At the Minnesota School of Business Blaine campus there exists a living, breathing poster child for the concept of “lifelong learning”. The veterinary technology students at that campus get no sympathy from Dr. Bonni Robilliard when they complain about “how hard” it is to learn the material and work at a full-time or part-time job as well.
When I first met Bonni I was tremendously impressed with her skills and inventiveness as an instructor. As I got to know her better I found out that she was a graduated veterinarian but had not held a DVM license for close to 20 years. “Why not?” I asked.
That simple question opened a door into a life story made for a movie! It involved travel and adventure in the continent of Africa. I will let Bonni tell it:
“I graduated from vet school in 1979 and was in a successful solo practice (equine emphasis) into the 1980s. In December of 1985, I got the opportunity to travel to South Africa, to accompany a medical team offering care to remote villagers in the Zulu tribe. These people had no access to medical care other than to walk a hundred miles or die trying. My job was to teach herd health to the tribesmen and the need for water purification and food hygiene to the women. At the very last minute, all the doctors on the team cancelled….I ended up being the “doctor” for the medical clinic. I rationalized that my patients at home spoke about as much English as my new patients in the bush. It was, by all standards, unethical; but countless lives were saved. After three arduous weeks, I came home overwhelmed by the needs of others in the world. The needs were medical, educational, and spiritual.
“My heart for the veterinary practice dwindled, and my heart for overseas missions grew. In the late 1980s I was spending more time in Africa and less and less here in the States. In 1990, I “took the plunge,” reduced my belongings to the contents of two suitcases and a carry-on, and bought a one-way ticket to Africa. The learning had just begun.
“I taught at, and then administered, a Bible College in Nigeria, earning a Doctorate in Theology. I spent two years in Kenya, pastoring a rural church. Then came three years in Malawi, traveling to establish churches in the remote villages. I supervised a building project, so had to learn about all sorts of construction, from making bricks out of mud, to building roads and bridges. I learned to design and install electric security fencing…..and I think I’ve got a world record by completing an 18-month course on funeral science in a day and a half! We needed to learn how to build coffins because so many were dying of AIDS.
“My most challenging times were five years in the midst of civil war in Southern Sudan. The group I was with was building a school to train chaplains for the army. I learned agriculture, masonry, roofing, carpentry, plumbing from a borehole in the ground to a real flushing toilet, and electricity from a generator source to the fluorescent lights. I learned how to navigate a vehicle around potholes and landmines, and literally how to dodge bullets. I learned how to estimate where the enemy’s bombs would hit based on the direction of the planes and the sounds of the “clicks” when the bombs were released. I lived with soldiers dying on the front lines and “died inside” for the mothers whose only thought in having children was to produce the next generation of soldiers to fight in their decades-long struggle for freedom. I am, oh, so grateful that Southern Sudan has finally come into peace. Today, it is the youngest recognized country in our world.
“By 2002 I was back in the U.S., caring for an ailing father and wondering what lay ahead. A friend mentioned to me about the need for teachers at Minnesota School of Business. I sent a letter of interest but did not hear back for nearly two years. Then, out of the blue, I got a call: They needed a teacher for Equine in the Vet Tech department. I had given up my veterinary license many years earlier; it just was not possible to do continuing education from the bush….no internet, no phone, the closest post office a 2-day journey away.
“The Dean of Faculty said, “No problem, but you might want to consider getting your license reinstated.” My reply was, “Absolutely not! There’s NO WAY I’m going to take Boards again after all these years.” I kept teaching, adding more and more classes, then finally came on board full time. Dr. McArdle put another bug in my ear about getting reinstated. After initially resisting, I finally decided to take that plunge and go for it. But it had been 33 years, and a lot has changed in the profession since then. I felt overwhelmed by all the technology and the immense volume of new knowledge about diseases studied so long ago, let alone all the new things discovered since then.
“From October through April I religiously studied 2 hours each night, often after teaching until 10 pm. Then I clocked another 8 hours each weekend. It was a relentless pursuit. Would I ever be ready? The national board exam was 7+ hours of pure torture, and I came out convinced I had failed. It was another five weeks to wait for the official results. I think the whole campus heard my squeal of delight when I found out I had passed! Then state boards were passed, and my license arrived in the mail. I guess you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.
“How do I relate all this in the classroom? Stories of Africa sure help to keep students awake during those 4-5 hour marathon night classes, relating bush medicine to modern practice and real-life experiences to the understanding of concepts in physiology. I really enjoy answering that age-old student excuse for not remembering things from previous classes: “But I had it a whole two quarters ago.” But most of all, I can challenge by example: “If this old lady can do it, surely you can too!”
“Life-long learner?? If you stop learning, you die inside. If you don’t embrace opportunities that present themselves along life’s pathway, you never challenge yourself to grow and be the person you were always meant to be.”
If only a little of Bonni’s great attitude and toughness rubs off on her students they are in for remarkable lives!