BANGOR, Maine — When Lonnie Hackett graduated from Bangor High School in 2010, his mind was focused on football. When he arrived at Bowdoin College later that year, his mind was still centered on football. Now, three years later, his mind is on bigger things — and he has a prestigious $30,000 scholarship to show for it.
Hackett, 21, recently became one of just 62 college juniors in the nation to receive a Truman Scholarship, which recognizes students with “exceptional leadership potential who are committed to careers in government, the nonprofit or advocacy sectors, education or elsewhere in the public service.” It supports their efforts to pursue graduate studies and advanced leadership training, according to the scholarship foundation’s website.
When Hackett became a Bowdoin Polar Bear, he aspired to play football. He had played baseball and was on the track team, but it was playing as a running back for the Bangor rams in high school that ignited his early passion for football.
However, after he started taking courses in college, plans changed as the biochemistry major discovered a newfound interest for public health. That passion soon led him far away from home, where he worked to change health education and save lives.
“Football games just all of a sudden seemed trivial to me,” Hackett said.
The change started in Hackett’s freshman year, when Kyle Dempsey, a 2011 Bowdoin graduate and former Truman scholar, introduced Hackett to the work of 1964 Bowdoin graduate Richard Bail. Bail, a professor at Harvard Medical School, was looking for students to accompany him to Zambia on a mission with Communities Without Borders, a nonprofit with the goal of educating orphans and at-risk children in Africa.
Hackett decided to join the group and travelled to Zambia with four other students during the summer of 2011. He hadn’t gone far from Bangor before because he had always been too busy with sports, he said.
“After getting [to Zambia], I saw a huge neglect in the community schools,” Hackett said. “I saw a lot of these schools had limited or no health education.”
The lack of knowledge about human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was especially upsetting because one-in-four Zambians is infected, he said.
Misconceptions about how the virus spreads also are prevalent, increasing risk. For example, knowledge that circumcision can reduce the chances of contracting HIV by 50-60 percent prompted many young men in Zambia to develop risky sexual habits because they believed they were now immune, according to Hackett. Another HIV myth prevalent in parts of Zimbabwe, South Africa, and other parts of the continent, is that having sex with a virgin will cure HIV.
“I was appalled that these kids didn’t know the basics of HIV prevention,” Hackett said.
The spread of HIV/AIDs has created thousands of orphans in the country.
“I went from being relatively sheltered in Bangor to going to places where children were living on the street and having to sniff gasoline because they were in pain or freezing,” Hackett said. “It had lasting effects on what I wanted to do with my life.”
Hackett and the other students had come to Zambia to teach math and science, but priorities changed when Hackett saw the “disheartening” misunderstandings about HIV. Instead, Hackett traveled across Zambia for eight weeks, conducting surveys of health and sex education practices at schools.
Hackett then began asking permission to introduce sex education to schools he visited — six out of 10 agreed. Those who resisted did so because of taboos surrounding HIV or because they felt it would create too much work for teachers, Hackett said.
The summer after his sophomore year, Hackett jumped at the opportunity to travel to Nepal after he received a 12-week grant to study ways to increase use of modern medicine at clinics in rural parts of Nepal, where many people rely on traditional medicine and faith healers. This time, Hackett was on his own, with no teachers or students.
He picked up some Nepalese and used hand signals to communicate with locals, hiring a translator when needed. He interviewed more than 200 people to determine why some chose not to use modern medicine, he said.
In Nepal, people believe they get sick for two reasons — the physical and because of bad karma, according to Hackett. A modern health clinic can’t explain what a person might have done to bring bad karma that resulted in an illness, which is a service faith healers provide. Often times, people will seek the health of a faith healer to deal with their ailments, which can delay modern medical treatment until it’s too late.
Hackett is writing a paper about his findings.
Hackett’s parents, Mike and Karen Hackett, who own an independent insurance adjusting firm in Bangor, couldn’t be more pleased.
“We’re proud, we’re very proud,” Mike Hackett said Thursday morning.
The parents, both Stearns High School graduates, said their son made the right call by giving up football, a sport he loved but probably wouldn’t have been able to do past college. Now, he’s “going to do big things in the world and really make a difference,” Mike Hackett said.
Karen Hackett said she noticed a change in her son when he returned from Africa after his freshman year — a new, refocused determination to change things.
In addition to a $30,000 scholarship for graduate school, Truman scholars receive leadership training, a one-year federal government internship after they graduate from college, priority admission to some premier graduate schools and supplemental financial aid.
This summer, Hackett will return to Zambia for six weeks, improving and spreading the work he did after his freshman year. In the meantime, he’s preparing for finals next week and trying to pump out a project modeling malaria in Thailand.
“The reason for wanting to go into medicine has shifted for me,” Hackett said, explaining why he’d one day like to teach or practice medicine outside the United States. “To me, anywhere there’s a place where people are in dire need, that should be viewed as a tragedy.”