for participating students. 
For Thiel, her service learning in Brazil sealed her decision to do health education and missions abroad. She's preparing to start nursing school next year with an eye on serving God in Southeast Asia or India." I was out of my comfort zone and, you know, I love this. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life," she says. "It confirmed for me what I had been seeking for the last two years."