S.7 E.3: A Global Gustie in Public Health

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus alumna and global health access advocate Katie Schlangen '14.
Posted on January 18th, 2021 by

Gustavus alum Katie Schlangen ’14 on her challenging background and path to Gustavus, living and teaching in Seoul and Hong Kong, working and traveling internationally for a Minnesota-based NGO focused on healthcare, her commitment to health access and policy, and graduate study in global health policy through the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Season 7, Episode 3: A Global Gustie in Public Health

Greg Kaster:

Hello and welcome to Learning for Life @ Gustavus. The podcast about people teaching and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College and the myriad ways that Gustavus Liberal Arts Education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host Greg Kaster, a faculty member in the Department of History.

Imagine having never traveled outside the U.S. and choosing South Korea as your first destination abroad, rather than say England. That is precisely what my guest today Gustavus alum Katie Schlangen did following her graduation as a History and Biology double major in 2014. The choice very much in keeping with the global perspective she had already acquired through her undergraduate study. Katie spent the next two years living and teaching English to schoolchildren in Dongtan, South Korea. From there, she returned to her native Minnesota and began working at MATEr, a global nonprofit based in the Twin Cities Metro, whose mission is to expand access to health care and parts of the world where it is scarce.

Her work there, about which we’ll hear more in a bit, took her to Mali, Togo, Honduras, South Africa and China. Currently back in Asia living in Hong Kong, Katie is pursuing a Master of Science degree in Global Health Policy through the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. As even this cursory summary of her trajectory since graduation suggests, she embodies the Gustavus ethos of community service, justice and global citizenship along with the spirit and practice of learning for life. And as one of her former history profs, I’m especially proud and gratified to have her on the podcast. Welcome, Katie.

Katie Schlangen:

Hi, Greg. Thanks for having me.

Greg Kaster:

It’s my pleasure and you’re in Hong Kong, I’m here in Minneapolis. And it is about I don’t know, maybe 7:15 here in Minneapolis. What time is it there?

Katie Schlangen:

It is 9:15 on Monday morning.

Greg Kaster:

On Monday morning, yeah, the next day. So this is awesome, I mean, this technology just continues to amaze me. What’s the weather like there?

Katie Schlangen:

It’s cold for Hong Kong, but that’s not saying much compared to Minnesota. It is probably about 15 degrees here, Fahrenheit.

Greg Kaster:

So, that’s warmer, yeah.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, so it’s quite chilly here. The humidity makes it colder than I think I’m used to especially because it’s so hot all year round, but I’m grateful that it is not Minnesota cold.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I mean, it’s been in the 30s and maybe 40s, here and there, but it’s going to get cold again. I’ve never been there. I know you, just I know from speaking with you and emailing with you, and looking at your Facebook page, how much you enjoy it. First, let’s just talk about how things are in terms of COVID. Are you in a lockdown or where do things stand there?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, so COVID here started at the very beginning since its proximity to China and so, we’ve been in and out of different phases of lockdown since January. Currently, we are in the fourth phase, fourth wave of COVID, so we are in the highest lockdown we’ve been in, which is not really a lockdown, per se. I would call it a soft lockdown. We’re allowed out in groups of two. Restaurants close at 5:00, but everything is delivered. And kind of the convenience of Hong Kong is great in this aspect because everything is so close and reasonable and easy and things quickly change and adapt to new circumstances. It’s a very, very resilient city.

And so yeah, life is certainly different than it was when I first moved here, but all in all, I’m very grateful to be here because our fourth wave is about 100 cases day and I feel very, very safe here. Everyone wears masks and has since the very beginning. Hong Kong has a very fraught history with disease, not only SARS back in 2003, but they’ve also had another flu pandemic called the Hong Kong flu, which was a ways back, so they’re very familiar with going through these things, maybe not for this long, but everyone knows what precautions to take and I feel very grateful to be living here at this time.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s an excellent point about their experience with disease and I take it, I mean I take it unlike in this country and then some other countries, too, there isn’t really any significant pushback. I mean, an anti-mask movement or people, I mean, refusing to obey or is there? I assume not.

Katie Schlangen:

No, the only people that really struggled to wear masks at the beginning were expats, people who aren’t from Hong Kong, and didn’t understand the reason so. I mean right from the very beginning, if you weren’t wearing a mask, you would be socially antagonized. People would either say something to you or ask you to wear a mask. At times, you’d get stared at a lot or pointed out if you weren’t wearing a mask, so you feel very compelled to and also because everyone else is doing it. I mean, expats are the minority here, so literally the whole city is wearing masks and you feel very strange if you’re not.

Greg Kaster:

Right. Yeah. I think that’s so important. People. I mean, some psychologists and others have written about that here how the more people who wear masks here, the better, right? You don’t feel so strange. I mean, at first, I did feel weird going out even for a walk, wearing a mask, and now, less so, although boy, we’re a long way from where Hong Kong is. I’m envious. I’m glad you’re okay. Now, I know from the Facebook posts, how much you enjoy the city. What is it about Hong Kong that you really, really love?

Katie Schlangen:

I think Hong Kong has everything you could want, I think in a city. I’ve lived now in three countries. Traveled to many more, but there’s no city like I think between the massive city that is Hong Kong in general, the convenience of being in a city, that transportation is very cheap, very quick. You can go anywhere you want for next to nothing and it’s all fast and very clean and efficient. But then you also have a massive amount of nature around and it’s so easy to get to.

