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Student-led medical mission gives Aday new lease

  • David Aday
    David Aday  The professor has found new purpose, along with joy, by serving with students in the Dominican Republic.  Courtesy of SOMOS.
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In 2005, David Aday was at personal and career crossroads. The professor of sociology and American studies at the College of William and Mary always had wanted to teach and to solve fundamental problems of justice. Yet, he found himself spending more and more energy in administration. At the same time, his enthusiasm for research was waning.

“I was doing work on domestic violence in highly marginalized communities and asking why everything we try to do appears to make the problem worse,” Aday explained. “I found myself becoming increasingly cynical about the prospects for meaningful social change through laws, law enforcement and formal mechanisms of social control.”

Then he was asked to serve as a faculty advisor to the fledgling student–founded medical mission venture to the Dominican Republic.  Acceptance changed his life.

SOMOS, the Student Organization for Medical Outreach and Sustainability (SOMOS), began as a simple medical-relief mission to the impoverished community of Paraiso in the Dominican Republic. Through the students’ desire to move beyond the simple distribution of medicines and Aday’s passion for community-led social justice, it has evolved into a premier research-based civic-engagement project.

Aday began teaching a seminar for students involved in SOMOS. He stressed ethnographic research principles as well as community-building strategies.  In short order, he began accompanying the group to the Dominican Republic. He worked in the medical clinic, which provided, he said, the perfect venue to “see all the things that were going on.” He helped “map” the community, utilizing GPS technology as well as arranging interview sessions in selected households. Over time, it was determined that access to potable water and flooding were critical issues facing community members. As SOMOS prepares to return to Paraiso, it is poised to begin actively addressing those problems in full partnership with local residents.

As he reflected on the experience during a recent videotaping session, Aday complimented the student participants on their dedication, poise and professionalism. Just as he taught the students, they taught him, he said.

“Ethnography has been my whole career, but ethnographers tend to work by themselves,” he said. “Watching students do the kind of interviewing that I’ve done all my life, and seeing the way they relate and interact, has taught me about the methodology. I have found that all kinds of presumptions and preconceptions that must be unpacked. If you don’t do that, you only know what you had in your mind when you thought up the question.”

Aday also has been moved by the relationships that have developed between the students and the residents of the community.

“All you need to do is come with me into the field and watch the joy that is expressed without exception, continuously, as the students move through the community, and watch the way in which people in the community receive and respond to that joy,” he said. “That joy is coming from somewhere. Something about this work, about this project, about what they’re trying to accomplish is inspiring a tremendous amount of joy.”