Graduating Senior Profiles: A Realistic Idealist

Issue Date: 
April 27, 2008

Phi Beta Kappa member Czaicki sees world’s problems, seeks to be part of solution


For many college students, the summer before their senior year is viewed as significant for a number of reasons. Some use the time to garner valuable internship experience. Others indulge in carefree activities before facing a world that will be anything but. Pitt School of Arts and Sciences graduate Nancy Czaicki chose a different path for her summer of 2007: She traveled to the city of Arusha in the Republic of Tanzania to work with AIDS patients and to teach small children.

“Part of me was drawn to the social issues and things that were going on there. I wanted to see what that part of the world was like for myself,” said the St. Louis, Mo., native, who was pleased by her reception upon arriving in the East African country. “It was a new culture and a new country, and I didn’t speak very much of the language. But everyone was very welcoming and warm towards all of the volunteers.”

The decision to travel to a foreign land and assist with humanitarian efforts speaks to everything Czaicki stands for. As a realist, she said she knows she cannot solve all of the world’s problems, but she is a firm believer in being a part of as many social solutions as possible. And she wants to do that now.

So Czaicki, who was accepted into four of the country’s top graduate programs of public health, including Pitt, decided to defer graduate school for two years. Instead, she will be spending that time working in Chicago with Teach for America, a national organization of recent college graduates and young professionals teaching in urban and rural public schools. She said she views the nation’s inner-city school systems as a pool of potential that has never been tapped, and she feels a social obligation to give them the same opportunities that she’s had. While Czaicki does not plan to become a teacher, she said she looks forward to the experience.

It was a decision spurred by her summer in Africa as well as other social service activities in which she has been involved.

As a high school student, Czaicki volunteered with Rainbows for Kids, a St. Louis organization that sponsors events for children with cancer and their families. She assisted in event planning and fund- raising, as well as other activities with the children.

“It was our objective to provide support for the parents as well as the kids,” Czaicki said. “We would have spa days for the moms, and we would go to hospitals and put on parties for the kids as a break from hospitals and stress.”

As a student at Pitt, Czaicki has been active in a number of campus organizations, including the Blue and Gold Society, an organization of student leaders who have been chosen to act as liaisons between the student community and the Pitt Alumni Association; and the Pitt chapter of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. She is a Beckman Scholar, one of the nation’s foremost fellowships supporting undergraduate research in biochemistry, chemistry, and the biological and medical sciences. She also was a recent Phi Beta Kappa inductee and will graduate from Pitt today with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a 3.9 GPA, as of last semester.

While Czaicki said her work with Rainbows for Kids was rewarding, she called her time in Arusha a perspective-changing experience. Through Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS), a nonprofit international volunteer organization, Czaicki said she gained a life experience that cannot be found in a classroom. In Africa, she confronted a health epidemic that took the lives of more than 160,000 Tanzanians in 2007 and has left more than 12 million children orphaned across the continent.

With CCS, she and other volunteers were in daily contact with terminally ill persons, making door-to-door visits to counsel patients on medical and mental health issues. Because AIDS patients’ fears of public ostracism were so high, the volunteers would sometimes make their rounds under the guise of missionary workers to protect the health status of those hiding their illness. The group also worked with the general public dispelling the many HIV myths within the noninfected community.

“One of the most eye-opening moments was when I realized how widespread the myths about contracting and spreading AIDS still were,” said Czaicki, who recalled a number of them. “If you have sex with a virgin, you’ll be cured. You shouldn’t use condoms, because they’re bad. I knew a lot of these beliefs had been culturally prevalent in the past, but I thought a lot of the information would have been a little more cleared up than I actually found it to be.”

One of the most refreshing aspects of Czaicki’s time in Africa was seeing the always smiling faces of her young students. In one school, she taught English to students from the local orphanage.
“They were the most eager students I have ever encountered. If you asked a question, every hand would literally fly up, and that’s something you never see here [in American schools],” said Czaicki. In Tanzania, “education is stressed as the way out of poverty: ‘This is your way to grow up and make a success of yourself.’ It was very inspiring.”

Looking ahead to Chicago, she hoped to be able to inspire her American students —and be inspired by them.

“I’ve put a lot of thought into what I want to teach my students. When they leave my classroom, what do I want them to know?” said Czaiki, who plans to attend Emory University in the fall semester of 2010. “I hope that they retain scientific literacy, being able to read the science section in the newspaper and understand how it pertains to their lives. Also, I want them to grasp the scientific process, and even if they are no longer working with science, they can take that same problem-solving process and apply it to everyday situations in life.”


Czaicki holds Nashipae, one of her female students at a Tanzanian orphanage where the Pitt graduate taught English. “They were the most eager students I have ever encountered in my life,” Czaicki recalled.