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Professor shares lessons learned from international service

Susan Klappa, PT, Ph.D., receives the Sister Anne Joachim Moore award on Jan. 24, 2012.
Susan Klappa, PT, Ph.D., receives the Sister Anne Joachim Moore award on Jan. 24, 2012.
Photo by Melissa Kaelin.

With the help of Haitian proverbs and first-hand accounts, Susan Klappa, PT, Ph.D., shared insights from the international community with faculty and staff at St. Catherine University on Tuesday. She spoke of her “comilia,” a community-turned-family that inspires her to work and teach through an international lens.

Klappa said she stumbled onto the term “comilia” when she was speaking Spanish during a stay in the Dominican Republic. She once tried to ask a friend from the international community about both “la familia” and “la communidad” — both her family and her community — at the same time. Instead, she combined the words, asking about both family and community, with the phrase, "¿Como 'ta tu comilia?"

“For me, the word ‘comilia’ represents something magical that happens when you engage in a community with reciprocity,” said Klappa. “Comilia means you move beyond being strangers, visitors, guests, helpers or friends into the sacred space of caring, deep caring.”

Klappa is a faculty member in the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program in the Henrietta Schmoll School of Health. She had the honor of presenting the Sister Anne Joachim Moore lecture to her colleagues on Jan. 24 during the Teaching and Learning Network, an internal conference at St. Catherine University.

Klappa has traveled to Honduras, Venezuela and Mexico to work as a physical therapist, and she has toured with Physicians for Peace in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. She rushed to the relief effort after the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and returned to the country on three additional trips in order to further the rehabilitation efforts.

Since joining the faculty at St. Catherine University in 2005, Klappa has drawn from her experience abroad in order to offer her students an education in healthcare through an international lens.

“You don’t have to travel abroad to experience comilia,” Klappa said. “It can happen anywhere in our communities, however we choose to define community. It can happen in our classrooms, in our departments, and even more challenging at times — in our families and everyday lives here at home where at times we are often blinded to possibilities.”

Klappa brings her comilia into the classroom and she brings her classroom into the comilia. She achieves the former by inviting colleagues and friends from other countries into her classroom as guest speakers, and she achieves the latter by inviting her students to study abroad and perform community service on an international scale.

During her talk, Klappa shared insights she gained through the people she met on her travels to Latin America and the Caribbean.

“As with any community or family, there are always many characters with plenty of knowledge and wisdom to share!  It is these characters who teach us the deeper lessons of life,” said Klappa. “Sometimes they are tough lessons to learn.”

While abroad, students who worked with Klappa witnessed a run on free donated shoes, then quickly learned that the behavior was not necessarily uncivilized, but instead a demonstration of supply and demand. They learned that while charity has good intentions, community empowerment is an entirely different concept, which is why a portion of the donated shoes were sold cheaply in a community store.

And in the case of physical injury, students learned that instead of pills, people in the Dominican Republic often use exercise and movement to heal an individual, in the presence of prayer and song.

Klappa said all these lessons, combined with the strong relationships she builds through service to the international community, are what inform her teaching. She encouraged others to bring internationalization into the curriculum and let their students learn through service to others.

“Comilia allows the distance between caring and being the one cared for to diminish as deep connections are made with those whom we serve,” said Klappa. “It is radical work!”

Upon concluding her lecture, Klappa called for her colleagues to use education to connect to others.

“Through making a connection we see a new light, one that represents hope and love. This is our everyday work at St. Catherine.  It is how we build comilia,” said Klappa. “We must become everyday heroes and shine.” 

To learn more about Klappa or the Sister Anne Joachim Moore lecture, see this story from Jan. 23, 2012.  

Jan. 25, 2012 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Faculty, Healthcare, Leadership, Social Justice