In a life she labels “weirdly nomadic,” Laura Kahn decided to go to medical school during a lull in the journey – on a long stretch of Canadian highway.
Her interests were diverse, and health care shared the spotlight with travel and politics.
In Hampshire College in Massachusetts, she gravitated toward medicine, writing illness profiles in her senior year as part of a literary program. She selected as subjects her late grandmother, who suffered from post-polio syndrome, a friend with breast cancer and another who did AIDS work in San Francisco in the 1980s.
“But at the time I was not interested in the idea of spending a decade in school,” says Kahn, 28, who worked as a nurse’s aide and an EMT while in college.
After graduation she and a friend established a non-profit in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where wars had ravaged the countryside and eliminated most of the country’s infrastructure.
Now one of Maine’s largest non-profits with about 2,000 employees in Congo, Working Villages International took on all aspects of society.
“There was a 99 percent unemployment rate in the Ruzizi area, no infrastructure and no access to any food or anything else. Anyone with any authority had been killed,” she says. “We brought in some goods and tried to help them relearn some of the skills that were lost.”
Initially the work focused heavily on agricultural development, but over her six years with the group, workers began developing other parts of the economy including housing and roads.
“The first few years we worked 80 hours a week – probably more than that. It was just the two of us on the U.S. end of the organization. It’s kind of a blur now. There was no time to think about what I wanted to do. We were just surviving from month to month. Ninety percent of nonprofits fail in their first year so neither of us took a salary after the first six months. “
In 2008 she took a leave of absence to think about her future. It coincided with the presidential election, and she decided to work on the Obama campaign and get her certification to teach English abroad.
After the election she traveled through Europe, then took a teaching job in Syria for several months.
She chose a country in the Middle East intentionally.
“I felt that I had done as much reading as I could do to learn about the culture, but I felt there were so many misconceptions about the people and culture. I could read the op-eds in the New York Times but even those people were buried in bureaus and were just covering conflicts. I knew I had to go there myself.
“It was a wonderful experience. It was really hard but I really loved it. The community I was working with in Aleppo was an unbelievably conservative culture, but I’ve fallen in love with it.”
When she returned to the states, she decided she had to make a decision about her future. She continued with Working Villages, but knew that wasn’t where she wanted to end up.
Then her mother, an artist, asked her to drive some of her work from Chicago to upstate New York.
“I got in the car, and I was so mad at my mom; there were no CDs, no music or anything and I was driving through a really flat section of Canada. The sky was gray, and it was really stultifying. And then it became very meditative. I started looking back at my life, and I realized then that I wanted to go into medicine.
“I guess when you’re really busy all the time you can’t have these kinds of revelations. “
Then came the “horrible realization” that she was going to have go back to school to take her prerequisites because she hadn’t done many science classes in her undergrad years. Simultaneously, she decided to get her master’s degree in public health, interview for medical schools and work fulltime for Working Villages.
“I got encephalitis,” she says. “I was pushing it too hard.
“But you know what? It was a really good lesson for medical school. You have to take care of yourself.”
She’s having a hard time keeping that in mind as she looks at her options at CU.
“The tracks here are so cool, and there are so many good things going on in the community. That’s the reason I chose CU. Everyone was very enthusiastic.”