Students interested in public health and medicine have stepped off campus to volunteer at Oasis Free Clinics in order to gain an interdisciplinary perspective on practicing health care and supplement their experiences in the classroom.

Oasis is an organization in Brunswick that offers free medical care to the uninsured and low-income members of the local community. 

Sarah Steffen ’16 started volunteering with Oasis during her sophomore year at Bowdoin. She graduated last semester and has been an employee at Oasis since January. Steffen said that her work with the organization has equipped her with a unique perspective on medicine and public health that correlates with her experience as a student in a liberal arts institution. 

“I originally wanted to be a biology major, but once I started taking sociology classes I was hooked, and I couldn’t go back,” Steffen said. “I love that Oasis works with a vulnerable population and shows that there is a combination of social factors that influence health.”

As an employee at the clinic, Steffen coordinates Oasis’s events, manages its social media and is in the process of conducting a community-needs assessment to evaluate how the clinic can improve its care for patients.

“It can be hard to find opportunities to get your foot in the door in public health because Maine doesn’t have a big centralized public health program,” said Steffen. “But if you find a mentor at a hospital or a smaller clinic that can be a really good way to meet other people … who are really passionate about what they do.”

Julia Michels ’17 has worked with Oasis since the beginning of her junior year at Bowdoin. She said that shadowing physicians and interacting directly with patients has been the most rewarding part of her volunteer experience. 

“A lot of patients have mental health issues or unhealthy habits, and the doctors really respect that and try to make them healthier, happier humans,” she said. “There’s never any judgement for their actions or their history or their past.” 

Students are not the only Oasis volunteers with Bowdoin ties. Director of Health Services Jeffrey Maher volunteers at Oasis once every three weeks and is enthusiastic about helping connect students with Oasis. Maher became involved with the clinic before working at Bowdoin after being frustrated with his inability to treat patients without health insurance. He describes the community need which Oasis seeks to fill as endless. 

“Until a decision is made at a macro level to insure everybody, my best response is a micro level: what can I do to help in the time that I have,” he said. “It’s a challenge to think of that every day, but you do the best you can.”

Anita Ruff, executive director of Oasis Free Clinics, emphasized the importance of volunteering for students interested in medicine.

“You may be doing a wide variety of things that may not seem interesting or fulfilling to you, but every opportunity is a chance to learn,” she said in a phone interview with the Orient. “Whether it’s learning about public health directly or how to be a good teammate or what it means to run a good program.”

The opportunity to complete a rigorous education in a variety of disciplines while still pursuing a career in medicine is part of what drew Ilana Olin ’20 to Bowdoin. She hopes to start volunteering with Oasis.

“I also really like philosophy, and not being on a strict pre-med track where every [first year] is doing the same thing, I have the opportunity to take the classes I want to and get a liberal arts education,” she said.

Olin is a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and worked as a member of an ambulance crew during high school. At Bowdoin, Olin is part of the Public Health Club and volunteers at Partners for World Health, a Portland-based organization that sends unused medical products to developing countries. She is looking forward to joining Steffen in volunteering at Oasis, which she hopes will provide her with yet another perspective on what it means to work in the field of public health. 

“I think the more exposure I get to different areas of medicine, the more interested and more passionate I become,” she said. 

Oasis is not the only place where Bowdoin students have found an outlet to gain experience in public health.

Mason Bosse ’18 believes that working or volunteering with medical organizations is critically important for students interested in careers in medicine or public health. Bosse is also a licensed Advanced EMT and works on ambulance crews based in both Lisbon and Lewiston, Maine and works as an instructor for United Ambulance in Lewiston. He leaves campus almost every weekend, departing on Friday and returning Monday morning. 

“There is a big problem with physicians and physician assistants in the medical field who are very scientific but aren’t very good with people,” he said. “Volunteering, getting involved and actually getting hands-on experience can really open your eyes to whether or not it’s the right field for you.”