Willamette University

'So I Have a Purpose'

By Sarah Evans

Sarah Kutten ’09 lay in the bed, relieved to finally have her mom by her side. It was the only thing the 19-year-old had thought about since the ambulance had brought her to the hospital.

Kutten’s memories of the previous few hours were patchy. She sat in the front seat of the car, her stepmom and 17-monthold half sister in the back, while her dad drove them back to Salem after a trip to the coast. Suddenly her dad slumped over. Sarah tried to steady the wheel; trees entered her view and the car hit. Then nothing. Her next memory was of being strapped to a stretcher for the trip to the hospital.

Her mom finally arrived to comfort her, but she also had to deliver the news: Sarah was the only survivor.

“So I have a purpose,” was her response. Kutten is still trying to figure out why those were her first words. “I think at that point it dawned on me that there was a reason I had survived. It was a defining moment where I thought, ‘Oh, so I do have a reason for being here.’”

Most of Kutten’s actions since that day have centered on finding her new purpose. As tragic as the crash was, it doesn’t completely define her life. Her story lies in her subsequent exploration of her heritage, her identity and her future. It lies in her attempts to live by the suggestion of Bertice Berry, a motivational speaker she heard several months after the accident: “When you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.”

“In part, it was through the tragedy that I began to deeply evaluate my life,” Kutten says. “The accident forced me to recognize I have a place in the world. The next step was to discover how my skills and interests fit in a way that allowed me to take an active role in shaping society for the better.”

To Ghana and Back

It was 2003 when the accident occurred, and Kutten had only been a Willamette student for a year. She was following in the footsteps of her father, James Kutten ’83, who came to Willamette as an international student from Ghana. His senior yearbook photo shows him swathed in the bold print of a traditional Ghanaian kente cloth.

Sarah’s parents divorced when she was young, and she lived with her mother, only becoming closer to her father in her teenage years. Willamette became part of her life early — she remembers her father bringing her to campus as a toddler to feed ducks at the Mill Stream — but she didn’t decide to apply until meeting with a university representative at her high school in Woodburn, Ore. She knew her family couldn’t afford to send her to Willamette, but scholarship money through the Black United Fund of Oregon allowed her to enroll.

James Kutten was excited about his daughter’s choice to attend his alma mater. “He told everybody,” she says. “When I went to Ghana for the first time, everyone was like, ‘Oh, you go to your father’s school.’ They all knew about it. Only the most important information makes it over to Ghana, so that made me happy to know he was so proud.”

Kutten was born in the United States. Her mom was American and she never visited Ghana or learned much about her family there, but her parents tried to give her a sense of pride in her heritage. “My mom would borrow books or videos about Ghana from the public library or sew outfits for me using Ghanaian cloth. My dad used to cook Ghanaian foods or take me to festivals and parties where I could be surrounded in the culture.” Still, she felt she only had a snapshot of Ghana, when she wanted a deep portrait of the country and its people.

Kutten returned to Willamette for the beginning of her sophomore year, just a few months after the accident, but she wasn’t ready emotionally. She struggled. Her grades dropped.

And Ghana called to her.

“I went to talk to one of my professors one day, and while I was waiting outside her office I saw this poster for an international organization looking for volunteers in Ghana. I thought, ‘Maybe I should go to Ghana.’ I had always wanted to go, but my dad never took me. So I met with my professor, then went back to my room and looked up the website. I was very impulsive. I signed up right then.

“Part of going to Ghana was to reclaim this identity that I knew existed, but that I felt I had lost when my dad died. My entire time in Ghana was about walking with purpose and finding out who I was. It just opened my eyes to the possibilities in the world and what I could do with my life. I had grown up in Salem and Woodburn and didn’t have much experience with international travel. Even though I was exposed to elements of Ghanaian life at an early age, I still had a feeling of culture shock.”

Kutten left with the intention of spending two months in Ghana as a volunteer kindergarten teacher. Her fallen grade-point average led to dismissal from Willamette, so Kutten decided to stay in Africa for four months.

“When my plane landed, I got off onto the tarmac and felt this humid, hot, sticky blanket of Ghana. It’s always the same every time I go there. There’s this dusty smell that grabs my heart. It’s silly, but I keep these little Ziploc bags with cloth in them so that when I want to smell Ghana, I can go and open the bags. It’s a way to be back there.”

The Kutten family in Ghana is large, and Sarah met many relatives she didn’t even know she had, including a half brother and half sister. She went to the kindergarten classroom where she was supposed to work as an assistant, and the teacher said, “I’m so glad you’re here. I’m going to the market, and I’ll be back.” She didn’t return. Kutten spent three weeks trying to control a room of kindergartners in a school with no electricity, no notebooks or pencils, and only five textbooks for 30 students. Life was so different from where she had grown up, but she felt as though she belonged.

“Our group went to this remote village, and these children came running out to the bus as we pulled in, just like in a movie. We met with the chief of the village, and they had prepared a meal for us. They were playing drums, and everybody was dancing. I just remember dancing and thinking I was OK for the first time since the accident. When people asked how I was doing, I would say, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ when I obviously wasn’t. But then as we celebrated in that village, I admitted to myself that I was going to be OK. If I could be there and feel like that, then whatever I ended up doing in my life, I knew I’d be happy.”

After two trips to Ghana, Kutten finally sensed where her journey should go next — and it started with returning to school. She enrolled at Portland Community College to continue her degree and increase her grade-point average. “It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made. I did well in my classes, which was good for my confidence. I was president of the Black Student Union and part of the Student Council.” She took several anthropology classes from Christine Plimpton and discovered a field that combined her interest in sociology and psychology with her fascination for global cultures.

