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WNY volunteer brings Peace Corps spirit home to medical community

Avery Schneider

New Peace Corps Volunteers headed overseas last week, and are taking their Western New York experiences with them. This is the story of what one returned volunteer learned, and what she brought back.

Morgan Nees Van Baalen grew up in Orchard Park, but in October of 2012 she set out on a journey and a mission. As a new Peace Corps Volunteer, she was assigned to Lesotho, a small nation surrounded by South Africa. For Nees Van Baalen, the trip was a real opportunity.

Credit The World Factbook
A map of Lesotho

“I love traveling,” said Nees Van Baalen. “Absolutely love traveling and adventure, and I really wanted to not only learn about another culture, but get completely immersed in it, and just experience life from a different angle.”

When Nees Van Baalen began her Peace Corps mission, she was assigned to teach science and math. She worked hard in the first year to overcome what she admits were shortcomings as an educator. Nees Van Baalen eventually found that her school was close to the capital. The capital had computers, and she had a computer-science background from high school. Enter the help of an Irish NGO, and Nees Van Baalen began teaching computer programming.

“Everything changed,” recalled Nees Van Baalen, “Because I was able to take something I was passionate about and put it into what I was doing.”

In her second year, Nees Van Baalen got to begin special impact projects within her community. She worked on HIV prevention with high school youth.

“We would teach HIV awareness, teach them how the immune system works, teach them how to ‘condomize’ was the phrase, and why it was important through things like soccer,” Nees Van Baalen said. “So we’d use the soccer ball to represent HIV attacking you, and the goalie to represent your immune system fending it off. If we took the goalie away, that’s like having HIV because it’s easier to score soccer balls.”

Nees Van Baalen says she thought she had an impact on the students by taking HIV education – a topic they’re constantly berated about – and making it fun.

“But the point is you really have to understand the people before you can teach them anything,” said Nees Van Baalen.

Along with adventure and cultural immersion, another goal Nees Van Baalen set out with was to find a challenge in which she could help others. She did just that, and had found yet another passion. What she didn’t know going in was that the experience would guide her next step.

“I had a path in mind but it really solidified it for me,” said Nees Van Baalen. “It gave me an example of a situation where I could kind of be a pseudo in the pseudo-medical field. And it made me really realize that that is what I wanted.”

Credit Avery Schneider / WBFO News
Construction is ongoing at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus

Nees Van Baalen came home in August of 2014. She says that because of the respect people have for the Peace Corps and her experience, she was able to find jobs easily and get shadowing positions in the medical field. She has applied to medical school at the University at Buffalo, the University at Rochester, and elsewhere around the country. Nees Van Baalen says she came away from her time in the Peace Corps with a better understanding of people. It is a trait she says applies tremendously in the medical field and beyond.

“Your patients are going to be from all walks of life. They’re going to be from all around the world,” Nees Van Baalen said. “In Buffalo we have all kinds of refugees here. Having that perspective and living in that situation I think better improves you for becoming a good physician one day or becoming good at whatever job you choose to do.”

If she gets into a school in New York, Nees Van Baalen says wouldn’t mind staying, given the development of Buffalo and its medical community. Wherever she ends up, her experiences and the Peace Corps spirit she brought back to Western New York will go with her.

A tweet from the Lesotho Peace Corps Volunteersbids farewell and thanks to Morgan Nees Van Baalen.

Avery began his broadcasting career as a disc jockey for WRUB, the University at Buffalo’s student-run radio station.
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