By Leslie Harris
(Published in 2016)
If Jason Yan (’03) compiled a retrospective list of highlights from his college travels, it might look something like this:
- Carried shotgun 24/7; successfully avoided bear attack
- Chopped wood/hauled water in Alaskan wilderness
- Survived two months without showering
- Picked up Spanish, rapidamente, in Buenos Aires
- Lived in rainforest; shadowed Ecuadorian doctor
- Hung out with shaman/witnessed native ceremony
A microbiology major with plans for medical school, Yan took his undergraduate experiences abroad far beyond the beaten path.
As a sophomore at University of Arizona, Yan received an email from the department of agriculture and life sciences about spending the summer in Alaska working at a field camp with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“I always wanted to go off somewhere and just work—to do something separate from studying or research,” says Yan.
After applying and receiving program acceptance, Yan packed his bags and flew to Alaska at the beginning of the summer. He spent the first several weeks in Fairbanks, receiving training in first aid, CPR, boat operation, water survival, and firearms.
Then, once fully trained, Yan voyaged up the Yukon River on a motor boat to the isolated field camp where he would work and live for two months with a handful of U.S. Fish and Wildlife staff.
While living in the Alaskan wilds, Yan learned survival skills through everyday experience, hauling water and chopping wood to make fires for cooking and warmth. He also became accustomed to other daily realities of wilderness living, such as having to carry a shotgun at all times in case of bear attacks, and not being able to shower.
“Every now and then, when we couldn’t stand how dirty we were, we would just jump in the river,” recounts Yan. “But we were right above the Arctic Circle, and the river was just snow-melt, so we’d jump right in and right back out.”
Though the experience may have lacked in physical comfort, says Yan, it provided him an important outside perspective on his life and future plans.
“It was a great way for me to get outside of everything and think about what I wanted to do,” says Yan. “The med school track is so rigorous; once you start on it, you can’t really stop. I wanted to know what it would be like to live outdoors all the time instead of working in a lab everyday.”
After spending the summer in Alaska, Yan says he returned with a renewed desire to proceed with medical school.
“The trip was a great way to eliminate all doubts and free myself from that stress.”
Yan’s next trip, the following summer, was largely the result of a change in his academic plans.
Because of his involvement in the UA club Manos de Ayuda (“Helping Hands”), which takes medical supplies and student translators to health clinics in Mexico, Yan decided he would like to add a Spanish minor.
In order to graduate on time, however, Yan realized that he would have to take summer classes. As a result, he found a program in Buenos Aires to study Spanish intensively for five weeks and live with an Argentine home-stay family.
Recognizing the boost that five weeks in Argentina would give his speaking skills, Yan also arranged to participate in a program in Ecuador that allowed students to shadow doctors on their clinical rotations in the Amazon rainforest.
“We rotated through different clinics, hospitals, and doctors—from infectious disease specialists to surgeons, just to get a better sense of what type of healthcare was there,” says Yan, who primarily shadowed the doctor who headed the program.
According to Yan, though Ecuadorian healthcare follows American practices in many ways, there are still some significant differences.
“The perspective on sanitation was really interesting,” Yan says. “Doctors worked on open wounds with no gloves. And if they did work with latex gloves, they would wash and reuse them again. So that part was very different.”
Because most of the hospitals Yan visited were on the outskirts of the rainforest, his daily rotations exposed him to many of the Amazon’s indigenous groups.
“When native people needed really serious care, they would come out of the rainforest to the clinics,” explains Yan.
Consequently, Yan had the rare opportunity of meeting a Shuar medicine man and spending time in the rainforest with his people.
“It was a unique experience, because they don’t really invite outsiders to see where they live,” explains Yan.
As they traveled through the Amazon together, the shaman educated Yan and the other students about native foliage.
“Because he was the shaman for his tribe, he made a big point of trying to educate us,” says Yan. “He understood we were students, and treated us as such. So he would take us up and down the rainforest and point out different plants, trying to make sure we remembered them.”
As it turned out, it was much more than a simple visit; Yan and his companions had been invited to take part in their purification ceremony, which only occurs once a year.
After hiking for hours on a steep, muddy path so overgrown that it had to be cleared with machetes, Jason and his group came to the waterfall where they were invited to share ceremonial food and witness the tribe’s rituals.
“Afterward, the shaman told us that the dreams we had that night would be visions of our future,” says Yan. “I tried really hard to remember the dream I had that night, but although I know I had one, I couldn’t remember it.”
Looking back, says Yan, the experiences he encountered while abroad were central to his personal growth.
“I’ve never really doubted myself, but now I’m definitely comfortable with doing things that are outside of my comfort zone,” he explains.
“During the regular school year, I learned about what I was studying, but during the summers I learned about myself.”