Kutten went to Ghana once more, this time staying nine months, and returned to Willamette to join the anthropology program. Back on the Salem campus, she experienced yet another turning point in her life: meeting Joyce Millen.

Millen was a natural mentor for Kutten. The associate professor of anthropology has spent years researching global health issues in Africa, particularly the HIV/ AIDS pandemic. On campus she has worked to increase awareness and study of African issues.

Millen immediately recognized Kutten’s potential when she taught her in a class called Peoples and Cultures of Africa. “She worked very hard and was committed to learning in the most profound sense,” Millen says. “There is a difference between people who are fully engaged in exploring the complexities of our world and their unique place in it, and those who are just going on the ride. Sarah is among the former. She is vividly conscious of and keenly troubled by the local and global injust she sees.”

A Global Health Crisis

When Millen invited Kutten to become her research assistant, the anthropology student was introduced to a significant problem that would come to define her academic interests: brain drain. Millen has devoted much research to the exodus of skilled health care professionals from resource-poor countries to wealthier areas of the world. The problem has left many poorer nations unable to provide adequate medical care for their own citizens.

In 2007 Kutten came to understand the effects of brain drain in a more personal way. She and her fiancé, a young Ghanaian man she had met during her first trip to Africa, decided to get married in Oregon. Kutten had hoped her half sister in Ghana could attend the wedding, but her sister said she might not be able to obtain a visa to make the trip because she was a nursing student.

Ghana loses so many medical students through brain drain that the government monitors their foreign travel. As of 2007 about half of Ghanaian physicians practiced abroad, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Just because my sister chose to pursue a career that’s in high demand in Ghana, she shouldn’t be prevented from leaving,” Kutten says. “If students knew when they entered nursing school that they wouldn’t be able to leave the country, then no one would want to go to nursing school. This would only make the problem worse.”

Millen encouraged Kutten to conduct her own research on Ghana’s nursing shortage. Kutten applied for a Carson Summer Undergraduate Research Grant from Willamette, which allows students of any discipline to undertake a research or creative project. “I had never written a grant proposal before,” she says. “What I think is really cool about the Carson Grant is that it allows students to do paid research before grad school.”

The following summer she went to Ghana again, this time to interview nursing students and doctors. She examined Ghana’s nurse bonding program — the government pays for students to attend nursing school, and the students must sign a bond promising to pay back the loan by working in a Ghanaian hospital for five years. The hope is that after five years, nurses will be less likely to leave their country.

But when Kutten met with rural-based health professionals, she discovered the program wasn’t always successful. “If bonding is working, where are my nurses?” asked a surgeon, one of just three doctors in a hospital that saw well over 200 people a day and relied on a limited number of nurses for help.

When Kutten questioned nursing students about why they chose the profession, many said they wanted to save the lives of their fellow Ghanaian citizens. Yet about half also said they hoped to work abroad.

“When I visited the hospital, I saw what looked to be several hundred patients with serious health issues sitting in the reception area. I learned that some of the individuals waiting on those benches would die before they were able to receive treatment. The doctors and nurses were completely overworked. It’s understandable that they might want to go somewhere else. Even with all the humanitarian heart in the world, you can only take that for so long.”

Kutten also learned through her own and Millen’s research that the U.S. and other powerful countries actively recruit doctors and nurses from sub-Saharan Africa to fill their own perceived health personnel shortages. For example, until recently more Ethiopian doctors worked in the city of Chicago than in the entire country of Ethiopia.

“Why is it OK to take nurses from Ghana and allow people to die there?” Kutten asks. “Our country has signed multiple international declarations on human rights, saying that all people should have access to health care, yet we’re actively taking these doctors and nurses away from where they are needed most. We continue to turn a blind eye to this issue. This was the spark behind my drive to keep going with this research. Something has to be done.”

Finding Her Purpose

After returning from her Carson Grant trip, Kutten presented her findings to several different groups on campus. But she wanted to reach a wider audience, so she applied to go to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in April. Conference organizers invited her to present her work to students and faculty from across the country.

A wealth of statistical information on brain drain already exists, but Kutten wants to contribute an anthropological approach to the discussion. “Ethnographic research allows people to have a voice, whereas statistical research can have the tendency to generalize and make blanket statements. I like to find a balance between the two. International organizations want to hear statistics, but the personal voices are important to provide a soul behind the numbers.”

Her research experience also introduced her to skills and interests she didn’t know she had. “I realized how much I love research. This work gives me an excellent start for graduate school. Through the recognition I’ve gotten for this project, I realize the power of being able to research something that nobody else has looked at, or analyze things in a different way. It’s really exciting to be able to change the world that way.

“The newer generation of anthropologists are challenging global problems and looking at issues by talking to people on the ground. I think what I found with the Ghanaian nursing students is really important, and I’d like to expand upon it. I’d like to come up with something solid that could potentially have an impact on the international discussion surrounding brain drain.”

Her next goal is to study for a doctorate in anthropology, and she hopes to become a professor of anthropology with an African focus — just like Millen, who says she envisions Kutten making significant contributions in her future through research, teaching or whatever she chooses to pursue. “Sarah is intellectually gifted, she’s a hard worker and she deals well with nuance and complexity. I have full faith that she will realize her life’s mission, which is so intimately tied with her commitments to Africa and redressing social injustice.”

Kutten’s search for her purpose keeps leading back to Ghana — the country of her father and her husband, the country that has given her so much of her own identity.

“Once my husband and I are in a position to be able to give back, we want to do that. We are still trying to figure out exactly what we’d like to do to help. In the meantime, I hope to make a difference on a small scale through my brain drain research.”

She continues to live by Bertice Berry’s words:

“When you walk with purpose, you collide with destiny.”