We Can’t Think of a Career More Meaningful Than This One

Charles Tauber
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Picture your ideal working environment. Does it involve a pet-friendly office, regular happy hours, and tons of free snacks in the office kitchen? Or are you more concerned with things like your company’s mission and being involved in something meaningful? There’s no right answer here, but it’s becoming increasingly common for college students and recent grads to search for a job that will allow them to make a difference in the world.

If you’re not sure what that would look like or how to get started, read our interview with Dr. Charles David Tauber, Head of Mission for Southeast Europe at Coalition for Work with Psychotrauma and Peace. After completing an MD degree, Dr. Tauber made what he thought was a short trip to the war-torn city of Vukovar, Croatia. (He’s been there for nearly two decades now!) Read on to find out how Dr. Tauber discovered a meaningful career and has used his scientific background to stay on track.

What is your academic background?

I majored in Physics at Reed College and completed my MD in The Netherlands. My thesis was on entropy in physics, basically the Einstein equations. In The Netherlands the education was vastly different than Reed, a lot of rote learning, not questioning professors. I survived it, don’t ask me how.

During my studies, I worked in the Department of Psychiatry. After I got out of medical school I began to work with various voluntary groups like Amnesty International and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), providing services for refugees that no one else was providing, such as medical and psychological support.

In the early ‘90s, the Dutch Association for Medical Polemology formed a working group on the war in the Former Yugoslavia. I came down a few times. In June 1995, I made what I thought would be be an assessment trip. I haven’t left since then.

What drew you to study medicine and to study specifically in Europe?

Even before I got to Reed, I had worked extensively with environmental and peace-related organizations. I also had had a few summer jobs with the US National Park Service. I enjoyed working with people and I thought medicine would be a good way of combining science and work with people. Because Reed didn’t have the same grade inflation as other US colleges, it was difficult to get into medical school in the US, so I ended up applying and getting accepted in Belgium.

What did you do right after you graduated? Did you have a break between undergrad and graduate studies?

I first worked for the US National Park Service on Ellis Island for a few months. I then went to medical school at the University of Antwerp, Belgium for a year. For various reasons, mostly financial, I then transferred to The Netherlands.

Where are you currently based?

I’m based in Vukovar, which is one of the first places where the war in Yugoslavia broke out in 1990–91. It’s an iconic city, but during most of 1991 there was very severe fighting, and when I got here in 1995 virtually every building was destroyed. Beyond the physical destruction, there was a lot of psychological devastation, which isn’t that rare, actually—only something like 10% of the world’s population gets the kind of mental health service that it needs.

What are you currently doing? 

I am the Head of Mission for Southeast Europe and a member of the Board of Directors of the Coalition for Work with Psychotrauma and Peace (CWWPP), which offers an interdisciplinary, long-term, deep-going program. We train lay and professional counselors in trauma, non-violent conflict resolution, human rights, and civil society. We currently focus on Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, but we are planning to expand to other countries and continents.

What types of tasks do you perform in a typical day? 

I usually get up at about 5:30 or 6, we have a small internal conference at about 7, and then I spend the rest of the day working with clients in counseling and other forms of assistance, giving education of various sorts, writing educational materials, and doing administrative work. I also teach a Course for Workers in Areas of Regeneration to several groups.

How did the CWWPP come about? What is its mission?

I had originally come to the area as part of a group with Amnesty, IPPNW, and a few other people involved who wanted to do something in former Yugoslavia. In 1992–93, we got together, I came down, and it more or less happened.

The mission of the CWWPP is the empowerment of people, particularly marginalized people. We work particularly in violent and post-violent areas. We work without regard to religion, ethnicity, gender, or other similar types of criteria. We concentrate on health, particularly mental health. We should note that mental health has been severely neglected in recovery and development.

In 2007, the Lancet published a series of articles indicating that about 90% of the people who should be getting assistance with mental health aren’t getting it. We take a long-term, integrated, deep-going, bottom-up approach. We try to listen to grassroots people and try to adapt what we do to them, rather than the other way around. We also try to learn from our mistakes. Unfortunately, we have seen many governmental and inter-governmental organizations as well as other non-governmental organizations taking top-down approaches that are superficial and time-limited. We believe such approaches to be ineffective.

How has your scientific background affected your approach to your work?

I’ve used my empirical and observational training extensively here. I’ve used my scientific background to look very critically at what’s going on, used the scientific method, and written a number of papers and applied the literature to what we’re doing.

We’re one of the few organizations taking that “scientific approach.” Most of the organizations are going at it without really looking at the literature or seeing what’s been done or testing what they’re doing or admitting that it’s possible to have made a mistake, and so they go at it blindly.

Because of my scientific background I was able to approach the problem in that way. We can look at the problems that we’re facing from various disciplines, sociological, economic, peacebuilding, historiographic. I’d say that that’s one of the advantages specifically of a Reed education. Reed is a very special place; it encourages a far more questioning type of general academic experience.

What advice would you give to current college students who are science majors?

Keep your minds open, keep your options open. Learn how to think critically. Don’t be dogmatic. Don’t follow authority. Think for yourself—don’t be afraid of that. And don’t be afraid of the criticism that you’ll get when you do that, because you will.

Homework time! Does making a difference in the world matter to you? Seek out non-profits or organizations whose missions you care about and start getting involved with them on a volunteer basis. If you think you’d like to start your own organization, read about how one college student and some of her classmates started their own non-profit. It’s not as difficult as it seems!

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