When I started at the Oasis Free Clinics in 2016, I met with each of our board members to learn about their history with and hopes for Oasis. Dr. Seth Ramus, director of Health Professions Advising at Bowdoin College, talked about his desire to create a closer connection between Oasis and the college, especially the students with whom he worked. Not surprisingly, many Bowdoin students think they want to become doctors, and for most, Dr. Ramus’ guidance is part of that journey. As he said to me, “physician” is often the only option that students know about, and part of his role is to introduce them to the many opportunities available for those interested in health and medicine. Given the variety of disciplines represented by volunteers at Oasis, as well as my own (not so secret) desire to convert students to my chosen field of public health, I was on board. However, I wanted to start slowly, knowing how much time and energy students can take.

In the fall, I was contacted by a very eager Bowdoin student who wanted to work at Oasis during the following summer. Scout was unstoppable, applying for funding, securing academic sponsorship, getting references, and meeting with me before she left to study abroad. I had never met a student like her before, and honestly, I was a little overwhelmed. As a college student at a large state university, “driven” would not have been used to describe me. Scout was on a mission to get to Oasis, and she won me over with her enthusiasm and passion for social justice. Once at Oasis, she proved to be incredibly smart, open, compassionate and an exceptionally gifted writer. She knew she wanted a career helping people, and I watched her transition over the summer from doctor to nurse to physician assistant to nurse practitioner to public health professional. I thought: I wonder where she will land and won’t we all be better for it?

Buoyed by Scout’s stellar performance, our team decided to open up volunteer opportunities to more students. This brought us Julie and Ilana, who would continue to volunteer with us until they graduated in May 2020. Both of these young women knew they wanted to be doctors and came to Oasis to both serve and learn. These exceptional young women did anything that was asked of them, including learning our electronic medical record system and developing reports, setting up an online volunteer scheduling system, “rooming” patients, developing social media posts, updating our website, and a myriad of other tasks.

I knew I wanted another summer student and applied to Bowdoin’s McKeen Center for the Common Good for a fellow. This is when I met Eskedar. Like Scout, Eskedar exceeded my expectations. She was bright, thoughtful, and insightful. She had a deep commitment to fighting health inequities and understanding how the healthcare system worked in Brunswick and beyond. She developed creative ways to promote our services and recognize our volunteers. Like others, she came to Bowdoin expecting to eventually go to medical school. Her summer at Oasis opened something in Eskedar, however, and she took the next year away from Bowdoin, spending a semester abroad learning about public health systems in India, South Africa and Brazil, working at a national advocacy organization, and developing health policies for a Texas Congresswoman in Washington, DC.

The next two years brought us a bevy of Bowdoin students: Sarah Brigid, our summer fellow who set up systems to navigate MaineCare; Douglas and Pauline, the couple from Phoenix who volunteered together; Francesca, who hailed from Auburn and went home every weekend to be with her widowed mother; Andrew, a Seattle native who loved to bike; Mary, an inquisitive young woman wanting to make a difference; Kevin, a soft spoken young man that we all adored; Felicia, a brilliant and lovely young woman; Ashlynn and Audrey, one tall and athletic, the other petite, both from California and eager to help.

The Bowdoin students who volunteer at Oasis have several things in common. They are some of the smartest people I know. They are motivated to make positive change happen in the world, especially for those who have limited economic opportunity or who experience health inequities. They come to Oasis humbly, appreciative of our patients, volunteers and staff for their willingness to share their stories, wisdom and insight. All of them are (or will be) pursuing a career in medicine or public health, and all of them talk about how volunteering at Oasis influenced the trajectory of their path. When I think back to the conversation I had in 2016 with Dr. Ramus when he told me that he hoped Oasis and Bowdoin could be more closely connected, I imagine this is what he had in mind.

Just as with our clinical operations, COVID-19 has impacted our relationship with Bowdoin students. With the announcement that primarily first year students will be returning in the fall, our plans to have our returning students in the clinic evaporated. Our fledging, student-led campus club won’t have any students to lead, organize or participate. That means we won’t have students greeting patients, helping our volunteer providers by taking heights/weights and blood pressure, reconciling medication lists, cleaning exam rooms after visits, helping with fundraising activities, writing social media content, or other important tasks. Students fill in where our limited staff need help. In addition, students bring energy and excitement; they are fun!

I don’t envy Bowdoin’s president, Clayton Rose, for the decision he had to make about re-opening. If I have learned anything about life in a pandemic is that there are no easy answers. While I am sad about not having our Bowdoin students in the clinic or in the community in the fall, we all want this pandemic to end as quickly as possible. We will miss our students, and they will miss being in Brunswick and at Oasis. But we will be here, waiting to see their smiling faces if they are able to return safely in the spring. And hopefully, we won’t have to wear masks anymore so they can see us smile back at them.

Oasis Free Clinics is a non-profit, no-cost primary care medical practice and dental clinical, providing exceptional, patient-centered care to uninsured members of our community. For more information, please visit www.OasisFreeClinics.org or call 721-9277.

Anita Ruff is the executive director of Oasis Free Clinics. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community. 

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