By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (July 24, 2012) – Editor’s note: Recent North Park University graduates Michelle Wells and Karen Kelly received U.S. Fulbright Awards to teach internationally this year. To see how receiving a scholarship can impact a life in unexpected ways, Covenant News Service spoke with Rebecca Miller, the first North Park student to receive the honor.
North Park University professor Linda Parkyn, a former Fulbright scholar who has guided students through their process of applying for the U.S. Fulbright Awards, told Rebecca Miller that receiving the honor would change the her life forever. Neither woman imagined how true those words would prove to be.
Miller, who grew up attending Grace Covenant Church in Clay, New York, and was an honors music major at North Park, wanted to learn more about teaching in a multicultural context, so she applied for the prestigious international scholarship in 2007. After receiving the award, she spent her Fulbright year (August 2008-May 2009) teaching English at a school in an Indonesian city run by one of the world’s largest gold-mining companies.
Several thousand Americans and Indonesians lived in the city and worked at the mine.
Many of the students were children of executives and other top-level workers. Miller was assigned to be the first-ever Fulbright scholar to teach there after being hand-picked by corporate leaders.
Outside the boundaries of the city lay another community that Miller compares to an Old West town, filled with brothels, poverty, acute malnutrition, and high crime. The area has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rate in Indonesia, Miller says.
The differences between the two communities dismayed Miller. “It was power and wealth next to kids without protein.”
Her exposure to abject poverty and the disparity in living conditions was to be the first in a series of events that altered her future. Ever since, she has been on multi-year, multinational journey to medical school.
“I sure didn’t see that coming,” she says, laughing.
Miller was exposed to even more malnutrition in Papua, Indonesia, as she traveled around parts of the country with an anthropologist and met the Kamoro people, whose primary nutrition came from sago palms that were chopped up and processed into an edible starch. Most of their protein comes from eating live mollusks.
During a vacation break from her work, she traveled to Bangalore, India, with two other Fulbright scholars, one of whom was related to a woman who directed a music school. The woman initially offered Miller an opportunity to teach, but she declined.
Instead, when her Fulbright term was completed, Miller returned to Chicago, where she worked with a nonprofit organization that provided healthcare on the city’s South Side. She primarily was doing administrative work, however, and realized that was not a future she wanted.
“I decided I wanted to be the person giving services,” she says.
That experience also caused her to reflect further on her time of living with North Park associate professor of art Tim Lowly, his wife, and their severely disabled daughter, Temma, for eight months between graduating and heading to Indonesia. Miller cared for Temma. “The most fulfilling job I’ve ever had has been working with Temma,” she says.
Miller left her job at the clinic to accept an invitation to return to the music school in Bangalore. She gave lessons and directed children’s and adult choirs.
The students thought the only form of Western music was classical, so Miller introduced them to others, including gospel and spirituals. “We actually did a Rollo Dilworth piece,” says Miller, referring to the popular former North Park music professor. “That was exciting.”
She also started an early childhood music program for which she wrote the curriculum. The program continues, and Miller says, “That was a highlight of working there.”
But Miller again was being exposed to the desperate health needs of people in extreme poverty. She volunteered at a hospital for which she did community outreach. Twice a week, she also observed an obstetrician and pediatrician working at clinics in the slums.
The still small voice that had whispered to her about the possibility of entering medical school grew louder. She knew her future was in medicine.
Asked if she had ever considered medicine as a career before her Fulbright scholarship, Miller declares, “Absolutely not. I would not have arrived at that had I not had those experiences.”
Miller hopes to provide primary care for urban underserved populations when she finishes school. She currently attends medical school at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.