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Willems shares perspective on alumna’s situation in Liberia

August 11, 2014

20140811-Willems.jpgDirector of International Programs Jan Willems keeps tabs on her students, current and former, when they are abroad.

She follows but doesn’t interfere, knowing they typically deal with limited internet access on top of busy schedules.

But news about the Ebola virus in west Africa spurred Willems to reach out to Caitlin Moore ’13, a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, earlier this year.

“When it started to pop up five or six months ago, I sent a ‘Hey, how you doing?’ (email) and she sent a little message,” Willems said.

Ever since, Willems stayed glued to the news about what eventually turned into an Ebola outbreak. It has spiraled out of control recently, putting Moore’s work on hold as she and other Peace Corps volunteers were temporarily evacuated from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone because of the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.

The Doane alumna has returned to Nebraska and is waiting for the crisis to end before the Peace Corps will allow her to return to her work, teaching high school science in the village of Pleebo.

That news hits home for Willems, who had followed along as Moore chronicled her time in Liberia through a blog.

“I hurt for her. I can only imagine how it must feel to be yanked so suddenly away from the work that you’re so invested in and the people that you care so much about,” Willems said.

As tragic as it has been, Willems said students do learn in the wake of a harsh reality like the Ebola outbreak.

“First of all, they learn about their own caring and character, and I think they learn what they can endure,” Willems said. “I’m sure they learn some hard lessons about government, the realities of working outside your own culture and working with constraints of the healthcare systems. Such dangerous, dangerous risks. There’s a lot to lose with Ebola.
“It just spreads like a prairie fire. That’s a pretty powerful analogy for a person from Nebraska.”

Part of learning is being prepared, and Moore’s experience as an undergraduate made her ready for her time abroad.

The Fairmont native was the first Doane student to take advantage of the International Student Exchange Program and studied in Ghana. Like all other students who study abroad during their time at Doane, Moore went through “pre-departure orientation,” Willems said. That involved researching her host country, writing and researching about health and government issues among other topics.

The program itself—which Willems described as “not for everyone”—was immersive and certainly prepared her for a longer stay, like working with the Peace Corps, in Africa.

“She had a genuine Ghanaian experience,” Willems said of Moore’s study abroad experience. “How that prepared her is that she learned how to live on the Ghanaian economy. She learned how to make friends and develop relationships with Ghanaian people. She learned to speak (the Ghanaian language) Twi. She learned how to function in that environment not as one of many Americans in an American-based program, but as an American functioning in the real culture of that country. That did a lot in preparing her.”

With any luck, Moore will return to her work in Pleebo, where the Ebola outbreak had not yet reached.

"Her people in her village of Pleebo are so distant from the nearest case, at this point, of Ebola, and (she was) hoping that would remain," Willems said.