Uganda, Mali, and Burkina Faso… and maybe an MPH/MSW? But that’s for the future! Global Health Alumni Interview with Jorie Larson (2010, SESP)

Name: Jorie Larson (2010, SESP)
Major: Social Policy
Minor: Global Health

Only a few weeks after graduating from Northwestern University in the Spring of 2010, Jorie Larson was already on her way to Mali to work as a health education specialist with the Peace Corps. Two years later she is back in the US, temporarily, while getting ready for her next big step in her career: the Peace Corps Response Program in Burkina Faso. Read an interview with global health studies alumna Jorie Larson about her professional and personal experiences in various stages of her career.

Q: What did you do after graduation and where are you now?

Jorie organized a training for 16 local traditional birth attendants in her village Malinke, Mali

A: While at Northwestern, I completed my BS in Social Policy from SESP and a global health minor. Within weeks of my graduation ceremony I was en route to hot, dry Mali, West Africa to live in a small rural village as a health education specialist with the Peace Corps. My experience living there, up until recent weeks when the program was evacuated due to political instability, was one of the most valuable experiences, personally and professionally, in my life. I was posted in a village of 1,000 ethnic Malinke in a difficult-to-reach area of western Mali. My primary work revolved around maternal/child health, since up to 1 in 5 children in Mali dies before age 5 due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrheal disease, and other preventable illnesses. I primarily worked in conjunction with the local community health center, conducting a behavioral health survey of the community; standardizing a malnutrition outreach and infant growth monitoring program; creating Information, Education and Communication opportunities within and outside of the center; and working with both formal staff and informal, locally-chosen community health educators on preventive and health promotion efforts including vaccination and family planning education. While there, I also collaborated with the district hospital doctors to organize a training for the staff of 36 health centers on the visual inspection method for cervical cancer prevention in low-resource environments; on the local level, the doctor at my clinic worked with me to organize a training for traditional birth attendants, whose services were heavily relied upon in my area, on basic principles of safer home births. Next month, I’ll be moving to Burkina Faso to begin a year-long post with the Peace Corps Response program, focusing on combating child nutrition with the Center for Nutritional Rehabilitation and Education there. After that, I’m considering pursuing an MPH/MSW program…but that’s for the future.

 Q: How did your global health studies at NU influence your career choice and your life in general?

A: Global health studies and my minor had a huge influence on my chosen path. As a social policy major, I did not plan to pursue clinical medicine but was very interested in health and access to health care as a social justice issue, and I knew I wanted to work on a global scale. I loved that the minor offered the chance to delve into global health from a variety of angles, from the policy side, the programmatic side, the epi side, and from the perspective of various sub-fields within global health. One of the favorite courses I took was “Community Health Program Planning,” where we did case studies of various health issues being tackled all over the world through innovative approaches, many of which were at least partly socio-behavioral in nature. It was really that class that got me thinking about what it might be like to work with an NGO or international organization on broad health issues, on finding locally-appropriate ways to increase access to health information and health care. As my time at Northwestern progressed and I was able to take a variety of GH courses, it became more clear to me that a career combining public health and social justice would be a good fit for me.

 Q: Which IPD program did you choose for your studies abroad and how has it influenced you?

Jorie on the Northwestern IPD Public Health in Uganda Program in 2009

A: But it wasn’t until I went on the IPD study abroad program, Public Health in Uganda, that I really made a decision to pursue international health work immediately following graduation. I had been to Ghana on a brief HIV/AIDS related service trip before, but this was my first time to spend a significant amount of time in Africa. The program, which provided classroom experience in public health in the developing world as well as practical experience with an NGO, taught me a few things. 1)  I had to find some way back to Africa, to live, for some substantial amount of time, 2) I wanted to get a better sense on the scope of health challenges in rural Africa, where most Africans live–there were many public health resources in the capital of Kampala, but I knew the difficulties and the need must be even greater in villages and in harder to reach areas, and 3) There was no need to choose between my interest in social justice/concern for the most vulnerable and my interest in public health. While in Uganda, I worked with an NGO for current and former street children, and we developed an educational drama on HIV/AIDS to share at a local school. It was in many ways the best of both worlds, as I got to work with vulnerable youth–which I’d done quite a bit in the States–and also to work on a very real and salient health challenge. I also had a great opportunity to see firsthand the anthropological aspects of public health, and how effective public health messages have to be culture- and resource-appropriate. I left Uganda after that spring quarter of my junior year knowing that I would look for international opportunities in health following graduation, and I applied to Peace Corps within two months of being home. In that sense, the Public Health in Uganda program had a major influence on my choices.

Q: Do you have any advice or suggestions for current global health students on how to get involved or how to choose their career path in global health?

A: My only piece of advice would be to be open-minded and try to take advantage of taking courses in a variety of different areas while you’re still at NU. One of the greatest things about the program, I think, is that it is broad and designed to be extremely flexible to your interests. We all have to take core GH courses, but really take a good look at courses in other disciplines, such as gender studies, anthropology, or international studies, and even look at seminars that may be salient to global health issues. For those minors who are not planning on going into any kind of medicine and are instead coming from a sociology, social work, anthropology, policy, or other background, know that there are so many ways to find meaningful work in global health; you needn’t be a doctor or nurse. Much of the public health work I’ve seen going on in Mali is preventative in nature, and public health needs social workers, policy makers, anthropologists, health educators, and development specialists just as it needs clinical medicine practitioners. If you’re on the fence about which direction you want to go, getting some grassroots experience, especially internationally through a volunteer program or with an NGO, might give you a good sense of what areas interest you–being in the Peace Corps gave me a chance to see different health issues at the ground level, and solidified my interest in maternal/child and reproductive health. Whether international or in the US with underserved populations, a good health field experience will  make decisions about further study or a career path much easier, and many grad programs now prefer several years’ experience, so it will only be an advantage.

Q: What’s one life lesson that you have learned since you started working?

A: One life lesson I’ve learned from my work experience post graduation, so far, has been that having a sense of humor  and remembering your purpose, is invaluable. Any kind of work in the developing world often goes at a glacially slow pace, and there will inevitably be ridiculous setbacks and moments when the enormity of the fight you’re fighting seems impossible–but there are also beautiful moments when you realize that each person that you can influence positively, be it a colleague at the health center  or a mother of a malnourished child or a secondary school student in a health class–is one person empowered to be healthier, and one by one is how real change occurs and is sustained. Laugh at yourself, do it often (Mali taught me that) and remember that each relationship that you build is important–though you may not see the effects right away.

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