The link between Tanzania and Somerset County has never seemed all that great, but Cory Rodgers — recently named a Rhodes Scholar — is learning no part of the world is too far away to avoid having an impact on another.
The 22-year-old Somerset native's passion is medicine on a global scale. The University of Pittsburgh student was in Africa this summer when he learned of his nomination for the prestigious scholarship, but that's not really the impact connection he has discovered.
"There was an interconnectedness to everything in the impact that people have on each other," he said. Everyone has an impact on everybody," he said.
For Rodgers, that was a rare moment of generalization in a conversation filled with immediate and specific goals that he is trying to reach with degrees in biological sciences, history and philosophy of science and African studies and with a minor in chemistry.
The sense is that in his travels — which have included Mongolia, China, Siberia, Kenya and Canada — that his life, and most others, are changed first at the individual level and then the positive effects spread outward into the larger community in ever-widening ripples.
In his case, teachers Amy Svonavec and Carolyn Rascona had a profound effect on how he viewed his high school education. "I can't give them enough credit for how they pushed me and encouraged me to look at something much bigger for my career," he said.
He had already leaning toward a medical career thanks to growing up with family in the industry. His grandmother Rose Rodgers was a nurse and his mother Lisa pursued physical therapy. His father Jeffrey was also very supportive of a medical career, he said.
The next step in narrowing his career choice and seeing patterns in relationships with medicine came when he went to Mongolia in 2009 as part of a Pitt program. "At that time I was very broad-based. You get an appreciation what people go through in other countries when it comes to basic medicine."
What he saw was that the fall of Soviet Russia left a vacuum in the organized health system. There was a modern hospital and yet much of the local health care was provided through local temples and healers.
However, there was a culture where both groups embraced each other. "The local healers recommended hospital care in some cases. They really worked at complementary health care practices," he said.
"I came back and I knew I didn't want to go to medical school and be a doctor in a hospital. I can see myself taking on a leadership role in the World Health Organization or a group like that at some point down the road," he said.
Rodgers was one of 32 American students selected to represent the United States in the prestigious program, which sends students from around the world to England's Oxford University.
He plans to plans to pursue a master's degrees in medical anthropology and in migration studies at Oxford.
When he went Africa for the first time in 2010, he found a story very different from the one in Mongolia.
There, local healers often kept people from pursuing hospital care when they needed it, or the local tribes shunned the health care system from a cultural standpoint or because they were too poor to afford to go, he said.
He proceeded to apply for and become a winner of the Samuel Huntingdon Public Service Award in 2011, which led him to Dar es Salaam, the largest city in Tanzania.
There, he is working with local groups to bring a health program to HIV-impacted communities based on improving water and agricultural resources.
He is working in one of the city's densely-populated slums to bring a sustainable program of urban agriculture, that might be incorporated into a larger model if he is successful.
"The challenge is intense, but I'm working with groups of very dedicated people," he said.
They will be teaching people to grow high-nutritional value crops like sorghum — versus the less nutritious mainstay corn — in small plots lined with canvas bags.
The thought is that those with HIV and undergoing treatment might see significant health benefits with diet improvement. The plots also give those who have the disease a job and recognizable role within a community that often shuns them, he said.
"You empower them and you allow them to build a sense of community with others," he said. "That builds from there."
That program will likely end in June. He is leaving Monday for the continent after coming back for the Rhodes Scholar process.
"I know that no matter what happens, I want to follow up on this program. This isn't something along the way," he said.
Rhodes Scholar seeking role in world health
Rhodes Scholar Cory Rodgers (Submitted photo)
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