Not only do I live on an island, so you’re surrounded by water, which is great, but at the southern end of Hong Kong Island, they are really nice beaches. There are islands surrounding Hong Kong that you can take ferries out to that are really quick to get to. There’s mountains. I mean, the mountains are part of the Hong Kong skyline going up to Victoria Peak and looking out over the city or I’ve done, I would say well over 30 hikes in Hong Kong and I still have not even scratched the surface of how many more there are to do. It’s just really, really nice to be able to get out of a big city so quickly and to nature and feel like you’re not trapped in a concrete jungle all the time. So, an option of everything that I could want.

Greg Kaster:

It sounds like a city I would love. First, I love the skyline. I love just looking at it especially at night. I’m a city guy. It sounds great to me. And so often people think city versus nature. No. Cities are part of nature, there is nature in cities and yeah, a place like that where you can get away so quickly. It sounds like, there are green spaces within the city, too. Is that what you’re, city park? Yeah.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah. There are lots of parks all around and people really take advantage of them here especially because everyone’s apartments are so small. It’s such a densely packed city that most people don’t spend a lot of time in their flats, so people go out to the common spaces to spend time with people. So, even right now, with the lockdown, people are in parks constantly. Social distancing and things like that, of course, but there’s enough public space where everyone has the chance to get out and be in nature.

Greg Kaster:

That’s cool. That, I mean, so I’m trying to picture that. I mean, unlike here where city streets or cities can seem deserted, parts of the Metro Minneapolis, but people are still out and about in some way safely. I guess that’s true here, too, actually, in parts of this city now that I think of it, down by the stone arch bridge and certain parks. Wow. It sounds like a great place. And you grew up in a small town. Is that right? I mean, so this is a pretty big change for you?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, yeah. Small is one way of putting it, I’m from a town of about 20 people. It’s just outside of St. Cloud. I’m in Minnesota by about 45 minutes. It’s between Watkins, Minnesota and Cold Spring, Minnesota. I went to high school in Cold Spring, Minnesota, Rocori High School. So, yeah, small town is a light way of putting that, I think. Moving to a big city has been quite a change, but luckily I was eased in with my move to South Korea.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean, I just find your story, so great. Including that as you told me when you were going to South Korea you’d never been, not only had you never been outside the country, I think you said, you’ve never been on a plane before. So, a lot of firsts there but you’re just, I don’t know. You’re a lot, I don’t know what. You’re more adventurous, courageous, something independent than I was at your age, that’s for sure. I don’t think I went to New York City on my own until I was in graduate school and even then, I was a little intimidated. But let’s talk about not move from where you grew up to Gustavus in St. Peter. How is it that you came to Gustavus? We’re thrilled that you did of course, but what brought you there?

Katie Schlangen:

Well, I knew I wanted to attend the university. It wasn’t something that my family had ever done before, though, so it was a very confusing process to me to be honest and my family wasn’t very supportive of me going to university. I grew up well-below the poverty line, so it wasn’t something that anyone ever felt was feasible for anyone in my family to do and education wasn’t really looked at as the thing to make your life better, but that’s how I very much viewed life.

So, I started looking into attending university, probably in my second year of high school. I was looking at different options, not only in Minnesota, but around other places, too, because I really wanted to kind of get far away from where I grew up. I wasn’t very appreciative of it then, you might say, but as I went through high school, I had a professor, I had a teacher in high school that went to Gustavus and he had this flag on his wall. He was a history teacher and he always talked about how much he loved Gustavus and he grew up down near Mankato, as well. And so, he always talked about it and I always thought it was really interesting. He was one of my favorite teachers, Mr. Distel and so, he convinced me to go do a tour down there.

So, I went with my best friend, Carly at that time. She also came to Gustavus, but in her second year of university. And we went into the tour and I kind of fell in love. The tour guide that took us, I mean, was just very casual with us. I think it’s because we were two teenagers rather than parents. She was quite casual with us. She definitely knew her audience. She told us just a lot of things that made Gustavus seem very warm and welcoming and like a community that we could really want to be a part of. What also attracted me to guess Gustavus was the science aspects, like the research that’s done there, the Nobel Conference was when I found out about that I was very intrigued because I know I wanted to apply to study science when I got to Gustavus.

So, yeah, I think there was also like a really a good sense of a well-rounded education. I knew I wanted to study Science, but that’s not only where my interests lied, so I wanted to make sure that I could study other things that I was interested in as well.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s funny about the tour guide, knowing her audience, that’s great. It’s also neat these connections, right? Often, students will say, “Well, I thought of Gustavo is because of a high school history teacher or some or a high school science teacher who’d gone to Gustavus. I don’t think I knew… what’s his last name? Your high school to teacher? Distel, did you say, Distel?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, Gary Distel is his name.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I don’t think I know him or, but anyway, Kate.

Katie Schlangen:

I don’t think he has any idea that I went to Gustavus partially because of him, but [crosstalk 00:13:00].

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. It’s excellent. So, I wondered about that, you already knew you were interested in science you said?

