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Grant-funded Experience Life-Changing for Beloiter

Grants to Students Enable Steps toward Lives of Purpose and Consequence
By Josh Moore,
Associate Director, Office of International Education

Soon after arriving in a maternity clinic in rural Senegal to shadow a midwife, Jenny Gilbertson’12 was asked to assist with her first delivery. Still negotiating an unfamiliar environment and a language barrier, she fought off panic as the nurses placed the young expectant mother in full labor on a bare hospital bed with no sheets. 

“She hadn’t eaten all day, so I grabbed a meal for her and decided my role was to be there for her,” Gilbertson recounted. “So, I just sat and held her hand, trying to comfort her.” Using a combination of French (one her majors, along with chemistry), and Wolof, one of Senegal’s national language which she had studied for only a month, Gilbertson did all she could to soothe the woman, who was given no pain killers and suffered severe hemorrhaging after the delivery.  

Jenny Gilbertson in SenegalFortunately, the bleeding was staunched and the mother survived. So did the baby–a girl–whom Gilbertson cleaned and swaddled. When the child’s father arrived at the clinic, he asked Gilbertson her name.  “’Jennifer,” she told him, and he replied, ‘Then that will be my daughter’s name.’” Gilbertson posed for a snapshot with her newborn namesake, capturing the moment.  

Thus began a whirlwind three-week independent project that Gilbertson hoped would give her a practical understanding of maternal and infant mortality in West Africa as well as reproductive health challenges in the region. Despite the short time span, “I was able to do more hands-on work than I could have dreamed of,” she reported, encountering issues ranging from pre-natal health and health problems of sex workers, to the care for survivors of rape. 

An early desire to be a doctor and work in the international arena led Gilbertson to study chemistry, global health and French.  She has volunteered at the Beloit Memorial Hospital, become an advocate for the Sexual Assault Recovery Program in Beloit, taken classes in global health, anthropology, medicinal chemistry, and anatomy, and spent a semester studying abroad in Martinique.  Though she felt these activities had prepared her to work in the Maternité de Sébikhotane, Senegal, “it wasn’t until I was there, living these experiences, tasting them, reflecting on them daily, that I truly began to understand what it means to be someone in that culture, what it means to have certain resources and to lack others,” she said.Jenny Gilbertson in Senegal clinic

Her three-week stay in Senegal was made possible by two grants offered to Beloit College students to allow them to engage in self-designed projects abroad. Made possible by generous gifts from alumnae and trustee Nina Weissberg’84 and her father Marvin Weissberg, and by Betty Chenoweth’55, 20 such grants were awarded to students in academic year 2011-12. Totaling over $44,000, they stand out as one of the most robust funding opportunities available for students to put the liberal arts into practice at Beloit College.     

“This project clarified my plans for the future and reignited a passion,” Gilbertson said. In a recent conversation with a graduate school admissions counselor, she said, she was able to clearly articulate a vision for her future academic career: to put her science and health studies to use to engineer pre-natal mobile clinics that can deliver ultra-sounds to women in rural locations. “This is a need that I saw.  [The experience] helped me realize that that is the environment that I really thrive in.” 

One week after that first birth, the mother brought baby Jennifer into the clinic to have her ears pierced, and Gilbertson helped her namesake obtain her vaccinations.  “It’s amazing to know that she’s probably the only Jennifer in the town,” she said.