Alumnus credits IRR degree for life of service and adventure

"Before I went into the International Rescue and Relief (IRR) program, I made a list of all the companies I wanted to work for. International SOS was number two,” said Jonathan Hoewing. “Sometimes I wonder if they hired me just because I have the word ‘international’ in my bachelor’s degree.”

A 2009 Union College graduate, Hoewing has taken the ‘international’ part of his degree literally. Having worked as a paramedic in Haiti, Saudi Arabia and most recently Papua New Guinea, he credits the distinctiveness of his IRR degree for opening up many opportunities.

While completing a paramedic internship in Portland, Ore., Hoewing realized that he did not want to work as a conventional emergency responder. Determined to avoid a nine-to-five position, he researched rescue programs online and came across Union College. Liking the look of IRR, a unique Bachelor of Science program that trains students to serve mankind through disaster and humanitarian relief, he enrolled for the coming school year.

Upon finishing the degree, including classes in disaster response and a semester in Venezuela, Hoewing was unclear how he wanted to use it. He found many rescue positions available but only on voluntary bases.

For the next year, Hoewing settled into working as a paramedic in Montana and Lincoln. Dissatisfied and bored with the day-to-day calls, he wanted to use the skills he learned with IRR. That's when tragedy opened a door of opportunity.

After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Union College sent four groups of students, faculty and alumni to aid victims and help in the recovery process. Anxious to be of use, Hoewing called the program office and asked to join one of the teams. Welcomed into the group, he traveled with the second wave of IRR responders to the Adventist hospital in Port-au-Prince.

When the IRR group returned from Haiti a week later to continue school, Hoewing decided to stay on and work with the ACTS World Relief team as a paramedic.

Having left his job in Lincoln, Hoewing was invigorated by the ability to help in the disaster work and stayed for six more weeks. “I ended up as the incident commander, coordinating volunteers that came in and doing morning and evening briefs,” he said. “It was a huge eye opener, not just because of the disaster, but the complexity of coordinating the response. That’s a huge responsibility.”

After he returned to the U.S., Hoewing realized how much he enjoyed international work and once more turned online to research opportunities. He read blogs and forums and sent out his resume, eventually landing a position as a paramedic in Saudi Arabia. “It was similar to working in the U.S., but extremely busy,” he recalled. “You could be called for anything and everything.”

Along with heightened demand for his medical expertise, as a foreign first responder Hoewing experienced many intercultural challenges in his 11-month stint working for the local government. “Our drivers were our translators and usually spoke fairly good English, but it was a bit hit and miss at times,” he said. “Some would know English and medical terms really well, but not always. Even if they did, the questioning process was still difficult.”

When they arrived on scene, the paramedics would ask questions about the patient’s condition, wait as they were translated into Arabic and garnered a response and then listen as the answers were translated back into English. “If it was a real emergency we wouldn’t get good information and had to mainly assess the patients visually,” said Hoewing. “I got really good at just looking at someone and determining the gravity of their condition.”

If the patient was female, the whole assessment process changed. “We couldn’t touch them at all,” said Hoewing. “We’d have to ask the permission of the husband, father or elder brother just to take her blood pressure or give an IV. Sometimes they’d call us and wouldn’t want us to do anything but give advice or tell them to go to the hospital.”

After five months of serving as a first responder for the government, Hoewing was asked to become the personal medical support for Prince Faisal Bin Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, head of the Saudi Arabian Red Crescent Society and son of reigning King Abdullah. “Part of the reason they moved me is because I had a bachelors degree in IRR,” he said. “They told me I was the only one in the whole country with a degree in that field, and it would look good for the prince to have someone with such qualifications.”

Hoewing lived in the palace while on duty, remaining in his royal commission for the rest of his contract.

Although an exciting experience, it was difficult for him to adjust to life in the conservative Muslim country. “There were a lot of cultural and religious differences,” he said. “It’s against the law to preach Christianity, yet everyone already assumes you’re Christian. That alone puts you on edge. Then it was also strange having the call to worship playing from loudspeakers five times a day. We had to download the prayer times just so we wouldn’t go out to eat when everything was closed.”

A native of Oregon, Hoewing missed the natural flora of his homeland while in the desert country. “It’s just a hard life,” he said. “No greenery grows there naturally; they import the palm trees and everything. Being a country boy, I found that particularly rough.”

Once back in the U.S., he began applying for jobs again and received a position with his current employer, International SOS. An international healthcare, medical assistance and security services company, International SOS assists organizations in managing the health and security risks facing their international travelers and expatriates. “I was excited because they’re such a huge company with opportunities all over the world,” he said. “Originally they were my second ideal choice, but after looking into it more closely, this company is even better than what I had previously thought.”

Stationed in Papua New Guinea, Hoewing runs a one-man clinic in the middle of the jungle for Exxon mobile workers and other sub-contractors drilling for natural gas. He works a six-week on, six-week off rotation and comes home frequently to visit family.

“This job was a huge answer to prayer,” he said. “After going to school for a while, I had a lot of student loans and I prayed and prayed about it. Now, not only do I get to travel the world, but I get to pay off student loans doing it.”

Hoewing hopes to continue traveling and working in new countries, citing his experience with IRR as a good preparation for his present career. “I talk about IRR and put stuff about it on my resume all the time,” he said. “I always include Union College and my experiences in Venezuela, and employers are usually really excited to hear it.”

In addition to gaining employment advantages, Hoewing recognizes he learned many important life lessons while pursuing his degree. “The IRR program trained me to be more patient with people,” he said. “It was so new when I went through, and it needed a lot of ironing out, but that’s helped me later on when working in developing countries where things often don’t go as planned.”

Hoewing continues working in Papua New Guinea until January, when he will reevaluate his contract. “There have been some trying times,” he said. “But this job has been a huge blessing and answer to prayer.”

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