Med Student Finds Heart and Soul in Chile
Shom Dasgupta served pasta and bread at a Santiago, Chile, soup kitchen. He built homes in surrounding small towns, helped middle-school students learn English and mentored troubled boys at a youth home. Of course, he also had classes at the Universidad de Chile and research for his independent study project about marginalized social communities. And then he had to make room for long meals with his host family. During his year abroad, the 22-year-old Feinberg School of Medicine student from Lake Jackson, Texas, balanced volunteerism with scholastic pursuits and reaffirmed his career plans.
Dasgupta went to Santiago with Cooperative Programs in the Americas, a program affiliated with the Northwestern Study Abroad Office. As an Honors Program in Medical Education student, Dasgupta spent his third and final undergraduate year in Chile.
While some of his classmates might think studying abroad would interfere with their course work, Dasgupta says the trade-off was worth it.
"Studying abroad gives you a potentially life-changing experience that greatly outweighs any degree or certificate you could get," he says. Like most study abroad students, Dasgupta received Northwestern credit for the course work he completed overseas.
"I had to make some sacrifices, yes," he says, but Dasgupta says he made the right choice. "I became proficient in another language. I gained access to this entire new world," he explains.
Dasgupta is no stranger to being a foreigner. Born in the United States to Bengali parents, he spent his childhood in Saudi Arabia. Dasgupta saw educational and socioeconomic differences erode as he helped build homes in poor communities outside of Chile's capital city. "The projects brought two families together," he says of the program Un Techo para Chile (A Roof for Chile). One family donated money and labor, while the future residents of the house joined in its construction.
Dasgupta's involvement raised a few eyebrows. "People definitely wondered what I was doing there," Dasgupta says, "especially the university students who organized young volunteers. They kept asking why I was spending my time abroad building houses for the poor." His simple answer seemed to satisfy them. "I don't want to be a tourist," he'd say. "I want to live as if I were actually living here and not just visiting."
Dasgupta's immersion paid off. Now a first-year medical student at Feinberg, he volunteers his Spanish skills at the Community Health Clinic, located just west of the Chicago Loop. The clinic serves the residents of Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood.
It was difficult, however, to adjust to Chicago's culture again. "It was really hard, going from noisy, short, poor, spread-out Santiago to tall, rich and equally noisy downtown Chicago," he says. "The hardest thing to adjust to was the way everything in downtown Chicago is so polished and refined."
Dasgupta had grown to appreciate what he calls the humanness in Chile." Santiago is real and human and humble," he says of the smog-filled valley. "You can feel that people are living life when you walk down the street. Something about the city, how big the mountains are and how little the city is, it reminds you of the vulnerability of human life." — H.K.