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Nursing, premed students find inspiration in helping with medical missions


A group of students prepare to assist at a hospital in Haiti. From left are MaKenna Long, Brian Switzenberg, Aleksander Cook, Sabrina Zeiler and Ashley Baca.
A group of students prepare to assist at a hospital in Haiti. From left are MaKenna Long, Brian Switzenberg, Aleksander Cook, Sabrina Zeiler and Ashley Baca.

Abilene Christian is the highest-ranking university in Texas in a U.S. News and World Report benchmark focused on student success. Here is a look at some of the people and programs that make our student experience exceptional.

Sometimes students get more than they bargained for when participating in medical mission trips to other countries.

In fact, the experience may be so profound that they end up changing their major or become committed to making medical missions a part of their future. Dr. Cynthia Powell (’81), associate professor of chemistry and director of the Prehealth Professions Program at ACU, accompanied 10 students on a trip to Haiti in January. She saw again how important the experience is to students.

“Seeing the opportunities and the great need can be life changing,” Powell said.

The most recent trip was to work with Promise for Haiti over the Christmas break. Powell said students have been taking similar trips for several years during breaks at Christmas, in the spring, and in the summer. Powell normally accompanies students on one of the trips, while other faculty, staff, or alumni, go on the others.

Most recently, ACU has sponsored trips to Haiti and/or Guatemala. The nursing program also takes trips to both locations at different times, Powell said. In Haiti, the students work with either Promise for Haiti or LiveBeyond. In Guatemala, they work with Health Talents International and Adonai Ministries.

Powell said the university is careful to choose ministries that are excellent models of partnership with local communities.

“Our hope,” Powell said, “is that the students will be inspired to see how they might serve in underserved areas when they have completed their medical training.”


Cynthia Powell in Haiti
Dr. Cynthia Powell often accompanies students on medical missions trips to Haiti and Guatemala.

She needn’t look any further than Sabrina Zeiler for confirmation that the students are, indeed, inspired. Zeiler, a senior nursing major from Carrollton, was fortunate to get to help in the operating room, with pediatrics, and with labor and delivery during the Haiti trip. Zeiler was happy to share the knowledge she has accumulated at ACU, but she was just as pleased with what she experienced – an awareness that the people being served had something to offer, too.

“It was awesome to learn from them,” Zeiler said, instead of being the teacher.

The students often find themselves doing the basic essentials such as restocking shelves, folding gauze, or entertaining children while parents are seen by a physician. If a visiting surgical team is one site, the students may get to shadow the team or help in patient recovery areas.

Whether performing menial tasks or watching trained doctors in action, the students are learning, Powell noted. They learn about other cultures and about how medicine is practiced in other cultures.

“And,” Powell said, “they learn about the challenges that many face due to lack of medical care and lack of resources.”


Synniah Preston is one of several students who worked with patients at a hospital in Pignon, Haiti.
Synniah Preston is one of several students who worked with patients in Haiti.

Before leaving the ACU campus, the students learn about the culture they will be working in. They learn the importance of respectful interactions and they learn about customs that might be different from what they know. And, of course, prayer is part of the experience.

“We pray for those with whom we will interact before we leave,” Powell said. “We pray for the humility to be open to the things we need to learn during our time with the ministry.”

When the group returns, Powell said, they talk about what they learned, how they were changed, and what they wish to remember to help with their spiritual formation.

Aleksander Cook is a sophomore biochemistry major from Flower Mound. He is in the pre-med track and no stranger to mission trips. Before the Haiti experience, he had been on three trips to India to work in an orphanage. He loves the opportunity to serve.

Cook, inspired by his grandmother’s death due to cancer, plans a career in surgical oncology. But, thanks to trips like the one working with Promise for Haiti, Cook will take his love of missions with him, wherever he practices.

“I would love to make that a priority,” he said.

A focus on student success

Opportunities for students to learn together in community both on campus and off helped ACU earn accolades from U.S. News and World Report’s benchmark based on student success. ACU was the highest-ranking university in Texas in the magazine’s new category, “A Focus on Student Success.” Nationally, ACU achieved Top 20 status in three of eight high-impact categories:

  • Service Learning – #4
  • First-Year Experience – #9
  • Learning Communities – #11

The only other Texas universities in the Top 20 of the new benchmark were Baylor, Rice and The University of Texas at Austin. Additionally, ACU was ranked in the Top 50 in the nation in two other categories:

  • Study Abroad – #35 (tie)
  • Undergraduate Research/Creative Projects – #42 (tie)

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