Student overcomes challenges to serve those with even bigger obstacles in India

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Living with Celiac disease can be demanding. Living with Celiac disease while living in a foreign country can seem, at first glance, almost impossibly daunting.

But for Mackenzie Wallace, it became just one more indication that she was doing the right thing by studying abroad.

Wallace returned home from India several weeks ago after a four-month experience that she says shaped my life.” Accommodating a chronic condition that prevents her from eating wheat products and regularly affects her eating, cooking and shopping habits was challenging, Wallace said, but the lifestyle in India is more suited to those affected by Celiac.

Mackenzie Wallace spends time with children at a school for the deaf in India. (Photo courtesy Mackenzie Wallace)
Mackenzie Wallace spends time with children at a school for the deaf in India. (Photo courtesy Mackenzie Wallace)

“Studying in India was actually a perk for my condition,” Wallace said. “They just eat rice with different curries that are all gluten-free.”

Still, the process of getting to India in the first place was somewhat arduous, as Wallace had to jump through hoops to figure out a research project for an ORCA grant, set her financial situation in order and find a professor that would help her.

“She’s such an independent little soul, and that’s what got her the opportunity to go to India … she is up for trying to handle anything,” Julianne Wallace, Mackenzie’s mother, said.

Mackenzie Wallace — one of about 3 million Americans that has Celiac disease — said making the road to India was difficult but worth it.

“My family is extremely supportive in anything I want to do. We’re not super wealthy, so it was sort of a long-shot when I wanted to study abroad in India,” she said. “My mom just kept telling me that we’d make the next step and keep trying, making the payments, getting my passport, and all of a sudden it just worked out, and I was there.”

Mackenzie Wallace’s research in India entailed working in a school for deaf children for several months.

“No teachers wanted to teach at the deaf schools,” Mackenzie Wallace said. “A lot of the teachers just teach there because that’s the only job position left.”

She specifically studied the difference between children that went to hostels and those that returned home after school.

“Kids that lived in the hostels didn’t have any sort of parental figures, or their homes were too far away for them to make the daily commute,” Mackenzie Wallace said. “They all kind of watched out for each other.”

India faces a massive education problem. According to the Project for International Student Assessment, India typically scores miserably in reading, mathematical and science literary categories. The lack of educational resources and political initiative have created huge educational gaps, poor educational facilities and poor teacher training.

Mackenzie Wallace quickly learned that the country she was living and working in was vastly different from her own.

“There’s garbage everywhere; it’s really smelly,” she said. “The sewage is horrible. Women are suppressed, and men are dominant. People usually just focus on that — the negative things. But I like to focus on the people that I met, the people in the branch over there and watching them grow in the gospel.”

Eva Melton, a good friend of Mackenzie Wallace who also studied in India, said she and Wallace were strengthened by what they saw and learned while abroad.

“Some of the kids get picked up by their families from the hostels on holidays,” Melton said. “(But) it was hard to see how many of the kids were still there because their parents didn’t pick them up or because they didn’t have parents.”

“(We) said a prayer together asking Heavenly Father to help us help them,” Melton added. “We stayed the entire day, playing with them and talking and (singing) with them. We were so sad because we knew they just needed someone to stick up for them. But we knew that Heavenly Father was watching over them.”

Tears welled in Mackenzie Wallace’s eyes as she expressed some of the “beautiful lessons” she learned while serving.

“The greatest lesson I learned was the love that our Savior and Heavenly Father have for these people,” she said. “Even before I got there, He loved them. I was so sad to leave, but I know that if I prayed for them, He would watch over them. He loves everyone.”

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