Go Against the Current: ISLC 2018 Recap, Part 1

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Editor’s note: Every year, Operation Smile Student Programs hosts hundreds of student volunteers from more than a dozen countries at the International Student Leadership Conference, an empowering week for high school students combining cause and camaraderie. This story is the first of a three-part series recapping the conference, which took place in July 2018 at the University of Washington in Seattle.

After 100 Missions, Lucia’s Still Learning

Clinical coordinator Lucia Mauer has served on more than 100 Operation Smile medical missions since she started volunteering in 1996. Photo: Bethany Bogacki.
Clinical coordinator Lucia Mauer has served on more than 100 Operation Smile medical missions since she started volunteering in 1996. Photo: Bethany Bogacki.

Nurse Lucia Mauer has been on so many medical missions with Operation Smile that when she was asked how many she’s attended, she responded with a shrug and a smile.  

“I stopped counting after 100 missions,” Lucia said, with a laugh.

Lucia, who serves as a clinical coordinator, has been all over the world with Operation Smile since she started volunteering in 1996. She said she's been to each of its countries in Latin America, as well as many others in Asia and Africa.  

But in her two-plus decades with the nonprofit, Lucia had never been to Operation Smile’s International Student Leadership Conference (ISLC) – that is, until this summer. The nurse tended to the hundreds of high school-age participants of the 27th annual conference, which took place in her hometown of Seattle.

Lucia, who has been all over the world, crisscrossing continents to help children born with cleft conditions, said that she learned a lesson that only ISLC could teach her: The students who attended the conference are committed Operation Smile advocates who are working hard to earn their spot on a mission.  

“On missions, I always have students and a student sponsor there, and I welcome them, and I know they have things to do and they have specific responsibilities,” Lucia said. “But I never really understood the amount of work that it takes for these kids to get on a mission.”  

The high school students are professionally trained to teach the fundamentals of health care to children living with cleft conditions and their families during medical missions; to even qualify for that training, each student has to take part in an ISLC. 

“I’m so impressed by the dedication, the commitment, the enthusiasm, and the hope that these kids have to heal the world,” said Lucia, a native of Colombia. “I think all of us on the medical side of Operation Smile, we need to really spend time with the kids and really acknowledge the work this takes.”

This lesson – that these students are the bright future of Operation Smile – has forever changed the way Lucia will conduct her next 100-plus missions. And it’s a lesson that was not lost on the other 399 ISLC participants.  

“I think that we are the future, and there’s a lot of people who believe in us, too,” said Isabelle Laun, a student from Minnesota. “We have the potential to do something great.”  

Clinical coordinator Lucia Mauer shares a smile with a young patient during a medical mission to Bolivia in 2004. Photo: Marc Ascher.
Clinical coordinator Lucia Mauer shares a smile with a young patient during a medical mission to Bolivia in 2004. Photo: Marc Ascher.

Innovate at Any Age  

Jennifer Olson-Wilk, Align Technology Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Doctor-Directed Consumer Channel, delivers her keynote speech at ISLC 2018 in Seattle. Photo: Kristy Walker.
Jennifer Olson-Wilk, Align Technology Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Doctor-Directed Consumer Channel, delivers her keynote speech at ISLC 2018 in Seattle. Photo: Kristy Walker.

Align Technology, Inc., the Advocacy Sponsor of ISLC 2018, was founded by two Stanford University students, Zia Chishti and Kelsey Wirth, and is the leading force behind the Invisalign clear aligner. It’s driving the invisible-orthodontics market and continues to set the bar in patient care worldwide, pioneering solutions in digital dentistry. 

“By thinking big, they got together and did their MBA project on how orthodontics could look different,” said Jennifer Olson-Wilk, Align Technology Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Doctor-Directed Consumer Channel.

But thinking big often requires persevering through big challenges.

“As we looked at our 20 years of growth with Align Technology, there were challenges throughout all of that, and so if you go back to the founders, I’d say it’s worth it,” said Jennifer, who’s been with Align for 16 years. “It’s going to be a challenging road, but it will be worth it in the end.”

Elena Vittori, a student from Italy, said that Align Technology inspired her to always look for ways to help more and wants to bring this knowledge she gained back to her country to share with her high school Operation Smile club. 

“We always have to say, ‘Yes,’ to everything,” Elena said. “We can always do more, and we have to because we can.”

ISLC 2018 participants, staff and representatives from Align Technology, Inc. pose for a group photo. Photo: Kristy Walker.
ISLC 2018 participants, staff and representatives from Align Technology, Inc. pose for a group photo. Photo: Kristy Walker.