Briana Deer (Class of 2016)

  • honors junior Zoology major
  • co-major in Premedical Studies
  • minors in Global Health and Social Justice Studies
  • from Pittsburgh, PA
  • co-president of Oxfam America at Miami, an international social justice organization, which raised money to improve an Ugandan schoolhouse
  • spent the summer of 2014 visiting the school in Uganda, working with orphaned girls in Kenya, and shadowing a pediatrician in Pittsburgh
  • plans to go to medical school and then join an international organization like Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health
  • recipient of the 2016 President's Distinguished Service Award
"When I shadowed the pediatrician this past summer, I had no idea how much the theoretical concepts I was learning in class were so prevalent in the real world—but they are, and I'm glad Miami is exposing me to such things."

Why Miami?

"My big dreams are to make a difference in the world someday. When I visited Miami as a prospective student, I saw that students had the time and willingness to get involved with things beyond mere studying, so that definitely triggered my interest in this university.

"From the beginning I was interested in Miami's pre-med program, so during that visit I had a meeting with Robert Balfour in the Mallory-Wilson Center for Healthcare Education. He told me that if I combined pre-med studies with the Honors program I would have a very good chance of getting into medical school. Additionally, the Honors program allows you to create your own experiences to help you make your academic journey what you want—definitely an attractive aspect!

"One of the things I like best about Miami is that it is truly a humble school. We do not have a name as big as some, such as Duke or Stanford, but it's not until you get here that you realize how amazing this institution is. For example, whenever a pre-med student such as I applies to medical school, the admissions board looks at the undergraduate school you attended and gives you a 1-5 rating. Of course, the big Ivy schools are all a 5, but Miami's a 4—not far behind. Once med schools see that, they're very impressed.

"I always liked the challenge of being a pre-med student. I'm a Zoology major, which is intriguing and challenging, but it was not until last semester that I really knew that I wanted to be on the pre-med track. I only came to this realization when I took a human physiology course with Dr. Haifei Shi and absolutely loved it. Everything up until that point had been strictly science: organic chemistry, cell biology, intro to biology—which are all necessary, but I was looking for something more, a way to apply my knowledge. In Dr. Shi's class we learned about the functions of the body, and I fell in love. Then, this summer, I was able to shadow at a pediatrics clinic in my hometown in Pittsburgh, and I finalized my decision that being a doctor is what I want to do!"

Best Miami Experiences

"I lived in Tappan Hall, an Honors dorm, freshman year and absolutely loved it. I am still friends with all of the girls today. I really enjoyed being grouped together with people that aren't necessarily interested in the same things as me, but are just as dedicated in their own respective paths.

Most importantly, the student organizations at Miami are fantastic. During my freshman year, I was so excited to get involved that I went in and signed up for every organization there is; one particularly special organization was Oxfam at Miami. I had no idea what Oxfam was, but I went to the first meeting and fell in love with the club. Oxfam is a social justice organization working to right the wrongs of poverty, injustice, and hunger, both locally and globally.

"Now, three years later, Social Justice Studies has become one of my minors. It's shaped my path in what I want to do in my career. I joined Oxfam as a freshman and have come a long way. Sarah Meaney, Oxfam's advisor from Student Affairs, helps me in planning meetings, creating strategies, and being a leader.

Otwee-Miami School of Hope in north Uganda

"Being involved with Oxfam has provided me with a lot of incredible opportunities. My co-president Haley Mullins and I participated in LeaderShape, a leadership retreat offered by the Harry T. Wilks Leadership Institute, and through the program received a grant to go to Uganda. We visited the village of Otwee in the north, which was severely affected by Uganda's civil war. People were forced out of their homes and the village was torn apart. This is where Oxfam came in—to build a stable nursery school that was named the Otwee-Miami School of Hope.

"Now, since Haley and I have been involved, we've expanded the school to a 5-room building to hold over 300 students—all supported right here by Oxfam at Miami! We're the only organization supporting these kids. The director of the school there, David, emails me everyday, saying, 'How's Oxfam going? I hope it's great! How's Miami? I want to meet everyone in the club!' And so, through the help of the Wilks Leadership Institute, LeaderShape, and the Honors program, Haley and I were granted the money to go to Uganda for 17 days this past summer, visit the school, meet the community, and see how we can most efficiently serve them.

"As I begin to clear the path to my future, it can be frustrating trying to figure out how to encompass everything I want to accomplish into one career. Right now I'm trying to figure how to combine everything with the help of Dr. Cameron Hay-Rollins in global health, Dr. C. Lee Harrington in social justice, and Mr. Balfour in premedical studies. As of right now, I aspire to get my MD and MPH and become a physician working with an international organization like Doctors without Borders or Partners in Health, where I can make a difference in individuals' lives as well as serve the community."

Miami and the Liberal Arts

"With all the various things that I'm involved with now, from an outside perspective it may seem as if they have no relation to one another, but I believe that this is the beauty of the situation and also of the liberal arts. It is not until you find that connection of all of your interests that you can really find what it is that you're truly passionate about.

