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Union College Prepares for Emergencies

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Jeff Joiner helped to start Union College's groundbreaking International Rescue and Relief program, teaching students emergency medical care, disaster management and a range of additional skills. He talks to Spectrum about how the program started and where its graduates are heading.

Question: How did the International Rescue and Relief program get started? What inspired it?

Answer: When I first arrived at Union College in the summer of 2001, I had developed the concept for a new major in Disaster Management. It would have been offered out of the Division of Health Sciences with a heavy complement of Business and Behavioral Science courses. This concept did not gain much traction at the time and I concentrated on the Nursing Program instead.

Two years later when Michael Duehrssen, a Union alumnus, approached Malcolm Russell, Union’s vice president for academic administration, with his concept for a new degree I was very interested. I dug out my Disaster Management concept file from 2001 and we incorporated these elements into the program that eventually became Union’s International Rescue and Relief Program.

Officially approved as a Bachelor of Science in international rescue and relief, the program was launched in August 2004 with 32 students declaring IRR as their major. With 77 students now enrolled, the major combines rescue and survival skills, emergency medical care, humanitarian relief, public health, disaster management and multicultural service training.

The program was designed for the adventurous young person who desires to dedicate his or her life to the service of others for Jesus’ sake.

Question: What kind of background do you have that made you want to start such a program?

Answer: I have over 25 years experience in Emergency Nursing. I have worked in small ERs and large trauma centers. I didn’t take my first mission trip until 1997 – an Ultimate Workout (sponsored by Insight magazine & Maranatha Volunteers International) to El Salvador. On this trip I realized that while many health care professionals want to provide assistance on short-term mission trips, most of us don’t have a lot of training or experience in how to carry this out.

I had grown up being active in the Boy Scouts and later in Pathfinders and had spent most of my professional life practicing in rural areas, so I was very comfortable providing care in remote settings.

I made several contacts and began the process of developing a course to familiarize nurses with the skills and knowledge they needed to work in developing countries. I relied heavily on Laura Nyirady’s course that she developed at Southern Adventist University. (Laura is now at Loma Linda University’s School of Nursing.) I have continued to develop and refine the course, which is now offered at Union College as Frontier Nursing.

Since 1997, I have participated in several Ultimate Workout mission trips in Central and South America. I have served as the medical outreach coordinator for the last few years with Steve Case’s ministry Involve Youth (formerly Piece of the Pie) on the Ultimate Workout mission trips.

I serve on the board of directors for the Tasba Raya Adventist Mission (TRAM) in Francia Sirpi, Nicaragua. I have led trips to Nicaragua over spring break for Union College nursing students for the last five years. We work with TRAM to provide village health care to the Miskito Indians of the Tasba Raya region of the northeastern portion of the country.

Question: How many majors does the program have so far? Do non-majors also take some of the classes?

Answer: We began the 2007-2008 school year with over 125 International Rescue and Relief majors. Some of the courses are available to non-IRR majors - the HIV & Emerging Diseases and Disaster Management & Terrorism courses have been taken by non-IRR majors each year.

Question: What kind of training are the students required to undergo? Is it focused in the medical field? Is the training physical as well as academic?

Answer: This program is an emergency medical technician (EMT)-based program that includes certifications in several aspects of rescue skills (high angle or technical rope rescue, swift water & confined space) and survival (wilderness, jungle, ocean & shoreline).

This is the foundation; on this foundation we layer coursework in language, business, small group dynamics, public health, world religions and cultures, crisis management, HIV and emerging diseases, disaster management, global communications, relief infrastructure and more. It has grown to include seven areas of emphasis: project development, human service and counseling, business, communications, global missions, pre-professional, and paramedic.

This is a unique major because it includes many courses that have physical demands that are not seen in most classes. Students are taught to conduct safe technical rope rescues from varying heights, to rescue individuals in multiple settings involving fast-flowing and deep water. These classes place physical demands on students that require they be in good shape.

Question: What kind of experience do the teachers in the program have?

Answer: Michael Duehrssen, the director of the program, graduated from Union College in 1984 with a biology degree and earned a degree in medicine from Loma Linda University in 1989. He has worked extensively in emergency medicine. He was previously a competitive downhill skier.

