Bethel Mesgana, and Jasmine Fang with the Dalai Lama
Bethel Mesgana (left), one of UCI’s two 2010-11 Dalai Lama Scholars, and Jasmine Fang, last year’s honoree, pose with His Holiness during a September trip to Dharamsala, India. Courtesy of the Office of His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama

Editor’s note: Bethel Mesgana and Doug Cheung, both UC Irvine seniors, have been awarded the 2010-11 XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship, established at UCI in 2004 to recognize students committed to ethical leadership, peace and positive global relations. They will receive $7,500 each and share an additional $2,500 to create an undergraduate course and public forum promoting the holistic understanding of illness and healing. Today’s spotlight focuses on Mesgana. Cheung will be the subject of an upcoming spotlight.

UC Irvine senior and 2010-11 Dalai Lama Scholar Bethel Mesgana remembers very well the encounter that inspired her to pursue a career in integrative medicine and international social work. She was 9 years old and had recently arrived in California from her native Ethiopia. Having visited countless cardiologists in her young life because of a congenital heart condition, she couldn’t help but notice her new physician’s unorthodox approach.

“He asked me questions about myself, how it felt moving from Ethiopia to the United States,” Mesgana recalls. “He prescribed medication but also suggested I take swimming lessons as a way to treat my condition and have fun. The experience gave me a really positive view of doctors.”

Taking his advice, she enrolled in swimming classes and gained the confidence to excel in school and make friends in San Jose, home to a small but close-knit Ethiopian immigrant community. Mesgana, who’s majoring in sociology and biological sciences, says people like her cardiologist have motivated her to want to give back.

She also credits her aunts who took in the family in 1998 due to the ongoing war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as well as her parents. In Africa, Mesgana’s mother had worked for the United Nations and her father had been an accountant at Addis Ababa University, but they had to take low-wage jobs when they came to the U.S.

Mesgana got involved with UCI’s Students for Integrative Medicine during her sophomore year, and her interest in holistic healthcare grew. She helped teach nutrition and meditation to formerly homeless residents of the Costa Mesa Motor Inn.

This deepening dedication to compassionate healing prompted her, along with fellow senior Doug Cheung, to apply for the XIV Dalai Lama Endowed Scholarship, awarded annually to UCI students with a record of academic achievement, honesty, integrity, fairness and service to others. Applicants must outline a project related to peace, ethical leadership or positive national and global relations.

“UCI’s Dalai Lama Scholars are continuing to lead the way in demonstrating the power of love and compassion in healing individuals and communities,” said Manuel Gomez, vice chancellor emeritus for student affairs. “As we all grow in awareness of our global interdependence, I’m hopeful that integrative medicine will no longer be considered an ‘alternative’ to normal practice.”

Winners Mesgana and Cheung are developing an undergraduate course and public forum promoting the holistic understanding of illness and healing. The class will feature lessons in psychiatry, geriatrics and family medicine, as well as guest appearances by people with chronic diseases or terminal illnesses. A panel of experts, patients and caregivers will participate in a public forum next spring.

“Compassion is defined as the ability to share in someone’s suffering, but you can’t do that if you don’t know where the person is coming from,” Mesgana says. “Chronically ill individuals and their families will play an essential part in training the next generation of medical professionals to show compassion and empathy.”

Last month, she was among a delegation of UCI students, staff and administrators that toured India for 18 days, a trip organized by the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. The highlight was a journey to the northern city of Dharamsala to meet the XIV Dalai Lama himself. They spent half an hour with the Tibetan spiritual leader, whom Mesgana found “kind and witty.”

“I think the most vital thing I learned from him is the necessity of living in the present, because everything is impermanent,” she says. “He also stressed the importance of giving back to the community in tangible ways, such as helping an elderly person buy groceries or baby-sitting for a single parent.”