Katie Schlangen:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Greg Kaster:

And were you interested in Public Health already? Biology and specifically, is that the Science you were interested in or what?

Katie Schlangen:

I knew I was interested in Human Biology. I knew when I went to Gustavus that I was definitely thinking about being premed, which I ended up doing the whole premed track at Gustavis. I was really interested in being a doctor, as everyone is when they do Science at Gustavus, I think. I mean, so many people show up as premed. And yeah, I did end up being a doctor, but I’m still very much interested in health and always have been.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that has carried through. I have to say you’re one of those students who… I don’t know when we first maybe when you were a first year student or sophomore in the American Lives course. But I mean, early on, you were talking about Public Health and you’re interest in Health and you continued to do that, obviously, as I mentioned in my intro, whereas some students might say something like that early on and then abandon that interest, not in your case and I couldn’t remember… go ahead, no, go ahead, go ahead.

Katie Schlangen:

[crosstalk 00:14:09] as you go through school, right? So, I think when you’re 18 and graduating from high school, being a doctor or a lawyer can sound really great, but you don’t really know what that entails when you go to school. I think it’s definitely normal to change your path and a lot of people [inaudible 00:14:25] “Oh, you were premed and of course, you dropped that.” But it’s like you just learn and you learn what’s for you and what’s not for you and that’s what university is all about.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly right. That’s the whole point. In fact, yeah, my ideal world, you’ve probably heard me say, is no one would know their major, they couldn’t know their major, what they wanted to do when they arrived. The other thing is I think you answered this question from me because I couldn’t remember. So, biology came first and then history. How did you become interested in the History major?

Katie Schlangen:

Well, it was your course. The American Lives course.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, I’m to blame. Okay, great.

Katie Schlangen:

My second semester at Gustavus, I took the American Lives course of my first year, and I always loved history. I was a huge fan of it in high school as well. I always did well in History. I really enjoyed learning about different topics, different countries, and customs and cultures and things, but I wasn’t sure if I was one good enough to do History, I’d never learned it, obviously, in a university setting, but also just didn’t know what I would do with it when I finish. Now, I really see the value of my history major, but then I didn’t know really, you were the one that taught me what a History major can do for you.

And so, once I started taking courses, I really enjoyed how they differed from my science courses because in science courses, it’s lecture and you sit in lecture and you just obviously get lectured at. There might be a little bit of interaction, but not very much and then you go to lab and lab is where I really thrived, and what I really liked about science, because you get to interact with the materials that you’re talking about every day in class.

But in History, you might read all week and you are thinking about things, but then you go to class, and it’s not really a lecture. You’re just discussing things and I feel like I learned so much more that way. And so, and also everything, all the courses I took I found fascinating, so every time I went into history class, I always felt very in my element and just very, very comfortable and very engaged with what I was learning. Whereas in my science courses, it was interesting to me. Don’t get me wrong. I love science. I have always been fascinated by science. But it’s just the format of things that is different for me.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, it’s different and it used to be even when I first started at Gustavus because it was much more lecture-based. I mean, a lot has changed in the History discipline over the years and you see, I had forgotten. I knew you took America Lives with you, but I forgotten that that was how you got hooked on History, so I feel flattered and thankful. You were a great History major and also one of our erstwhile work study students there as well. I should have mentioned that in the intro. But correct me if I’m wrong, you took a good range of history courses, right? You took not just U.S., but two Asian History with David Obermiller, I think?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

And what else did you take?

Katie Schlangen:

You’re really going to test my knowledge here. It’s been a while, I guess. I took Japanese course with David. I did my thesis with David, with David Obermiller, and I took European Studies with Carlson.

Greg Kaster:

With Professor Carlson, yeah.

Katie Schlangen:

I took an immigration course with a visiting professor, Sam Vaughn?

Greg Kaster:

Sam Vaughn, right? Who was there for as [inaudible 00:17:57]. I’ve tried to interview Sam at some point, too. That’s right. Yeah, you did all that. Did you take African History, too with Kate Keller or Latin American History?

Katie Schlangen:

[crosstalk 00:18:04]. Kate had gotten there my very last year and I stopped taking courses in December to fit. I just worked my thesis in my last semester. I graduated early, so [crosstalk 00:18:15] any of her courses.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, but you took a good range, which is what we’d like, so what I remember. I mean, I remember when you were thinking of going to South Korea and again, just I was amazed at your, I don’t know, bravery, whatever the right word is adventurousness. Let’s talk a little bit about that, so you arrived there in, well, you arrived there the summer after you, right, in 2014, just a few months after you graduated, if I’m remembering correctly. Yeah, and tell us about your experience there.

First of all, why were you going? I mentioned you were teaching English. Tell us a little bit about that experience where you were and the challenges and rewards of being the first time abroad in South Korea.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, so I had known for a while that I wanted to travel, especially after I decided not to do med school. I decided that if I wasn’t going to do eight years of more school that I should be adventurous while I could. I was 21 and I had never traveled before, but the more I studied history, kind of the more I was curious about other cultures and living in other places. And so, David Obermiller is actually the one that told me that I could live in another country and teach and kind of gain those experiences.