Associate director Doug Tallman earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in religion and an applied theology minor from Southern Adventist University in 1977. He earned a master’s from the same university with an emphasis in teacher outdoor education.
With more than 25 years of experience as an educator, Tallman has worked as a boys’ dean in three Adventist academies and taught Bible classes in five academies.

Tallman has coordinated and traveled with many student groups for short-term mission trips around the world to places such as Honduras, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Question: What main career paths do you see for graduates of this program? What major employers will seek out the graduates?

Answer: Career paths are wide open for International Rescue and Relief graduates. About 25% of our students are choosing the pre-professional emphasis that will lead to medical or dental school or Union’s Physician Assistant graduate program. Many are taking the paramedic emphasis – currently we have students who are completing this portion of their education at colleges in Nebraska, Colorado and even Alaska.

Many, if not most, international aid agencies require a graduate degree for international employment; so International Rescue and Relief students who choose to work internationally usually will need to obtain a graduate degree in an applicable field. The IRR program provides an excellent undergraduate foundation and skill set to build a graduate education on.

Domestically, IRR graduates may seek employment in the Emergency Medical Service or Emergency Management industry at the local, state or federal level.

As the Emergency Management field develops, the majority of positions will be in the private sector. Potential employment opportunities are available with the US Forest and US National Park services along with the American Red Cross and FEMA. Graduates may also find employment opportunities with the many outdoor education or outdoor adventure vendors in the US. This major prepares students to enter a vast variety of potential fields – I think we will be amazed to see where their career interests take the students.

See the IRR website for potential employers http://irr.ucollege.edu/data/?page_id=17 for more information.

Question: How closely did you work with ADRA when developing the program?

Answer: Initial contacts were made with ADRA, USAID, FEMA, World Vision, AFM, and AWA. We looked at their employment opportunities and spoke to their human resource professionals. At ADRA, Mike Duehrssen and I met with Derris Krause, Bureau Chief/Human Resources and James Lanning, Director for Acquisitions at the Disaster Preparedness & Response Bureau.

From talking to Mr. Krause we understood that ADRA does not really even advertise for individuals who do not hold a graduate degree; many, if not most, ADRA positions require a doctoral degree for consideration. But with that said, he agreed that the IRR program was an ideal undergraduate foundation for students who wished to seek future positions with ADRA.

All IRR students who state a desire for future employment or service with ADRA, World Vision or any other international aid agency are told up front that they must plan on obtaining a graduate degree upon completion of the IRR program.

We spoke to ADRA division directors from Southeast Asia and Central and South America. They helped us define skills and courses to add to our base foundation. The EMT/rescue skills are seen for what they are – a basic foundation that they all felt was useful at the field level. By no means did this reflect a feeling that these were the only the skill sets that would be useful for a project director.

Our human services & counseling emphasis was developed after direct involvement with the senior leadership at World Vision. This is not a replacement for a graduate degree in counseling, but the solid undergraduate base that would better prepare a counselor/project manager for service in a developing country according to leadership at World Vision. One of our first graduates in IRR/human services and counseling is in fact in a counseling graduate program now.

Question: Union College advertises the International Rescue and Relief program as being the only one of its kind. Why wouldn’t other universities offer such a course?

Answer: One of the key factors that make this program unique is that it is an undergraduate program that is based on an EMT rescuer at its core. It is very hands-on in the first year or so and it builds in complexity and course work throughout the program. Another key difference is that students spend one semester abroad actually studying and providing community/public health and humanitarian aid in a developing country.

Union’s IRR program is the only four year degree in international relief that has been reviewed and listed on FEMA’s Higher Education Project. Union College was only the 11th academic program to have been listed by FEMA in the category of international relief. All of the other programs are major research universities whose programs offer either post-graduate certificates, masters or doctoral degrees in this specialty.

There are many colleges and universities that offer undergraduate and graduate programs in disaster or emergency management, but no other programs have the international experience component.

Question: Your students have worked in Nicaragua and in Venezuela. Can you tell us a little more about those programs?

Answer: IRR students spend the spring semester (January to May) in a developing country. Here they take additional courses in Public Health, Travel & Tropical Medicine, Jungle, Ocean & Shoreline Survival, and Emergency Care. Students work with physicians, nurses, instructors and national healthcare providers to provide health care in various settings to the indigenous people of these regions.