"I like the challenge of having multiple majors and minors. I've always loved running around with a crazy schedule and trying to juggle everything. My pre-med classes are definitely hard—but I wouldn't have it any other way. After all, I'm doing the things that I love to do! I didn't think I'd love the human physiology course I took with Dr. Shi, or organic chemistry, or biochemistry—but I did. When I shadowed the pediatrician this past summer, I had no idea how much the theoretical concepts I was learning in class were so prevalent in the real world—but they are, and I'm glad Miami is exposing me to such things.

"As of right now, it's hard to think about my Zoology major in relation to global health and social justice, but that's what's made me decide to apply to dual degree programs (MD/MPH) after I graduate. By getting this dual degree, I'll have two of my most favorite things coming together as one, and it all started right here in the liberal arts."

Helping to Build a School in Uganda and Working with Orphaned Girls in Kenya

"Haley Mullins, my Oxfam co-president, and I crammed a lot in our 17-day visit to Uganda. Our goal was to continue to build the nursery school and meet the community in which we were serving, so we stayed in the village in a grass hut with no electricity or water. Surprisingly, we loved it! The people were so warm and welcoming, and we will never forget them. Meeting them is what made the trip so amazing.

"While there, we worked a lot with David, the director of Otwee-Miami School of Hope. As a teacher in a primary school in Gulu, he sees the significant difference between the kids who weren't going to school and those who were. Thus, he had gotten funds on his own to build a grass hut for a nursery school in village, which had about 15 kids to start, but they always had to cancel classes when it rained due to the natural materials that the school was made of. When the previous Miami student president of Oxfam was studying abroad, she met David and saw the structural conditions of the school. Returning to Miami, she and her co-president gathered funds so David could build a tiny 2-room schoolhouse. Then, when Haley and I became involved, we added 2 more rooms, added a floor in each of them, and then had desks and chairs put in. We finally got the fifth classroom built and provided for the whole building to be plastered while we were on our trip to Uganda.

"During our last day in Uganda, the community held a farewell celebration for us, and everyone in the community came: about 1000 people, including the tribal chiefs, the mayor, the parents representative, and even the member of Parliament! He told us, 'By you coming here today, it has given us hope.' And I will never forget it. We'd like to get more Miami students to join Oxfam to make sure we can keep up with the school even after Haley and I graduate.

Briana Deer with Kenyan children

"My trip to Kenya came about as an immersion experience related to my academics. During my sophomore year, I became aware of the Global Health Studies minor, and at first thought it looked too intense. Nevertheless, I took the introductory course with Dr. Hay-Rollins. The course was structured so that we had different professors from different departments (such as Psychology, Biology, Philosophy, the Arts, Theatre, Business, etc.) all come in to teach the interdisciplinary aspects of global health. Through the course, I learned that it's not just about being a doctor and treating one patient at a time, but rather, the community as a whole that must be considered.

"We could choose our own immersion experience and the global health topic we would like to focus on while on this trip. I decided to go to Kenya and work in Hekima Place, a home for girls who had been orphaned by AIDS and have suffered through domestic violence, slavery, and abandonment.

"I spent a month working with these girls. While there, I soon realized it did not matter so much as to why each girl was there but rather what she could do in the future. These girls all have their own individual stories, and they are so gracious and welcoming. I miss them dearly, as they are very close to my heart.

"One of the girls I worked with at Hekima Place was an eighth grader who is actually 18 years old. Every night we met to study math and English, and I taught her a few basic equations that I learned in high school. I didn't know if I was making a difference until, in the end, she told me she had done better on her math final. She was so excited. We became really close and still write to this day. She is now trying to help her cousin who is now in a similar place that she was before Hekima Place took her in. While it is difficult to hear of yet another girl in a terrible situation, it is exciting to see girls of Hekima Place 'paying it forward' to help others in need.

"Just having these amazing experiences helped me to realize my own calling in life. I understand that there are bigger things than worrying about the grade of my last biochemistry exam or whether or not I am going to graduate on time. It will all fall into place, and hopefully one day I can return to be with these amazing people I met in both Uganda and Kenya."

Briana Deer feeds a rabbit in Kenya.

Advice to Students

"I know it's a cliché, but don't be afraid to try new things. I didn't know what social justice was at first, and now, here it is, changing my life. Involve yourself in things you know nothing about and see how you can shape them to fit your own passions. My Global Health Studies minor and immersion experience in Kenya were both things that I made my own. I went to a place I knew that I always wanted to go to and just dove right in. There's no need to be afraid; after all, fear is the only thing that ever holds us back.

"I definitely recommend study abroad. I think traveling is the best way to learn. There are a number of student organizations on campus to get involved in to help you see the world and experience something new, such as Oxfam and MEDLife (Medicine, Education, Development for Low Income Families Everywhere). MEDLife is a pre-med organization that does medical mission trips all over the world, and it made it possible for me to go to Ecuador on an amazing medical mission trip.

"Over the past 3 years here at Miami, I have accumulated many goals for my future, and now I'm just taking the first baby steps. Being involved at Miami has shown me that the right things will happen at the right time. The right people will walk into your life and give you opportunities that are going to be awesome, so just wait for it and work hard until it happens!"

[August 2014]