And so, I started applying to different countries and South Korea was just the one that first hired me and as I’ve done research, it seemed like a very fascinating place to live. It’s very nerve racking because in Korea, there’s not a lot of English spoken. Obviously, I was working at what’s called a Hagwon, which is like an After School Academy, so I taught kindergarten in the morning up until about 3:00 and then I taught like first through eighth grade afternoon and evening. So, it was just an interesting place that I could gain experience, a salary where I could still, I could live and have that as my only job and then also be able to travel on the school holidays, which was nice.

So yeah, I don’t really think I picked Korea as much as Korea picked me and I’m forever thankful because it was a really formative experience for me, never having left the States before. I had never seen the ocean. I had never… I mean, there’s so many things I had never done before I went to Korea and I got to… I met so many amazing people there. I’m still in communication with so many of my co-teachers and friends that I met in Korea.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Go ahead, go ahead, sorry. Go ahead.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, so I was teaching there. I taught there for two years. I think I lived about 35 kilometers South of Seoul, so I wasn’t in Seoul. I was very scared to move to Seoul. Seoul is 25 million people and that’s a bit different than 20, so I’d never liked taken a public bus or I’ve never even been near a subway, so it was very terrifying for me. I got a job offer in Seoul and I turned it down because I was too nervous and then I moved to Dongtan instead, which was a new city, relatively new. It was built in 2008, mainly by Samsung

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Katie Schlangen:

And so, it was like a very new sterile place, but also really, really cool. It was very efficient, fastest internet in the world. When I moved there, I mean, no one knows much about South Korea, so everyone kind of thought or after this, I was moving to North Korea, which was quite funny, which is obviously very cut off from the rest of the world, but South Korea is the exact opposite of that. It’s very well-connected and I had no issues communicating with friends back home or anything like that, which they were pleasantly surprised by.

But yeah, it was very culturally different, obviously. Work culture is the biggest difference between the U.S. and in Korea. Their work cultures is really quite intense and it’s the main reason why people leave Korea and they can’t handle there. It’s just a very different working style day-to-day very different hours, very different efficiency levels, and just different from what I had been used to before. So, [crosstalk 00:22:43] my first big girl job, so to say, I worked four jobs in university, and I’d been no stranger to work, but it was very different being there on my own trying to learn the culture while I was working at the same time and kind of having no one there to support me in a sense. I had [crosstalk 00:23:07] friends that they weren’t when I first got there, so it felt very much like I was on my own.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I mean, to me, that’s all amazing about you and part of me is envious. I wish I could go back and be more adventurous. I did go to Mexico as an undergraduate, but even though, I went with my then girlfriend, who was fluent in Spanish, and we were at a university, going to school, not working, where there were a lot of Americans, but that, I did fall deeply in love with Mexico and miss it to this day, but this, a couple of things. One, so did that intense work ethic that translated into the teaching you were doing as well?

Katie Schlangen:

I think, it was quite interesting. I just feel like I didn’t really have a choice like when I moved to Korea, I had $200 to my name. I barely made it in a sense. Looking back on it, it was crazy because I would never do that now. I would never move to another country with only $200 to my name, but I did and it worked out and I’m really grateful for that thing because it really could have not worked out to my favor. But yeah, I think I’ve always been kind of the person who made situations work for better or for worse, but it’s always just been kind of who I am, I guess and-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I agree. I agree with that. You’re resourceful. You have a lot of resiliency, kind of a cliché these days, but that’s true of you. You have a great deal of resiliency that showed.

Katie Schlangen:

Well, thank you.

Greg Kaster:

No, it’s true. I was just thinking, too, the other thing, well, a couple of other things. One for some people being in the situation you were in, it could be a complete turnoff, right? You, in fact, thrived. I mean, through all the challenges and all the intense work. The other thing I wanted to ask about is the so-called New City. Well, I mean, that’s literally a city that’s sort of built up by a company, a corporation primarily for its workforce. Is that the idea?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah. So, in 2007, the city I lived in was a field, a green field. Samsung had had a semiconductor factory there and they were busing workers from Seoul or the surrounding area to work, then busing them back at night. So, then they decided that wasn’t efficient enough, so then they built kind of like a college dorm for them to sleep in during the week, and then they would be bused home on the weekends. But then, I mean, obviously, the workers were very happy about the situation. I can’t imagine they would be. Their families were elsewhere during the week.

And so, Samsung was like, “Well, well, I guess we’ll just kind of like sponsor a city that then we can build for them, and they can move their families here and then we don’t have to, bus them back and forth. The workers will be happy.” So then, out of that, a city was born, called Dongtan and it’s a very wealthy city because of all the money that was invested in it, latest technology for everything. It’s a very cool place.

And when I lived there, there were two of them, so I lived in Dongtan, the original, the OG and then when I was there, Dongtan 2 was built, which it just shows how much Samsung grew. Now, there are six of them.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Katie Schlangen:

So, there’s Dongtan 3, Dongtan 4, Dongtan 5 and Dongtan 6.

Greg Kaster:

Are we talking about millions of people all together or in each one? How big are they?

Katie Schlangen:

When I was living there, Dongtan was about 100,000 people. Dongtan 2 hadn’t opened yet so and think of it like university move-in day. They build the study and then they move all the people in. I rode a bike through Dongtan 2 before everyone lived there, so it’s kind of like a pre-ghost town, which is interesting. But yeah, so now, I’m not quite so sure of the population of all of them together now. I’m guessing it’s a lot more because it’s not only Samsung that is working there now, but yeah.

