USC University of Southern California

Putting Healing into Words

WRIT 150 students speak with Santosh Sundaresan, Community Health Programs Section Chair at the Ostrow School of Dentistry, in the Union Rescue Mission dental clinic (photo by Caroline Lasersohn, freshman in cognitive science).
WRIT 150 students speak with Santosh Sundaresan, Community Health Programs Section Chair at the Ostrow School of Dentistry, in the Union Rescue Mission dental clinic (photo by Caroline Lasersohn, freshman in cognitive science).

By Beth Newcomb MPH ‘13

Twenty USC undergraduate students left the University Park Campus and saw a very different side of Los Angeles on March 27, traveling by bus to Downtown’s Skid Row to visit the Union Rescue Mission.

The Union Rescue Mission (URM) is the oldest rescue mission in Los Angeles, providing housing, meals, health care, and other services to the homeless in Skid Row. The USC Dental Clinic at Union Rescue Mission, staffed by Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC faculty and students, provides much-needed dental care to mission residents.

The students were members of the WRIT 150, “Writing and Critical Reasoning—Thematic Approaches” course led by lecturer JJ Strong. Strong’s sections of the course followed a health and healing theme, and the dental clinic was one stop on their tour of URM and its spectrum of offerings for the homeless.

“The course aims to provide students the tools necessary to enter and, where possible, advance the conversations that surround pressing social issues,” Strong said. “Writing is a powerful means of working towards a reliable understanding of these issues, and first-hand experiences like this provide students with a more layered and nuanced understanding of social issues that might otherwise remain abstract in the classroom. We hope to continue to integrate events like this in order to make our writing classes into meaningful experiences that immerse students in the community—both within and outside of our campus walls.”

Strong said visiting the dental clinic and talking with Ostrow Assistant Professor of Clinical Dentistry Santosh Sundaresan was an eye-opening experience.

“My students and I were intrigued by Dr. Santosh’s emphasis on dental care as a tool for self-esteem,” Strong said. “I think a lot of us expected a discussion on the many ways that dental health can affect other aspects of health, but the notion that a person needs a healthy smile in order to apply for a jobs was an enlightening glimpse into the steps towards recovery and the role that appearances play in that process. I’m grateful that, whatever their impressions were of the mission and Skid Row, the students were able to see first-hand both what can be done to address public health issues and the obstacles faced in the process.”

Rick Ley, a freshman in Computer Engineering, said he was surprised by the wide-ranging nature of the care URM provides its residents, including health care. He added that the visit and the course in general has helped him think about how he might give back once he begins his career.

“I was really impressed by how comprehensive the care that URM offers is,” Ley said. “This has been very helpful in providing perspective.”

Several WRIT 150 students offered their own perspectives on what they learned from the visit at the end of the semester in a final essay. In his, Ley said the visit sparked in him an internal discussion about the nature of healing.

“Hearing about this program made me realize that healing is a process, not an event. It is not a pill or surgery or DNA editing technique, it is a process requiring community and growth and time,” Ley wrote. “My visit to the Mission sparked questions about how I am supposed to contribute to the healing process of others and how I should trust others to contribute to my own healing and growth processes when the need arises.”

In Their Own Words

Read three students’ reflections on their visit to the Union Rescue Mission:

“Places of Hope” – Kristen East

“Reflection on the Union Rescue Mission” – Rick Ley

“The Ephemeral Life” – Savannah Vieth