Union College international rescue and relief students return early from Venezuela

Lincoln, Neb.—Students in Union College's international rescue and relief (IRR) program are taught to expect the unexpected. For 32 IRR students and staff, the unexpected conclusion to their semester of study in Venezuela included a week in protective custody while confusion created by questions from the Venezuelan government about the group's documentation was explored. Following clearance by Venezuelan officials on Friday, April 6, Union College welcomed the group in Miami on Tuesday morning, April 10 at 1:15 a.m.

"We are grateful and relieved that our students are safely back in the United States," said David Smith, Union College president. "Our highest priority, whether on campus or with traveling groups, is always the safety and wellbeing of our students. While there is much that can be learned from this situation, the most meaningful lesson for me has been the resilience and positive spirit of our students and staff while they waited patiently for the situation to be resolved."

On Feb. 8, the group of 21 students, seven staff and four staff children, arrived in the village of Maurak, Venezuela, for 10 weeks of training and service. From this site in the southeastern corner of the country, small groups of students, each led by a physician and in most cases also a registered nurse, traveled by plane, jeep, canoe or on foot to remote villages to provide medical services for two to three days. The groups then returned to Maurak for debriefing and continued study.

During the first half of the semester in Venezuela, IRR students were involved with more than 600 humanitarian contacts under a physician's supervision. In addition to tropical medical experience, IRR students were engaged in coursework through lectures and demonstrations. Mid-way through the trip, however, Venezuelan government officials questioned the validity of the group's permissions and paperwork pertaining to licensing of the two physicians in the group and accusations of using expired medications. Most of the medications in question were left at the mission campus by previous service groups.

"We do not know exactly who or what triggered the concern over our status in the country after several weeks of service," Smith said. "The goal of the international rescue and relief program is to train professionals who can relieve suffering through emergency service and caring for those in need. We in no way wish to interfere with government policies or provide help in a way that is not welcome."

Smith says that while launching the IRR program during the three years leading up to this year's trip, Union College representatives completed all paperwork and obtained permissions they understood that were as necessary and customary for the semester abroad.

Despite the unexpected confusion over documents, Michael Duehrssen, IRR program director and board-certified physician, said they maintained a positive relationship with the local village. "The people of Maurak and the remote villages where we served were extremely supportive and grateful for our work," he said. "The questions about our credentials came from officials beyond the local region."

After it became clear that confusion with the documents could not be easily solved, the Union College group agreed to voluntarily leave the country. However, even after this decision, more delays for clearance and the Easter holiday weekend prolonged travel arrangements.

"We are proud of our students and their positive approach to this disruption in their semester," said Linda Becker, vice president for Student Services who along with Jeff Joiner, chair of the Division of Health Sciences, met the IRR group at the Miami airport. "From what the IRR students have told us, even though they were not free to come and go for a few days as they might have wished, they were treated well and even shared meals with the guards who posted at the mission campus the last week. Other than having to find creative ways to overcome cabin fever, the group had the food and supplies they needed."

Alicia Archer, Union College student from Colorado agrees with Becker. "We were all very calm—very chill—with no extreme emotions," she said Tuesday morning on the phone from Miami. "After this trip, I am even more proud and passionate about the IRR program than before. I have rediscovered my goals and vision for my life on this trip." Archer plans to combine her IRR major with a degree in nursing and serve abroad again.


What was the purpose of the trip to Venezuela?

In the junior or senior year of the international rescue and relief (IRR) program, students complete 10 weeks of training in tropical medicine, preventative health care and humanitarian relief in a remote setting.

Who was involved in the trip?

The group of 32 from Union College worked with local health care professionals, translators and volunteers. Most of the students are juniors and seniors and all have completed Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) basic certification.

21 Union College IRR students including one who is a registered nurse

7 staff including two physicians and two registered nurses

4 staff children

Where in Venezuela was the IRR group located?

The Union College group was in the state of Bolivar on an existing mission campus near the village of Maurak, which is about 15 miles from the Brazilian border in the southeastern corner of Venezuela. The closest Venezuelan town on a detailed map is Santa Elena.

What type of training and service is involved in the semester abroad?

While in Venezuela, IRR students learned through a combination of lecture and hands-on training. The students were separated into small groups, each led by a physician and in most cases, also a registered nurse and a local health care provider. During the week, the groups traveled by plane, jeep, canoe or on foot to remote villages to provide medical services for two to three days and then returned to Maurak for debriefing and continued study.

Why were Venezuela and the village of Maurak chosen as the training site?

