Lonnie Hackett ’14 is one of 62 college juniors from around the country who has won a prestigious Truman Scholarship, which is given to promising students pursuing careers in government, public service, education, or the nonprofit sector — jobs that are admirable but often not lucrative.
Besides receiving a $30,000 scholarship for graduate school, Truman scholars receive leadership training, a one-year federal government internship after they graduate from college, and priority admission, plus supplemental financial aid, to some premier graduate schools. Truman winners at Bowdoin go through an internal vetting process coordinated by Bowdoin’s Office of Student Fellowships and Research, and they must receive the College’s endorsement before they can compete at the national level.
Hackett, who is a biochemistry major and psychology minor, said that when he was a high school student growing up in Bangor, Maine, he never imagined he would be where he is today. “I came [to Bowdoin] to play football,” he said.
At college, his passion for football quickly gave away to a passion for public health, and Hackett quit the team to focus on academics. (His GPA is 3.9.) Helping nudge him to his new calling was an experience Hackett had the summer after his first year at Bowdoin.
It started when Kyle Dempsey ’11, a former Truman Scholar, introduced Hackett to the work of Dr. Richard Bail. Dempsey wrote an email to Hackett and other Bowdoin students saying that Bail, a 1964 Bowdoin graduate, was seeking assistants for an upcoming trip to Zambia. Bail teaches at Harvard Medical School and is the founder of Communities Without Borders, a nonprofit that helps educate orphans and other vulnerable children in Africa.
So, with four other Bowdoin students and Bail, Hackett headed to Zambia in 2011, an experience that “switched the trajectory” of his life, Hackett said.
In Africa, he encountered a level of suffering new for him. “It is poverty that would never and could never happen here,” Hackett noted. In his Truman application, Hackett wrote, “I witnessed mothers on the sides of the streets crippled from illness and children sniffing gasoline on a daily basis to numb their pain. I became very close with several children and young adults and felt immeasurable guilt upon my departure. I struggled to cope with the fact that I was able to leave and return to my college while so many others were forced to remain suffering in poverty.”
Hackett and the other Bowdoin students were recruited to teach students living in slums in the capital city of Lusaka. But Hackett said he couldn’t ignore a glaring hole he saw in the curriculum, for health education. In Zambia, almost a quarter of the population is infected with HIV, Hackett said, a catastrophe that has produced many thousands of orphans. Hackett saw a particularly pressing need to educate these young people about HIV prevention. “These kids are especially susceptible because they have no family support or much education,” he said.
Hackett asked Bail if he could offer health lessons instead of teaching math and science. Bail enthusiastically agreed, and Hackett set about visiting school administrators to seek permission to introduce health education into their classrooms. Six out of 10 schools signed on (some resisted because of taboos around HIV; others for fear it would create more work for them). For the remainder of the summer, Hackett traveled throughout the sprawling city, teaching students ages 12 to 18 about safe sex, vaccinations, water sanitation and more.
The following summer, seeking to learn more about international public health, Hackett applied for and won a Preston Public Interest Career Fund grant through Bowdoin Career Planning. The Preston fund supports students who seek to help the disadvantaged and under-served. Hackett traveled to Nepal for 12 weeks to volunteer at community health clinics, where he assisted doctors and nurses with basic care and education outreach.
While in Nepal, Hackett was inspired to start a research project looking at how to optimize health care utilization at community clinics. He had observed that many local people avoided the clinics, instead turning to traditional medicine or faith healers. To gain insight into how to persuade more people to use modern health services, Hackett hired a translator and interviewed 200 people. He has been writing up his findings with help from his Bowdoin advisor, Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Kimberly Robinson, and hopes to publish his paper in a peer-reviewed journal next year.
This summer, Hackett plans to return to Zambia to strengthen the health education program he started two years ago on his trip with Dr. Bail. To do this, he received a $5,000 Thomas Andrew McKinley ’06 Entrepreneur Grant through Bowdoin Career Planning and raised an additional $2,500. He plans to set up workshops to train teachers to lead health education programs, and he will also dispense medicine to students and organize health screenings at the schools.
When Hackett talks about his future, it’s obvious he’s given it careful consideration. After he graduates from Bowdoin next year, he would like to do an internship with USAID, and then enroll in a five-year medicine and public health graduate program. “I want to be a physician and work with Médecins Sans Frontières. There is a big bridge between policy makers and doctors. But by working with Doctors Without Borders, I’ll get experience in fieldwork in Sub-Saharan Africa, in a local health clinic,” he said. Then, when it’s time for him to settle down and start a family, Hackett said he’d like to move into policy work, working with the World Health Organization, for example.
“Doctors can affect communities, but policy work can affect whole regions,” Hackett said.