Page Scholar creates Girls Empowered initiative in Johannesburg

Author: Tammi Freehling

After a childhood filled with doctors and surgeries, senior Marisa Olsen knows how impactful a complex medical condition can be on a person’s life. Having compassionate and knowledgeable doctors made a difference in her situation, so she decided to pursue a career in medicine as a way to pay it forward.

Marisaolsen Hair

Marisa Olsen, a sociology and preprofessional studies student, was born and raised in Woodbury, Minnesota, a mid-sized suburb of the Twin Cities that, along with her family and friends, shaped her values and character. Marisa grew up with a paralyzed vocal cord, which has left her voice hoarse, raspy and soft. At times she considers it a weakness, but it truly is her greatest source of strength. “I’m thankful for the unique outlook I have on life due to the paralysis; it has helped me to become a compassionate and active listener, which I feel has helped me grow into the person I am today,” Marisa shared during via an email interview while volunteering in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Inspired by her personal experiences with hospitals and medical care, Marisa chose preprofessional studies at Notre Dame. “My career aspiration is to become a practicing physician. I am passionate about maternal healthcare and women’s health, so a career as a Neonatologist or OBGYN is something that excites me.” Marisa has become aware of the inadequate maternal and child healthcare services in developing countries around the world, something that resonates with her having personally been a high-risk birth, three-and-a-half months premature with an incredibly low birth weight. “The realization hit me that if I had been born in a country with weaker maternal healthcare services, I may not be alive today; because of this I would love to work overseas at some point in my career, to help create a safe and comfortable experience for expectant mothers.”

As a Page Scholar, a grant program of the Page Educational Foundation, Marisa has tutored elementary school children in reading and writing for three years at the Robinson Community Learning Center in South Bend. About her tutoring experiences Marisa said, “I’ve learned as much from the children as I hope they’ve learned from me. I love seeing them get excited about school and challenge themselves to improve each day. There is no doubt that the Robinson Community Learning Center is truly making an impact not only on the children's lives, but also on the entire South Bend community.

Marisa’s volunteer work extends globally, as a member of the Notre Dame Center for Social Concern’s International Summer Service Learning Program in Johannesburg, South Africa, working for an organization called Emzingo. Specifically, she is working with PUSH (Persevere Until Something Happens), a non-profit in Soweto. PUSH provides many services to the impoverished community surrounding it, including HIV/AIDS testing and counseling, home based care, and orphaned and vulnerable child programs. PUSH provides meals before and after school as well as a plethora of programs to over 300 children in the community. Marisa spent an extra week in Johannesburg, where she completed her senior thesis research project, which focuses on barriers to maternal healthcare access in clinics.

Marisa Olsen

Marisa, together with three other interns, worked for eight weeks over the summer to create a new program for PUSH called Girls Empowered. “There exists here a high HIV/AIDS rate, violence against women, sexual assault, and teenage pregnancy,” Marisa shared. To combat this, they are designing an education and support program for young women, ages 18 to 25, to educate them about HIV/AIDS, women’s health, life skills, self identity, and career opportunities. “I want to help these girls realize that they are strong, capable, beautiful, intelligent women who deserve to have the opportunity to live a life where they feel respected, fulfilled, and happy. They don’t have to be another statistic, they can be the doctors, teachers, lawyers, and engineers that they have dreamed of becoming.” The group also plans to help research funding, as well as similar programs in South Africa or around the world. They hope to launch the Girls Empowered program at the beginning of 2017.

Regarding being a Page Scholar and a Notre Dame student, Marisa said, “It has been such a treat learning and growing in ways that I would have never expected, alongside people who share so much love for volunteering and helping others. The Page Foundation is making quite an incredible impact on hundreds of students’ lives, and I am simply overjoyed to be a part of it. I am forever grateful for the Page Foundation, as well as Notre Dame; their influences have allowed me to grow into the person I believe I am meant to be.”