Greg Kaster:

It’s amazing. See, one day I want to go there when Kate and I, my wife, Kate Wittenstein, who also taught in the department, now retired. We had a good friend from South Korea when we were in graduate school. She was in Geography and we did get together here at least once when she came to Minnesota anyway, but we so wanted to go there. I’ve kind of lost track of her.

Katie Schlangen:

Beautiful country with a beautiful culture. I love it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s why we wanted to go. Oh, the movie. What was the movie that came out recently? Is it Parasite, is that what it was called, Parasite?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I mean, just, well, the arts, right? The music. Oh, yes, do you have a favorite boyband or not? Are you into that or?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah. When I lived there, G-DRAGON was really big, but now I think like BTS and Black Pink have sort of taken over the universe.

Greg Kaster:

I liked to tune in. In all seriousness, what are some of the fond memories you have of your time there? I mean, I think of the kids primarily that you taught or other memories.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, I have so many memories of kids. There are parents that I still talk to you from when I lived there.

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Katie Schlangen:

I’ve watched the kids grow up and oftentimes, my co-teachers will go back. I’ve been meaning to go back. I meant to go back last year, but then a pandemic happened. So, yeah, I think mostly of the kids. Spent a lot of time at school, really long workdays, and the kids really made those workdays worth it. But also, I have a lot of really fond memories of just like taking trips around Korea. It was very easy to get around, so on weekends, we would go beach camping or we will go for a hike up. I went hiking where the Olympics took place, [crosstalk 00:29:16] where the Olympics took place, but those mountains or that mountain range is so beautiful.

And just being kind of out in the middle of nowhere and meeting Koreans and talking. I spoke quite a bit of Korean when I lived there, so it was really fun to kind of like test my Korean whenever we went out somewhere and just trying to kind of get by, especially when you’re out in the middle of nowhere. There’s no English, so really trying to make things work, especially when things go wrong is very fun.

Greg Kaster:

Have you studied the language at Gustavus? I can’t remember or had you placed out?

Katie Schlangen:

I’ve got two years of French.

Greg Kaster:

French, okay.

Katie Schlangen:

[crosstalk 00:29:53] for me.

Greg Kaster:

No, because I remember you speaking about it and emailing about your Korean. I mean, you were able to get around and communicate.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, I was by no means fluent in Korean, but I could read, I could communicate the basics, mostly about food. And I could have like second grade level conversations with people in Korean, which was-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s fine.

Katie Schlangen:

And reading was really useful because it was about locations or trying to get somewhere to taxi, things like that. That was-

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Katie Schlangen:

That was where I thrived.

Greg Kaster:

Well, I always think if you’re going to learn a language, learn first and foremost, I guess, about bathroom issues, but also food and if you can speak with natives about food, you’re in your good. One day, boy and we’d love South Korean food or Korean food, I should say. I can’t [crosstalk 00:30:47] South Korea.

Katie Schlangen:

Oh, it’s so good.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, so after that, I think just amazing experience and I wish listeners could see your photos and even hear more, but after that amazing experience, you returned to Minnesota and you wound up working for all caps, MATER, which is pretty, I think, pretty amazing profit and you kindly gave my wife, Kate and I a tour of the space in St. Louis Park, Minnesota and told us a lot about your own work, but tell us a little bit about how you wound up working at MATER and what you did.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, so I lived in Korea for two years. And then I decided that I wanted to pursue health again, but I still wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do in Health. I knew I no longer wanted to be on the individual level of health, like a doctor or a nurse, per se, but I wanted to help people still. That’s always been a huge thing for me in Health Access, specifically, has been and will always be, I think, an issue that I’m really passionate about.

So I mean, just to say a little bit more about my upbringing, hospitals were kind of always like a second home for me. My dad is mentally ill. He’s schizophrenic, bipolar alcoholic, and my brother has kind of a peculiar brain tumor called an astrocytoma, which has ever been able to remove because it’s on his optic nerve. And so over the years, I mean, between my brother and my father, and then a few other family members and friends, I spent half my life in hospitals and they always really fascinated me and growing up below the poverty line, never really having health insurance, it was always a really big struggle for my family to gain access to health.

And myself, as well, whenever I had an injury, we never went to the hospital, because we were too scared of the medical bills or how we would be treated. And so, it’s always been a huge passion of mine to make sure that everyone has access to healthcare because if you have health, you have nothing in my opinion.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right.

Katie Schlangen:

And so, if you don’t have an education and you don’t have the ability to work, to keep on living, to support people you love and so, it’s always been a really big issue for me. So, when I found MATER, it was really cool because they were literally working on Access to Health. And so, we found that a lot of our values aligned, so I actually was introduced to MATER via a different Gustavus alumnus, who I worked on in building bridges with and she had worked there for a while. And she was moving on to a different position, so I actually ended up taking her position and so I started there as a coordinator.

So, MATER works both locally and internationally. Locally, they work on health, but in a very different way than they do internationally because their needs are very different, so in the U.S., NCDs, Non-Communicable Diseases are the main cause of death, so you have things like diabetes and heart disease, so a big cause of that is a lack of access to healthy food, especially in food deserts around cities. Other works locally to try to meet people where they are, to get food out to local organizations, so that they can have access to snacks or things that they need. Right now, specifically, they’ve been doing a lot.

