07/09/2013 03:02 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2013

From Wisconsin to Africa: Technical Education Translates to Lives Saved

Healthcare facilities in Cameroon need much more than staff with medical training. This third world country needs to link clinics isolated by thick rainforest, desert, and rugged terrain. Sharing medical expertise via a reliable connection could mean the difference between life and death. Recognizing that need was the first step in what would be a three-year, 6,400-mile journey to another country.

Picture this: two women from West-Central Africa, neither with a technology background, given an opportunity to study computer networking in the United States, with a goal of returning to their homeland to set up a viable network serving 16 hospitals and clinics in this remote land.

That mental image briefly summarizes the challenge facing Sister Kathleen Shela and Sister Virgilia Zamah of the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis in Cameroon.

Five years ago, both women were working in clerical positions. Neither had any formal education beyond the secondary level, nor any technology background. But when they were invited by their Provincial Superior to study computer networking at Western Technical College, they embraced the opportunity.

To be certain, this was a rapid and unexpected change in their career plans. And neither was familiar with the plans to embed computer technology into the operations of the extensive hospital and clinic network operated by the Tertiary Sisters of St. Francis in Cameroon and parts of Nigeria and the Central African Republic. But they did agree to accept the challenge.

Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wisconsin, is a far cry from Cameroon. However, the college had prior connections with the Tertiary Sisters, providing instruction in dental assisting and basic education. The college offered the opportunity for these two sisters to study in La Crosse and pledged to raise the scholarship funds needed for their education.

Sister Kathleen arrived first in January of 2009. She was joined by Sister Virgilia in the fall of that year. Both sisters started with a basic education skills refresher in their first semester. Both acknowledged that there was a culture shock of sorts. In fact, Virgilia said she was on the verge of returning to Cameroon before her first semester ended. They faced such a rapid redirection in their lives, in an unfamiliar field of study and in a foreign country (with cold winters). And the task ahead seemed so daunting.

Despite a literacy rate on the higher end by African standards, Cameroon is clearly a third world nation with massive poverty, a high rate of HIV and other diseases, and huge gaps in infrastructure. In spite of these challenges, both women persevered. They received positive encouragement from the La Crosse-based Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and a number of faculty and staff members at Western.

They credit their many new found friends in La Crosse for their success so far. Both credit Western faculty member Don Thesing with incredible instructional leadership and technical assistance. Don helped them acquire donated materials and assemble two servers (as a class project). The servers were shipped (shipping to Cameroon is a whole story in itself!) to St. Elizabeth's Hospital to serve as the backbone for the Shisong-based flagship facility.

Recognize that these two women are smart and very capable. But, their story also involves courage and incredible determination. They both graduated in 2012 - Kathleen with associate's degrees in computer networking and office technology support, and Virgilia with an associate's degree in computer networking. Both became members of Phi Theta Kappa, the international honor society for community and technical college students. And both are now back in Cameroon at St. Elizabeth's Hospital, hard at work in advancing their project.

I feel the world will be learning more about these two wonderful women. Their work is really just beginning.

Footnote: The author of this post recently traveled to Shisong, Cameroon with the goal of assisting with "next step" support for their project.