The program director, Dr. Michael Duehrssen, had previous contacts in the region including flight support through a group that has been established in the area for several years. This is the fourth annual service trip Duehrssen has made to the area which has allowed him to establish relationships with the local village captains and medical personnel in the region. In spring 2006, administrators from Union College also visited and met with local and regional officials. The village of Maurak extended an invitation and made land available for Union College to use for the semester of training. The rural setting provided access to rivers and mountains that were also ideal for jungle survival training and recreation. In addition, program leaders wanted students immersed in the Spanish language, which IRR majors are required to study and will likely be needed in future service settings.

What documentation did Union College pursue prior to arriving in Venezuela?

Union College had signed letters of agreement with a local hospital and health officials, the governor of the State of Bolivar, the Civil Protection department for the State of Bolivar and had a letter of invitation from a recognized relief organization in the region. The group had the customary approvals by state and local authorities and when they asked about additional documentation, they were told that no further approval was needed. Also, because Duehrssen had traveled and served successfully with other groups using the same level of permissions with no concern, Union College leaders thought they had covered the documentation requirements.

What was the nature of the confusion with the government?

During the three years leading up to this year's trip, Union College representatives completed all paperwork and obtained permissions they understood as necessary for the semester abroad. However, in the second half of the 10-week trip, Venezuelan officials questioned the group's authority to practice medicine while in the country and the appropriateness of their tourist visas for the work they were doing. In addition, there were questions about expired medications that were found on the site of the mission campus, even though most of these medications were left in storage by previous groups. Union College does not know how the government initially became concerned about the group's purpose and permissions.

What was the status of the group once questions were raised by the Venezuelan government?

For about a week, the group was restricted to the grounds of the mission campus and a nearby hill/mountain for recreation. Officials described the term as "protective custody." During the day, three guards were on duty at the entrance to the campus. Students and staff were never threatened with violence or harmed. In fact, the students befriended the guards who often ate meals with the group and participated in worships.

What is the setting of the mission campus?

The mission campus where the international rescue and relief group was housed is about the size of one-and-a-half football fields. The grass-covered grounds include three block buildings (residence facilities and a main multi-purpose dining and meeting building) with more construction in process.

What did the students learn while in Venezuela?

Union College's international rescue and relief group was in Venezuela for more than a month before questions were posed by the government about their documentation and purpose. During these weeks, the group was involved with more than 600 humanitarian contacts under a doctor's supervision including assisting with wound care, treating abscesses and parasites, testing for malaria, improving unclean water systems, administering child health assessments and presenting preventative health education lectures. In addition to tropical medical experience, IRR students were engaged in coursework through lectures and demonstrations. Some of the most valuable lessons for the group this year also include understanding diplomacy, contingency planning and developing patience in the midst of unfamiliar circumstances.

What is the future of the IRR program, particularly the semester abroad?

With more than 100 students enrolled in this unique academic discipline, Union College is committed to the future of the international rescue and relief program. During the launch of the program over the last three years, Union College has received invitations from potential sites in multiple countries. In the weeks ahead, Union College administrators will continue to refine the process and criteria for locations best suited for the semester of international study and service. While local officials in Maurak have said they would welcome the group's return, details of this arrangement or other site possibilities will need to be explored in depth.


The international rescue and relief major at Union College is the only undergraduate program of its kind in the United States. This interdisciplinary major combines the study of health, logistics, search and rescue through seven emphasis options. The major, launched in 2004 with 32 students, now has more than 100 students enrolled.

The multi-track curriculum combines rescue and survival skills, emergency care, humanitarian relief, public health, disaster management and multi-cultural service training. Certifications include EMT basic and white water and high angle rescue among others. In order to prepare students for diverse environments and foster a global perspective, courses are taught in Colorado, Florida and a developing country in addition to the main campus in Lincoln, Neb.

This major is designed to equip graduates with specialized skills to serve in a world facing increasing natural and man-made disasters and growing refugee populations. More info available at www.ucollege.edu/irr.

Union College, located in Lincoln, Nebraska, is an accredited, comprehensive institution of higher education offering bachelor's degrees in more than 50 majors and a Master of Physician Assistant Studies. Established in 1891 by the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Union enrolls close to 1,000 students from 46 states and 30 countries with a variety of faith backgrounds. Union College offers active learning in a vibrant Christian atmosphere where students are empowered to lead. With a focus on undergraduate education, Union's nurturing environment offers students a safe place to grow and prepare for careers of service and leadership. www.ucollege.edu