In spring of 2008, Dr. Mike Duehrssen led a group to Honduras. They spent time in the islands and on the mainland working with several different organizations. They worked with a local government to develop a community disaster response plan and also provided training and updates for multiple local EMS agencies. They conducted village health care for hundreds of individuals in different towns and villages.

In the spring of 2007, Dr. Duehrssen led a group to Venezuela with the invitation of the Amerindians (Davis Indians) of the Gran Sabana region. This was the third year that Mike had worked with this group in Venezuela. They worked in cooperation with an Adventist airbase and several villages for their training.

While the Union nursing program has traveled to Nicaragua for several years to provide healthcare to the Miskito Indians of the Tasba Raya region, PA student were included for the first time in 2008. The IRR program is actually looking to include this region in 2009 along with Honduras.

Dr. Duehrssen and I just returned from a trip to Nicaragua to meet with the Ministry of Health officials in Managua and Puerto Cabezas, Adventist Church officials, Tasba Raya Adventist Mission board members, and administrators at COVINIC (the SDA university in Managua), paving the way for the IRR team to spend a portion of spring of 2009 in Nicaragua.

Question: Is the health work you do there connected to Adventist mission programs?

Answer: Yes, it is. In Venezuela we were affiliated with the Adventist aviation program in the Gran Sabana. In Honduras, Dr. Duehrssen partnered with several Adventist ministries – an orphanage, hospital, academy and the Honduran Mission. In Nicaragua, we are meeting this summer with the Tasba Raya Adventist Mission clinic in Francia Sirpi, the Nicaraguan Mission administration and the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health (MINSA) officials in that region to finalize plans for next school year.

Question: How do you find time to direct the Nursing Program and Chair the Division of Health Sciences, as well as work with the International Rescue and Relief program?

Answer: I don’t – which is why we have just hired a new administrative director for the IRR Program. John Thomas from Maxwell Academy will be joining the IRR staff later this summer. John has a rich history in academic administration and international ministry and I look forward to having him join our team.

Question: How do you see international aid work and the philosophy around aid changing?

Answer: I met with an official from USAID toward the end of 2007 in Washington, DC. One of the initiatives that USAID is working on is developing project coordinators to provide community and professional EMS education in Community Emergency Response Training in Central and South America.

There are several NPO and NGO attempting to get these programs off of the ground as we speak. They were very encouraged to see that this project was one we had already lined up to initiate this semester in Honduras. The developing countries of Central and South America (as well as Asia) are quickly developing EMS programs, even in their more rural areas. They are seeking international agencies to assist them in providing the training required for their citizens and EMS professionals.

Unfortunately, very few NPOs or NGOs have any staff with expertise in these areas. This opportunity is expected to grow for quite awhile. Our program has experience in just this type of project and we are continuing to partner with local EMS agencies and municipal governments in developing countries to assist them in formulating or enhancing community response plans and disaster preparation training for their residents.

Question: If the philosophy around aid work is moving more toward empowering governments to help their own people, what place do you see for your students?

Answer: There will always be a need to have professionals available to initially provide the training so that national, indigenous agencies can help their own populations. Somebody has to train the trainers.

Also, as we have recently seen in numerous cases, there will always be a point in which individual nations cannot respond to their own needs fast enough with enough resources. Other nations will have to step up and assist. These are known as catastrophic events – when a nation cannot respond to its own disaster. Someone will have to be ready to go.

Question: In light of the recent exclusion of aid workers in the aftermath of the cyclone in Burma, or Myanmar, what kinds of obstacles are you preparing your students to overcome?

Answer: This is one of the issues covered in some our senior level courses – how do you respond in difficult or impossible situations? How can you as a Christian respond in a non-Christian nation/environment? How can you maintain your personal Christian perspective while working professionally for a non-Christian agency?

There are not a lot of easy answers, just a lot of hard questions. Our program attempts to provide the students with the background and tools to apply critical thinking and innovative solutions to these situations on their own and make the Christ-centered call.

The program’s unofficial mantra is “Improvise, Adapt & Overcome”, while the official motto is “A career of adventure, a lifetime of service”. Union College believes that IRR graduates will be prepared to answer God’s call for professionals to serve mankind in diverse situations throughout the world.

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Sat, 08/05/2017
Dr Lisa Clark Diller

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