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"My hope is that the participants of my retreats will return not only armed with a skill set to be healthier members of their community, but also with an ability to advocate for the health of the environment," Arastu says.

Schweitzer Fellow and University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine student Ali Arastu has long possessed a powerful passion for the environment and the wilderness: “My experiences in the mountains and oceans continue to provide me with inspiration,” he says. “I love to share this passion with others.”

That’s exactly what Arastu has spent the past year doing. As a Schweitzer Fellow, he worked to address disparities in traditional public school health education in inner-city high schools by leading wilderness retreats aimed at promoting an understanding of the linkage between environmental and human health.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

While the health of our species is intricately dependent on the health of our environment, this connection is often lost and under-emphasized. My Schweitzer project was inspired not only by my desire to introduce inner-city adolescents to the magnitude of the wilderness, but also because I know how powerful extended trips into the wilderness can be to inspire lifestyle change.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

My hope with the adolescent participants is two-fold. One goal is that the adolescents leave these wilderness retreats with a skill-set that enables them to not only enjoy the backcountry on their own, but also to serve as an advocate for its conservation, since they realize the impact of the environment on their own health.

My second goal is that the wilderness retreats inspire the youth to live a healthier lifestyle. With the assistance of the USC Childhood Obesity Research Center, I am incorporating several modules into these retreats that will educate the youth on stress reduction, nutrition, and exercise.

Removing youth from their daily routine and environment and placing them into the wilderness has been proven to have incredible transformative properties, illustrated by the growing popularity of wilderness therapy programs. My hope is that the participants of my retreats will return not only armed with a skill set to be healthier members of their community, but also with an ability to advocate for the health of the environment, which will have a lasting effect on the health of their community.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

I feel that the greatest health-related issue of our time is the destruction of the environment. Apart from irreversibly eliminating a wilderness with limitless potential for recreation and inspiration, the destruction of the environment will continue to create a public health catastrophe that medicine is incapable of curing. Be it the pollution of the air we breathe or the increasing contamination of the dwindling marine life population that serves as the primary protein source for over two billion people, protecting and advocating for the environment serves as the ultimate preventive medicine.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?

Perhaps the most surprising element of my experience thus far has been my personal discovery of that which has long been preached by Albert Schweitzer and John Muir: the interconnectedness of the world.

Developing and struggling through my own project continues to enlighten me on how addressing, for instance, the issue of childhood obesity is intricately tied to policies that affect the environment, poverty and education. I feel that coming to this understanding now will allow me to affect change in a better and more profound way years in the future.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow (and ultimately, Fellow for Life) mean to you?

Ultimately, the greatest honor of being a Schweitzer Fellow has been to be surrounded by others who have a profound motivation to affect positive change in the world. I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the inequalities in this world, especially in the sector of health care; being around other fellows and our Schweitzer mentors always leaves me inspired and re-energized to overcome the various boulders that inevitably lie in the path of eliminating disparity.

Ali Arastu is a Schweitzer Fellow in Los Angeles, CA. Click here to read more about the Los Angeles Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Arastu it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects. To make a gift to The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship in honor of Arastu’s efforts to empower inner-city adolescents and awaken in them a powerful connection to nature, click here.

Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

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