They did a lot during the protests in donating food, so they have partnerships with corporations that donate food or that procure food for these snack kits or dinner boxes or lunch kits and volunteers actually put them together. And then they go out to organizations that are already in contact with the community, so they’re able to, even though they might not have the networks then they use the other networks that are available to them within the Twin Cities or not even the Twin Cities. They’ve been working all over the States as well.

But then internationally where I was focused, we worked on access to health in a number of ways. But it was mostly through making sure that people have access to food in general. A lot of times when people in developing nations go to hospitals, you have to bring your own food because there’s no kitchen on site, there’s no availability to food. So when family emerge in a hospital, you’ll see that the other family members walk however far they were away from the hospital to give them food, because otherwise they won’t be nourished. And in order to heal from anything you need, you need food. Food is medicine. And that’s it.

And so we worked in agriculture and in health care, we would establish farms on sites of hospitals, so that they would have access to food, so we’d hire workers that could take care of the farm and then we would usually be able to get someone working in a kitchen to produce the food and make meals for patients, but then also, we worked on several different levels with nonprofits, hospitals, I worked with ministers of health there. We worked with the First Lady of Zimbabwe, we worked with NBA players on celebrities like Gene Simmons…

Greg Kaster:

Wow.

Katie Schlangen:

… and basically, everything from… we wore many hats there because we were a team of 20, so we did everything from fundraising to project implementation and I would look for projects that I found promising. People would come to me with projects. I’d basically vet them and then if they looked promising, we usually go visit the sites of the hospitals or clinics or wherever they were running and then we would try to work with them the best we could to get their project up and running.

And so, it was a really interesting experience, because I got kind of the full scale from fundraising for a project to try our best to make it work in the [crosstalk 00:37:10] countries that we had never worked in before, so learning the limitations of that to actually implementing a project and seeing it come to life, which was-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s… God, I mean, it’s just sounds how awesome. First of all, you’re not doing the same thing over and over again, it sounds like you were doing-

Katie Schlangen:

Never.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, which I would find probably interesting, even if challenging, and then also the ability to see, actually see, literally, you go and see the project come to fruition. It’s pretty, pretty cool. And of course, that involved you traveling. I just mentioned to some of them. You went to China, right? Mali, Togo, Honduras? Where else did you go?

Katie Schlangen:

I think you named most of them. South Africa, Zimbabwe.

Greg Kaster:

Oh, South Africa. Right, in Zimbabwe.

Katie Schlangen:

Zimbabwe was particularly interesting, because we worked with the First Lady of Zimbabwe there. And with her foundation and the government and the tourist organization, so we had worked on a couple of hospitals outside of Victoria Falls, so Victoria Falls is really famous for the massive waterfall there. One of the biggest in the world. And then, so there’s a tourism company that we are working with there and we have worked on several hospitals. That was one of the projects I worked on from the very beginning to the very end. We worked, well, they’re still working there now. I mean, actually the President of MATER just moved to Zimbabwe, which is quite cool, but we were had worked on that project from getting in perspectives a possible project there, to going there and setting up a maternity hospital.

And so that was really, really fun to work with healthcare workers like opening everything and we had donated all the equipment, but then also work to get some people trained there as well, which was really important for them because they hadn’t really had much training. And then also just establishing a network of hospitals where if they had a problem, they could have someone to reach out to when in need because most of the hospitals there were connected and they’re all quite far away from each other.

They also had a ward for women who were about to give birth because they walked from so far, and they had no ultrasound machine, so they can’t tell exactly when the baby is going to be delivered, but they can’t walk obviously when they’re in labor, they can’t walk 60 kilometers, so we were able to outfit them a little. They already had a dorm for these women, but they were sleeping in pretty dire conditions and I mean they’re pregnant and they didn’t really have a lot of food. So we set up a farm for them for food, which they often worked in and really liked having something to do instead of just sitting around all day.

And then we offered them better sleeping conditions and then also outfitted the maternity ward for when they gave birth. So, I spent a whole day setting up the maternity ward and then another whole day just spending time with the women there who were about to give birth. It was a really, really rewarding experience.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I was just going to say that must have been so gratifying, not just seeing the tangible outcome, but just all the interactions you’ve had, did have, including on-site. The other thing you mentioned, you said, which I think is food is medicine. And man, I mean, it really comes across in what you’re saying. The role of food to health. I mean, the connection. It’s obvious, but it’s incredibly important, right? And so that matter is okay, it’s about healthcare, but it’s also really about food at the same time and the connections between the two. And that’s just as true in this country as well, I think.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah. What you put in your body becomes your body.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, yeah exactly. All I can say is, I’m flashing back to some of the pictures you had posted or showed us of Mali and Togo, which is so beautiful, and just incredible experiences that you had at a young age, too. You were what? 25 or 24? I think you were young meeting with heads of state or administration officials in other countries and flying all over the place, but yeah, really, really good work and we really enjoyed that tour where you gave us of the facility.

