It's a small world after all
New Year's Eve 1999 was a gorgeous night, one Matt Gerber will remember the rest of his life.
All over the world, people were celebrating the start of a new millennium. Gerber rang it in at Paris, France, where millions filled the streets as midnight drew near.
Church bells rang, and fireworks lit the sky. Children were everywhere, joyfully crying out "Happy New Year" in their native tongue.
"It was magic," said Gerber, who lives in Portland when he happens to be in the United States. "It was magic, and it was a turning point for me. Paris was when I realized traveling had to be about more than just seeing sights."
Gerber, 22, has visited more than 30 of the world's countries in the past five years. He performs humanitarian service when he travels these days, but it wasn't always that way.
In 1997, when he was a student at La Grande High School, he was selected to live in Australia for a year as part of the local Rotary Exchange Program.
He stayed with a wealthy host family near Melbourne. The trip was almost a lark.
"There I was, a country boy all of a sudden living near a city of three million. There was so much to do, things you couldn't imagine in La Grande Â— surfing, scuba diving, yacht racing."
Besides being fun, the Melbourne trip set the stage for the trip to Paris.
Gerber had formed friendships with young people from other parts of the world. When the year in Australia ended, they all made a pact to meet in the French capital for the millennium celebration.
"We kept our word," he said. "But it was there I realized my traveling had to be about more than crossing countries off a list. It had to be about
Gerber, son of Louis and Robin Gerber of
La Grande, graduated from LHS with perfect grades in 1999.
That year, he was a recipient of a Ford Family Foundation scholarship, a prestigious award that would pay 90 percent of his college costs for four years.
Since childhood, he has dreamed of becoming a doctor. He decided to go to George Fox University, where he would major in pre-med studies and international business.
"George Fox has one of the best pre-med programs in Oregon, and the small, intimate setting appealed to me," he said. "It's a real community, and you feel close to your classmates and teachers. It gives you more than just an academic education."
His fascination with foreign lands and cultures continued to grow after his trip to Paris.
He spent the summer of 2000 in Cuba and Jamaica, taking part in a George Fox humanitarian program.
His group volunteered to work at local orphanages, and was involved in community development projects. It helped rebuild an aging church, a project Gerber thinks about today with fondness.
Latin culture continued to attract him. In the summer of 2001, following completion of his sophomore year at George Fox, he traveled to Puerto Rico and Mexico as part of a cultural studies program. He learned to speak Spanish.
Later in the summer, he broadened his horizons still more, embarking on a Mideast journey he recalls as "incredible."
Joining a program George Fox runs in partnership with other schools, he set out for Cairo, Egypt.
He arrived there just two weeks before the 9/11 terror attacks. Cairo was home for him when the attacks occurred.
Even during that turbulent time, the teeming capital city was not a scary place to be. Gerber remembers that his Egyptian counterparts were saddened by the turn of events.
"I think my being in Cairo was scarier for my mom than it was for me. I never felt safer in my life. After the attacks, people were so compassionate and concerned," he said.
Things changed, however, as U.S. forces mobilized for the assault on the Taliban in Afghanistan.
"It was different when the United States attacked a Muslim country during Ramadan," Gerber said. "I never felt in danger in Cairo, but there was definite animosity. People were careful to say, Â‘I may like you as a person, but not your country.' "
Some were openly hostile, he said.
"I remember one man in particular who looked right at me and said, Â‘This is your fault.' I argued that it was a political thing that had nothing to do with me, but he said, Â‘No! You are a voter and
the burden is on your shoulders.' He was very
During his stay in Cairo, Gerber studied the Arabic language, Mideast culture and religion, and conflict resolution as it relates to the region.
He also volunteered to work at a treatment center for handicapped children. There he got a real taste of the practice of medicine, assisting a vascular surgeon in the operating room.
The program included travel to other countries in the Mideast. Gerber and his fellow students found themselves in Israel at a time when that country's conflict with Palestinians was intensifying.
"One day a suicide bomber blew himself up on a street corner I'd been standing on earlier," he recalled.
Tensions continued to rise, and finally the decision was made for the students to return home. Getting out of the region was a harrowing experience, Gerber said.
"We were evacuated from Israel to Jordan in a U.N. convoy. It was a real race because the border was going to be closed. We were late, but they kept it open long enough for us to get across."
Danger notwithstanding, Gerber remained interested in international studies and service.
After the Mideast trip, he decided to write a thesis on how U.S. policy affects people in foreign countries. He made two trips into Latin America during 2002 in connection with the research paper.
"I designed a research project that would take me to 15 countries in South America, Central America and the Caribbean," he said.
"It was an amazing time. I interviewed hundreds of people, from taxi drivers to television personalities, diplomats, even the son of a former Colombian president.
"I learned that there are great responsibilities that go along with exerting policy, and that we have a profound opportunity to impact Latin America in a positive way," he said.
In addition to his thesis research, he continued with humanitarian service, working with local doctors and transporting dental and medical supplies to rural clinics.
The rewards of the trip went far beyond a good mark on a college paper, he found.
"Service is what it was all about, way more than academics," he said.
At home, as always, his mother worried. For one thing, he was in Venezuela during tumultuous oil industry labor strikes.
"I was interviewing people in Caracas, and that was the wrong place to be at the wrong time. There were riots, and I got tear-gassed twice," he said.
He was a witness also to unrest in Colombia and Nicaragua.
"Colombia was very dangerous. After Colombia, I thought about giving up traveling," he said.
But he did not. Last summer, following graduation from George Fox, Gerber led a team of students on a humanitarian trip to Nicaragua.
The group worked in health care and vocational training, and some taught English.
They also created a "toothbrush program," distributing dental-care items to people who actually never had owned any before.
Also in Nicaragua, Gerber struck up a friendship with a surgeon who allowed him to assist in the operating room.
"One time, a boy fell out of a mango tree and injured his spleen," he recalled. "We had him opened up when the power went out. We finished by the light of a flashlight a nurse held for us. I thought, Â‘Yes! This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.' "
Gerber led a humanitarian team back to Nicaragua this month, and plans to take yet another journey there in March.
Funding for his trips comes from various sources. Gerber calls on civic organizations for donations, and spends a good deal of his own money besides.
"I have found almost anything can be accomplished with enough prior planning," he said.
Currently, he is working at a Portland hotel and saving money for his biggest adventure yet.
He has applied to study at Ben-Gurion University in Israel, which partners with Columbia University in New York to turn out experts in international medicine.
It is not an easy program to get into, but Gerber is determined. He said that if he is turned down this year, he will apply again.
"I want to get an M.D. in international health and medicine, with emphasis on refugee medicine, natural disaster relief and population health care," he said.
Completion of those studies will provide him with more opportunities to serve his fellow man, he said.
"I'll get to use my Arabic, and I'll learn Hebrew. I'll be able to go many places."