Friday, 5 December 2014

Elephants, Bombings, and Practicums, Oh My!

Image provided by Lemonia Anagnostopoulos

Lemonia Anagnostopoulos is pursuing her Masters in Public Health at the University of Alberta, and is a recent recipient of the Indira V Samarasekera Global Student Leadership award. During the summer of 2014 she had the chance to pursue a practicum project with AMREF Health Africa, which lead her on a series of adventures in Nairobi, Kenya. This is just a peak at her experience abroad.


As a Master of Public Health graduate student here at the School of Public Health, one of my degree requirements was the undertaking of a 16-week practicum focusing on aspects of international development and community engagement within low-resource settings.  As a result, I chose to carry out my practicum with Amref Health Africa, Africa’s leading health development organization committed to bringing good quality and affordable health care closer to the poorest and most marginalized populations. As an intern in their Maternal and Child Health Unit in Nairobi, I was given the opportunity to work on a research study examining the impact of caregivers’ responses to childhood illness in relation to malaria mortality outcomes in young children in western Kenya, which I was very excited to be a part of. 

Image provided by Lemonia Anagnostopoulos

Not to sugarcoat things however, my experience last summer was not always smooth sailing.  To be perfectly honest my first impression of Nairobi was fairly bleak.  My plane landed just before midnight, I had been travelling for nearly 36 hours, bats were literally flying over my head as a I got off the plane, and I remember thinking what have I gotten myself into? Here I was alone, in a foreign city at night, that’s known globally as “Nairobbery”, with a good chance that my ride was not waiting for me.  Obviously, everything worked out, I obtained a travellers visa with no issue, and my ride was waiting for me with a sign and a cup of coffee.  

Then about halfway through my practicum, our research project lost its funding and was delayed by about 6 months, which meant I would not be able to work on the project and had no deliverable to present my supervisor with when I came home.  Although this seemed like an enormous setback at the time, again things worked out and I was able to carry out a project evaluation for the organization and I’ve actually been able to share my findings from this project at a few national conferences, which is always exciting for a grad student.

Looking back now, I feel that it was of immeasurable importance to experience these setbacks, as this is what working in the field of global health is really like.  While our faculty did an amazing job preparing us for our practicums, there are certain realities to being in the field that academia cannot prepare you for.  Even though I had learned how to use a logical matrix framework to develop a culturally-sensitive project during my coursework, it was really by dealing with stakeholders and funding agencies and their expectations, and watching projects fall through because of civil unrest among different tribes, that I truly gained an understanding and appreciation for aspects of international development.  

I firmly believe that international experience obtained during a student’s academic career – regardless of their major – will strengthen a student’s academic and personal life.  I know that going abroad and experiencing the challenges of navigating a different culture and the successes that arise from overcoming these challenges is really empowering.  I hate to break off into clich├ęs, but for many of us who have grown up in a developed country like Canada, international experiences can open our eyes and help us understand the basic struggles that individuals face just because of where they were born.

For a closer look at Lemonia's adventures, check out her blog posts about getting settled, being in a place with unrest, switching projects, and wrapping things up

If you're interested in learning more about how you (yes, YOU) can study abroad, check out these award opportunities.

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