So, from MATER, you find your way back to Hong Kong. And tell us a little bit about what you’re doing there right now?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah. So, I left MATER in 2018, I just, I knew I wanted to do more than what I was doing there. I loved working there and I’ll be forever grateful for all the experiences that I got from the job to the… I learned so much about myself and who I am as a worker and also my passion for health. So, while I was there, I sort of cemented everything that I wanted to do with health and knew I wanted to be even that one step above what we were doing there.

So I had decided through networking with contacts at MATER that the next step for me was health policy and I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but to be honest, I was quite burnt out by the time I left MATER. I didn’t pace myself a lot out there. I was working constantly, which was very rewarding, but also very exhausting and I was pretty bad setting boundaries for myself personally.

So, I decided that it was time to leave, and I moved to Hong Kong to teach again. So. I’m teaching full time at an international kindergarten here. And I love teaching. Teaching has always been a passion of mine, so it’s not so far in the realm of what I want to do. I think education and health go together hand-in-hand and [crosstalk 00:43:05] happy to be educating the young minds of Hong Kong now.

But I really knew that I wanted to do a Master’s of Global Health Policy. And I knew exactly where I wanted to do it, but I wasn’t quite ready to start yet. I want to sort of a break from working constantly and so, it took a year to travel, to live in Hong Kong, to get used to the city. And then I applied for my Master’s of Global Health Policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. So, I applied the year after I lived here, and then I got in. And so, I’ve been now in my second year of that Master’s Degree.

Greg Kaster:

Is it a two-year program or more?

Katie Schlangen:

If you did it in-person, it would be two years full time, but I’m doing it part-time, so I’m hoping I’ll be finished in three years.

Greg Kaster:

That’s excellent. And what is it? I mean, that’s a famous school, obviously. I mean, a great program. What is it about health policy that grabs you the most?

Katie Schlangen:

I think, well, it’s a step above, right? So, policy is what lets and what allows and what encourages people to doctors and nurses to do their jobs, right. So, they’re listening to policy when they’re doing their jobs and so, I think it’s a great place to start if you want to make changes in healthcare systems. As a doctor, you can help people certainly and they do it every day. I mean, especially right now, but at the end of the day, you’re being told what to do by a bunch of policymakers and people who are changing rules and regulations on you that say what you can and cannot do, right?

And so, I think that when I came to Gustavus wanting to be a doctor, I wanted to help people and that was the root of what I wanted to do. What I didn’t realize is that it wasn’t really like the right path for me. With policy, you get kind of a big picture of perspective and I think the way my brain just works, I’ve always had sort of a big picture perspective. And at MATER, I got to work a lot on strategy. A strategy of my program that I was running and also of the organization and then the more I thought about strategy and the Sustainable Development Goals that the UN has put out, the more excited I got about that.

And kind of like, it’s kind of to me, it’s like a big puzzle. When you’re moving pieces around to fact figure out what works and that’s what policy is. You change one thing and you meant to change this, but it really just changed this instead and you don’t know why. You have to figure that out and to me, that’s very fascinating and you get to not only help the one person in front of you, but if you do policy the right way, and I’m a very idealistic optimistic person. If you do it the right way and very thoughtfully and intentionally, then you can help thousands of people.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly. And I’s all about me, I mean, I’m not in policy, but I don’t remember whether I said this when you were a student, but man, over the last decade or so I’ve become more and more interested in it, including in how historians can bring their expertise to bear on policy, but anyone who doubts that policy matters, take a look at the United States of America right now. I’m in this pandemic, right? Where I’m in the absence of any kind of coherent policy has just resulted in a catastrophe, and so-

Katie Schlangen:

And that’s the thing, too. There was a policy [crosstalk 00:46:46].

Greg Kaster:

There had been. All right. We won’t go there. But I mean, it’s incredibly important and it’s as you said, so you said it so well, all of it. It’s life changing, not just for an individual, but it can be for societies and it’s how I’ve really come to appreciate it more. I mean, we need protests, we need people in the streets, I think, but we also need policy, right? Without the policy, there’s no… I don’t know, nothing happens, it seems to me. So, I find that really, really important work. I’m so proud of you.

Speaking of protests, by the way in Hong Kong, so were you able to, I assume, you witnessed some of the protests, the pre-pandemic protests around democracy? What were you able to see those firsthand up close or just from a distance?

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, so when I first moved to Hong Kong, there were no protests, nothing happening. It really started about nine months after I moved here and it quickly grew. I went from the very small movement to a million people in the street a week later. And it continued for about a year until COVID started essentially. And I mean, I think it would be pretty impossible to avoid being an eyewitness to what was going on here. It was present in every aspect of my life from my home where I lived, it was right across the street. Every single night, there were protesters outside my window and I didn’t live on Hong Kong Island then I moved here. I moved to the island recently, about a year ago.

But when I lived off the island, I lived in a more local community, a lot of students live there as well, so it was every single night, there were fires and tear gas and rubber bullets and they set the subway station on fire all the time, so there were constantly sirens and fire alarms going off. And then on my way to where I used to work, there was two universities. It was kind of my school was sandwiched between two universities and the university movement was really big here as well.

