Eight weeks toward a new perspective: how the SSLP impacted two preprofessional students

By: Emily Garvey

While a pre-med student at Notre Dame, Yuko Gruber ('14) participated twice in the Summer Service Learning Program (SSLP). Her first SSLP experience was at L'Arche Washington, D.C.,  living in community and working as a peer to people with disabilities. She spent a second summer at the St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker House in South Bend, Indiana, providing hospitality to the homeless community there. The SSLP sponsors students to serve for eight weeks during the summer at nonprofit agencies dedicated to serving people who are marginalized in society.

Gruber acknowledged that she initially applied to the SSLP because she thought “it was a good way to help the most people possible. I thought, that I would encounter medically vulnerable people at L’Arche, which would be a good fit for my summer and could be included on my medical school application.” She soon learned that it was good for her in ways she had not anticipated when applying.

Now a second year med school student in South Carolina, Gruber reflected on her SSLP summer experiences and how they continue to impact her now. “I hope to be a primary care physician, where I anticipate seeing many patients, but where success isn’t quantified just by numbers of patients. I want to learn to walk with patients over time, to honestly listen to their experiences, and to help them to be healthy in ways that are meaningful for them. Med school often teaches about an ideal standard of health, plus all the ways that injury or illness can disrupt that ideal. In contrast, the SSLP taught me about health, wholeness, and being human in ways I could never learn from a textbook.”

What Gruber experienced is what recent Center for Social Concerns research calls a perspective transformation. This research was recently published in an essay called "Perspective Transformation Through College Summer Service Immersion Programs: Is Learning Enhanced by Sustained Engagement?" in the Journal of College and Character. The research showed that programs like the SSLP create “cognitive dissonance while providing critical reflection that provides a path for students to process their experience. A continuous cycle of action and reflection is where learning occurs. Ultimately, students face perspective transformation, or the development of a critical lens through which to see structural issues of social justice.”

Brandon Zabukovic (’97) participated in the SSLP over 20 years ago and said that his service learning experience undeniably led to long term perspective transformation. Zabukovic spent eight weeks living with the Jesuit Brothers of St. Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky, while also serving at the Audobon Regional Medical Center there. He recalls, “I was fresh out of a bad experience with organic chemistry, and was questioning whether I had what it took to become a doctor.” Zabukovic said the people he encountered during the SSLP confirmed his desire to be a doctor and ultimately shaped the physician he is today. “Living with the Jesuit brothers showed me the importance of slowing down, of listening, of being in the moment instead of worrying about the next busy busy-ness. Being with them taught me that I can’t be a good doctor without having a legitimate interpersonal experience with someone.”  

Zabukovic added that the SSLP continues to shape his view of patients today.“Working at the clinic during the SSLP helped me see the messiness of healthcare, and it taught me to remember how hard it is to be a patient. Ultimately, being a good doctor boils down to remembering the dignity of the human condition,” he explains.

As Medical Director for Beacon Neighborhood Health Centers, Zabukovic practices at both neighborhood clinics and the South Bend Center for the Homeless. He has a special interest in children and adults with developmental disabilities and HIV medicine. Zabukovic says that the notion of human dignity is central to the mission at his practice. “The doctors I work with and hire have to choose to believe in this stuff. You have to pay attention to all the little things in order for things to go well and also take the time to be with them. Sometimes it isn’t until conversation number three that people give you the information you need as a doctor. You have to allow for that time and accompany them.”

Zabukovic acknowledges that the SSLP is a significant commitment, both emotionally and physically. But he views the experience as something he wouldn’t have missed. “Yes, it’s eight really full weeks,” he explains. “But it’s eight weeks that will matter for the rest of your life. Given everything the SSLP offers, I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t apply.”

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