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Trip gives student a world of ambition

It was seeing South Africa that cemented Lisa Vinson's resolve to become a doctor: "There are so many people in need that I want to help.''

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- This time last year, Lisa Vinson was a Howard University junior toying with the idea of a medical career.

Now the 21-year-old St. Petersburg High School honors program graduate is a world traveler with a trip to South Africa completed and another to China coming up this summer.

And the International Mission on Medicine journeys have renewed her career commitment.

"I know when I first came to college I wasn't sure if medicine was what I wanted to do," said Vinson, who lives in Boca Bay condominiums. She is the daughter of Shirley Thornton and Robert Vinson Sr.

"Then last semester I changed my major back to pre-med, and after going on this (South African) trip, I can't see myself doing anything else. There are so many people in need that I want to help," Vinson said.

She was inducted last year into the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, which recognizes outstanding academic achievement among first- and second-year college students. (She has a 3.3 grade point average.)

Then she was nominated to participate in the Mission on Medicine, a two-week preprofessional educational and cultural experience.

In January, she took a 15-hour flight from Tampa through New York to Johannesburg. Her longest previous flight had been three hours from Tampa to to Washington, D.C.

"I wasn't used to being in the air that long, so that was kind of different," Vinson said. But it gave her a chance to read an entire book, The Coldest Winter Ever, by Sister Souljah.

Through Vinson's eyes, South Africa presented a montage of contradiction: urban modernity, countryside beauty and extreme poverty.

"Based on first impressions, here in the United States, and I speak for myself, I've been sort of brainwashed, sort of bombarded with the idea of poverty-stricken areas. So when I first arrived I was amazed at how city-like it was," she said.

In Durban, a metro area of about 2.5-million on the Indian Ocean, Vinson saw beautiful beaches, skyscrapers, congested streets and sidewalks full of scurrying pedestrians. Clubs played up-to-date rap, hip-hop and alternative music.

"Whatever we have, they have," Vinson said.

But another perspective awaited outside the cities.

"We rode past shanty towns with real small tin homes and no type of sanitation," Vinson said. "They had no electricity, they use lamps sort of like candles.

"There was no type of refuse disposal. The village might be in a circle, and outside the circle they dump, so you would see mounds and mounds of garbage right outside somebody's back door. . . . People who don't have much might search through the garbage looking for things they don't have."

Vinson could have chosen to go to Australia. But an aunt, Daisie Whaley, spent 30 years as a missionary in Ivory Coast, an agricultural nation on Africa's west coast. Whaley used to talk about taking Vinson there.

"I never got a chance to do it with her, so I thought I'd do it now," Vinson said.

Vinson said the tourist company her group traveled with minimized the nation's racial problems.

"They tried to play it up like everyone gets along," she said. "But we talked to a (black) native, a 25-year-old, who told us they face racism all the time."

She said one such issue involves the way the government sometimes views AIDS, prevalent in South Africa. A statement that poverty causes AIDS was attributed to a high government official, causing concern in the medical community.

"You have natives thinking that, so they're not taking precautionary measures," Vinson said.

She said her group visited a traditional herbal healer, called a sangoma, in addition to modern medical facilities.

She came away with an appreciation of how much Americans have in terms of medical technology -- but also how much South Africans can do with more limited resources.

And she was impressed with the people she met, marveling at their ability to cope with AIDS, tuberculosis, sanitation issues and vestiges of apartheid.

"You'd think they would be sad, moping around, having pity parties. But the people over there are in real high spirits, very sociable, warm, very inviting. And that made me feel real good."

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