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Answering Cambodia's Call

2019-2020 Fulbright Research Scholarship Recipient

As David Oleson (BS ’16) sat on the plane to return home from a two-year mission to Cambodia, he had the distinct feeling that his relationship with this country was far from over. “I felt that I needed to prepare to go back to Cambodia to continue to learn and to serve,” says Oleson. After getting to know the people and seeing “a combination of burdens and challenges,” Oleson knew that he would be back someday with the resources to heal the people he had come to love.

In Cambodia, Oleson met many people who faced challenges in finding health care, especially in more rural parts of the country. Though he offered the help he could as a missionary, Oleson felt he had more to give. When Oleson returned to BYU, reverse culture shock left him depressed. Eventually, he sought support from BYU’s counseling program. “Through that process I actually got to know myself really well and realize that I really liked the idea of healing through the atoning power of Jesus Christ, but with the help of a counselor.” This experience sparked Oleson’s desire to help those who struggle with mental health issues.

Oleson decided to study neuroscience and began looking into medical schools. He and his wife, Emily, weren’t sure if they could have children and take on the challenge of medical school at the same time. “I actually applied to a handful of medical schools not knowing if I would end up going,” Oleson says. But after being accepted to multiple schools and seeking revelation, he knew this opportunity would never come again. He enrolled at the Baylor College of Medicine. During his first three years of medical school, he was awakened to the reality of academic competition. “It can be intimidating to be in a class with a lot of really smart people,” he recalls. At times, doubts crept in and threatened Oleson’s sense of self-worth. During those times, he would recall his mother’s words: “It doesn’t matter how smart you are, what matters is being a good person.” Oleson’s mother was raised in Korea, where education is a top priority, but character is, too. He says, “To hear someone reaffirm that to me throughout my childhood is something that has really guided me and helped me.”

Oleson excelled at medical school, but his dream of returning to Cambodia was undiminished. He returned to the country during spring break but left without finding a concrete project. Fearing his dream would end there, he began working tirelessly to find something—anything—he could study. “The more I pushed, the more frustrated I became and the less progress I made.” Flustered, he decided to take a break. A few months later, a contact in Cambodia reached out to Oleson and suggested he study autism, something Oleson was familiar with from his undergraduate studies. This was the answer Oleson had been waiting for. He proposed the idea in his application for the Fulbright International Study Program and was accepted.

Oleson, his wife, and their two children took a year off from medical school to, with the support of the Fulbright Program, research the experiences and needs of Cambodian families who have children with autism at the KHANA Center for Population Health Research. “Overall, we were trying to change the culture to accept kids with autism and other developmental neurological differences,” explains Oleson. Even though he returned to Cambodia and fulfilled his dream, he’s not done yet. “Because of my heritage, I have always had an interest in North Korea, and helping people there. Perhaps serving in Cambodia could be a training ground of sorts for me to help in North Korea someday, when it is more possible.”

After his work with Fulbright, Oleson returned home to finish medical school and begin residency. “As much as I would love to keep going back, I know that there are many other things in store for my family and me,” Oleson says. He hopes to continue in pursuance of his two favorite BYU mottos: “Go Forth to Serve,” and “The World is Our Campus.”

Full Name: David Oleson
Grad Year: BS 2016
College: Life Sciences
Major: Neuroscience
Post date: January 30, 2020
Author: Avery Dustin