When Jason Bankert first arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, he could see a shantytown literally across the tracks from his hotel.
Families lived in corrugated metal huts; children begged at night for money to buy the next morning's breakfast.
"They're pretty much running on faith," said Bankert, 23, an Altoona native whose work in a Penn State University overseas medical program propelled him into an international career path he'd never planned.
Jason Bankert, 23, an Altoona native and Penn State University graduate, spent six weeks studying health care in South Africa. He begins medical school today in Erie.
"I would've stayed in the U.S. and practiced medicine," the recent graduate said. "I had no desire to go abroad."
But that all changed as he was preparing for his Medical College Admission Test.
Worried that he'd do badly on the standardized exam that holds tremendous weight over med-school acceptance, Bankert scrambled for more resume items.
The Bankert file
Name: Jason Bankert
Family: Father, John; mother, Renee; brother, Eric; and sister-in-law, Laura
Education: Beginning medical school today at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine; 2012 graduate, Penn State University, immunology of infectious disease and toxicology degrees; 2007 graduate, Altoona Area High School
In 2010, he signed on for a new program at Penn State, a minor in global health, despite not being sure what to expect.
"I didn't even know what global health was," he said, adding that he had imagined the program as little more than Americans sending medical aid to third-world counties.
"Global health is not really a career path that students are exposed to early," said Melina Czymoniewicz-Klippel, program director.
Where the old model of global health care was based on wealthier countries simply sending help to poor ones, the new model encouraged through the program is based on observation and pooling resources, she said.
"It was rich, educated Westerners - 'Let's go help those people,'" she said. "Now it's more of a sharing model of global health."
When Bankert's test scores arrived, they weren't what he'd hoped. The apparent defeat, however, would allow him to take his studies overseas.
"The MCAT score was like more of a blessing," said Bankert, who had attended the Pleasant Valley Assembly of God. "It's great how God works."
In May 2011, Bankert got a chance to test both his faith and his real-world knowledge when Penn State's global health program sent 11 students to South Africa for six weeks, including five weeks observing at rural clinics that serve poverty-stricken villages.
Bankert, part of the group's three-member infectious disease team, first arrived in Johannesburg, a massive city whose sprawling metropolitan area encompasses more than 7 million people.
There, the students saw firsthand the local programs that manage to send shantytown children to college, despite the crushing poverty that separates the city's wealthy center from its outlying ghettos.
From Johannesburg - Bankert calls it "Joburg," like a native - the team traveled to Polokwane, a city not much larger than Altoona.
Studying under medical professionals from the nearby University of Limpopo, Bankert saw health programs that would be unrecognizable to most Americans. In rural areas where ignorance about disease is widespread, doctors and nurses operate schools where children learn about health and take the knowledge back to adults in their communities.
While working at rural clinics, Bankert saw the benefit in the personal, holistic medicine that nurses there practice, often by necessity.
"They were trained in so many things. They did medicine, but some of them were also counselors," he said, explaining that nurses, who often run the overcrowded clinics because doctors tend to work in private practice, treat both patients' bodies and families' psyches.
"They formed these close relationships with all their patients," he said.
By the time he returned to the United States, Bankert was equipped with firsthand experience in osteopathic medicine, the whole-body health theory that encourages primary care.
He applied last summer to the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie and was accepted eight months before his Penn State graduation in May, double majoring in toxicology and the immunology of infectious diseases.
"It sounds intimidating, but it's not that bad," he said, laughing.
His first postgraduate classes are scheduled to begin today. If he gets a Navy scholarship he is seeking, he would travel the world and practice medicine in disaster-hit areas and poor countries.
"The best way to show the love of Christ is to heal people," he said.
Bankert doesn't plan to spend all his time overseas, though. He hasn't ruled out working in Altoona.
"I am very seriously considering coming back. Even just doing my residency here," he said, noting that good residencies can be hard to find for any fledgling medical professional.
"I would love to come back here," Bankert said. "It's home, you know?"
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.