Getting on a plane and flying halfway across the country to attend a conference with 500 students from around the world was nerve-racking for then-high school sophomore Sara Hatfield.
After watching some medical-mission videos and hearing about what Operation Smile did through her club at Lawrence High School, Sara decided to attend the 2016 International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) in San Diego, California. An introvert, she remembered being nervous about making friends and finding her way, especially at such a large conference.
But, reflecting on it now, she points to that ISLC as being “the thing that sparked everything else that I’ve done to this point.”
Sara is now a junior at the University of Maryland at College Park, where she serves as co-president of the Operation Smile club that she helped to jump-start with fellow junior Megan Eberius. Sara is double majoring in behavioral and community health as well as family science — two out of Maryland’s four public health majors.
Sara didn’t always want to study public health, though. Her first plans were to be an emergency-room doctor or trauma surgeon, so she could work directly with patients. But after being at ISLC for a few days, she realized how much good she could do in the nonprofit space.
“(Operation Smile) introduced me to the nonprofit world,” Sara said. “Now I am studying community health and hope to be working in a nonprofit that works to alleviate health disparities in low-income areas, which is I think very parallel to what Operation Smile does as a global nonprofit that works to provide free surgery and eliminate barriers to care. So that conference and just learning more about Operation Smile afterward, during, and before was really like this change in career paths for me and showed me this entire world that I didn’t really know existed.”
One of the moments that stands out to her most was a cleft panel that took place during the 2017 conference in Rome. In a somewhat impromptu moment, Student Programs founder Brigette Clifford asked if participants at the conference who had a cleft would come up to the front of the auditorium and share their experience with students and chaperones at the conference. Suddenly, there was a panel of about 15 students from the conference who stood up and went to the front to share their stories.
Toward the end, she vividly remembers a chaperone from the back standing up and asking how she and her husband could make the child they were going to adopt – who had a cleft – feel loved and feel no different from other children. In addition to the responses that followed, everyone knew that dialogue was a light-bulb moment where a true sense of purpose was brought to light.
Despite this panel occurring almost three years ago, Sara can still perfectly recall that panel and knows that it’s “something that I have gotten that is an experience I’ve had that I would have never had anywhere else — like its uniqueness and learning potential of that moment is unparalleled.”
With “leadership” in its name, of course ISLC is designed to help improve the leadership skills of everyone in attendance, as well as give an inside look about what Operation Smile does. But it’s also a time when memories are made that will last a lifetime.
Little did she know that when she hopped off that plane in California at 15 years old that she would be walking into a support network of people who have become like a second family to her. She met people who would drop anything at a moment’s notice to help her, or translate something in Spanish so she can have a perfect translation, or give her a place to stay when she takes an eight-hour road trip to see her Operation Smile friends that she had just met a few months ago. She earned an opportunity to serve as a health-care educator during an Operation Smile medical mission in Asuncion, Paraguay, and she was recently tapped to take part in Student Programs’ inaugural Cook Stove Project.
The reason she can do all this is because she knows that “the connections that you build with people when you’re all passionate about the same thing, are the best connections in the world,” and she said she has ISLC to thank for that.
Nick is studying business at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He’s been involved with Operation Smile since he was in the Lawrence High School club in New Jersey and attended a medical mission in the Dominican Republic in 2019.