So, there were about two weeks where schools were shut down here due to protest violence and it was because the kids were walking to school in tear gas. And you couldn’t walk around my school because there were barricades that were like makeshift barricades from protesters. And then everywhere you went, there were protesters. You couldn’t escape them for about three months, but it slowly, it was dying down a little bit. It would pick back up now and again, but yeah, now I live on the main protest road in Hong Kong. And so, I mean, everyone has seen those pictures of the million and a half people on the street, I live on [crosstalk 00:49:37].

Greg Kaster:

Wow, did you have a sense? I mean, you were witnessing that as a History major and then some interest in History. Did you have a sense of, “Wow, I’m witnessing history unfolding here, this is a historic moment” or not?

Katie Schlangen:

Absolutely. I mean, I’ve heard of the Hong Kong protests before the Umbrella Movement and things like that, but when you’re watching it happen, I think it’s a little bit different and I think now, it felt very do or die for a lot of people. I worked with local Hong Kong-ers, who are protesters and so, we have a lot of conversations with them about it and I think it definitely feels historic when you’re looking at it. People are risking their lives to speak out about what they feel is going wrong in Hong Kong. And yeah, I definitely had that sense of history in a historic moment.

Greg Kaster:

Same here in Minneapolis and there was… true elsewhere, too, obviously around the world, but in the aftermath of George Floyd, Kate and I didn’t participate, but we saw I mean, literally out our window and followed on the news and then ultimately went to the memorial site. So, similar, right? That sense of history unfolding, before our very eyes and hoping that something positive comes out of it.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, I think with Hong Kong, sad as it is to say, it was like watching a city crumble, not ugly, but metaphorically. When I got here, Hong Kong was very democratic and obviously there’s this looming presence over it, but now, it’s here. I live in a police state now and it’s very obvious.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that is sad and then we shall see how it all plays out. As we’re winding down here and I know we could talk a lot more about Hong Kong and your travels. Let’s return to, at least closer to home for me now, not you, now that you’re in Hong Kong, but to Gustavus. And I wonder, you mentioned earlier, Building Bridges, you mentioned that in passing. And that’s for people who don’t know, that’s an annual event in the spring that students essentially put on around particular topics.

And I wonder if you could say, you were really involved in the one was that the one on prison reform? I can’t remember, but tell us a little bit about the Building Bridges Conference that you were involved in? Because I know that meant a lot to you.

Katie Schlangen:

Yeah, so I was involved all four years that I was at Gustavus from sex trafficking to Native American rights, indigenous rights to mass incarceration and environmental racism, environmental justice. And Building Bridges, I would say, is the highlight for me of being at Gustavus. It was my community when I was there. It taught me so much about the world around me. And it helped me to meet people that I would have never met had I not… I mean, I met Mark Monte Hill, Angela Davis, Van Jones, who came and spoke as well. And now, I feel like my awareness of the world is so much higher, because I did Building Bridges and I was a part of the community.

I think it also has to do with the History major itself. I think the History major teaches you how to think and how to learn and when I travel now, there’s a master narrative about each country that you travel to. And I mean, depending on obviously, where you look to get your information, there are a lot of stereotypes when you travel.

Greg Kaster:

Sure.

Katie Schlangen:

But I think one of the best things that we can do is to rethink those stereotype even in travel, and to try our best to get to the local community and what they think about where they live, because that’s what’s really important. It’s like when you traveled to Europe, there are a million stereotypes about what Americans are and what they think and I mean, so on and so forth. But they don’t maybe actually know that many Americans or if they do, they don’t know all of them, certainly.

And so, I think for me, Building Bridges taught me how to look past and the History major taught me how to look past that master narrative and look towards what is actually truth and even if it’s not truth for everyone, it’s truth for this group of people or this person. And I think that’s so important when you’re approaching other cultures and other places that you’re living or in policy, which I’m looking to do in the future. I mean, I’m working [crosstalk 00:54:26]. Right now, I’m learning about infectious disease and the way you treat a disease, it matters because there are cultural things that people go through and you need to be aware of those things.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I mean, gosh, that’s so important. Exactly right. This is all making me excited. I’m getting out of my chair here, but yeah, it’s the Liberal Arts, right? It’s all of that, because exactly right. I mean, to implement policy, to develop policy that’s effective, you better understand the historical context of where you’re trying to implement that policy as a culture, all of that is important.

And I really mean it when I said in the introduction, you just embody for me, you embody so much what Gustavus emphasizes regarding global citizenship and service and justice, you really do in your work and in your outlook as well. This has been an absolute pleasure. I just wish now, we could go out to dinner in Hong Kong, but you can order in, right? You still have the whole day ahead of you there, so you can order in or take out whatever they call it. It’s so great to talk with you catch up with you. Boy, I hope Kate and I could make it to Hong Kong while you’re there one day that would be so much fun to see you.

Katie Schlangen:

Definitely.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Best of luck with the graduate work and your own teaching. I think teaching kindergarten, I can’t even imagine doing that. It would be for me, like the hardest job in the world, but they’re lucky to have you. So, Katie, it’s been fun. Thank you so much. Take good care.

Katie Schlangen:

It’s been a pleasure. Thanks, Greg.

Greg Kaster:

All right. You’re welcome. Bye-bye.

Katie Schlangen:

Bye-bye.

Greg Kaster:

Learning for Life @ Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus Graduate Will Clark, Class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast and me. The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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