This summer, the Northwestern GlobeMed GROW team traveled to Namugoga, Uganda and worked with the Adonai Medical Centre to learn more about the community’s perception of malaria and bed nets as part of the John & Martha Mabie Fellowship for Public Health, which helps fund student research. The GlobeMed team comprised Weinberg seniors Victoria Zapater-Charette and Carol Feng, Weinberg junior Marilyn Janisch, and SESP freshman Neil Thivalapill. Members of the team study a range of fields, including: biological sciences, philosophy, Spanish, human development and psychological services, anthropology, and cognitive science — and of course, global health.
How did your experience on the ground vary from your expectations?
Marilyn: As a person that had never been out of the country, I really didn’t have many expectations. I had no idea what to expect except, per the past GROW teams, how welcoming and friendly everyone at our partner, Adonai, was going to be. When I got to Namugoga, I was overwhelmed by the openhearted friends we would soon make. This experience was nothing like I was expecting. However, the first few weeks were more difficult than I would have been able to anticipate. I never knew what it felt like to be so out of my comfort zone, away from my culture and ripped from my usual lifestyle. As time went on, I learned to get past the unfamiliarity of a new place and just soak up the experience I was fortunate enough to have and take advantage of getting to know the wonderful people around me.
What was your most challenging moment, and how did you cope?
Marilyn: Throughout the stay, there were many different aspects that I had to adjust to. From shower accommodations to religious events, it was a lot to take in. However, coming from a very independent “self” culture to a very sharing and collaborative environment was one of the most difficult things to deal with. Having the need for alone time but the expectation to mingle and be social at nearly all hours of the day was very overwhelming and difficult to manage. I felt very misunderstood as being “quiet” or even “standoffish.” In order to express my true self while still being comfortable, I decided to be more present and active while I was outside and with the children, something that didn’t particularly come naturally to me. I gave myself a bit of a routine: a time to type the field notes of the day and a short time to even workout. This gave me a moment to myself and allowed me to reinstate the structure of my everyday life back at home.
Tell us about your project. What inspired your work?
Victoria: Each year, our ideas for the research projects begin with our partner. We are in contact throughout the year via Skype and email so when the team is decided, we discuss what we as students can do to best help the Namugoga community and the new clinic specifically. This year we studied the barriers to use of mosquito nets and the treatment seeking practices of community members to see how the Adonai clinic can best address these current issues.
What was your most meaningful experience abroad, and what did it teach you?
Victoria: With the nature of our qualitative and semi-structured research methods, we had the opportunity to hear community members’ stories without simply collecting survey data. We conducted most of the interviews inside or near community members’ homes and I was so grateful for how welcoming they were to students who they had never met. Both through the research and with our time living at the Adonai Centre, it was the process of learning personal stories, both about healthcare and not, that will stick with me for a very long time. This taught me to take advantage of every random encounter or free moment to chat because you never know whom you will meet and how their seemingly different experiences may relate to your own.
Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location?
Victoria: The most important thing for me visiting a new community, even one I had heard so much about from my peers, was consistently keeping an open mind and open ears. No matter how well you prepare by speaking with other people or reading about the area, nothing will compare to the initial experience of arriving on the ground and absorbing everything you can. Our research questions and aims changed in just the first few interviews because there were challenges we hadn’t foreseen as well as simple solutions to what we as foreigners had perceived as problems. Finally, outside of whatever you are working on in the community, it is so important to participate in the social activities alongside community members. Some of our best memories are from the huge soccer tournament, long walks with Adonai workers, and meals shared with locals.
Did you encounter any cultural differences?
Neil: There were definitely many cultural differences that the GROW team had to get used to. What was probably most evident was the calling out of our ethnicities in public or in conversation. While we may think it’s rude to identify someone solely based on their race, it was something that happened almost every day and something that became part of our daily routine that we just had to understand. A religious affiliation is part of everyday culture in the area of our partner. For me, it was hard to reconcile my own lack of religious conviction with their religious conviction. The conservative nature of the clothing was also sometimes hard to work around simply because I saw my friends forcing themselves to put on skirts and dresses in order to be culturally sensitive even though it might have been uncomfortable to wear.
Has your summer experience impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern or after?
Carol: Leaving Uganda this summer, I gained a sense of clarity about my goals and interests — professionally and otherwise. Our time spent in the field working with our partner organization and the Namugoga village has reaffirmed my commitment to pursuing a future in which I can contribute positively to the health outcomes of underserved communities. Being able to see for myself the immense burden that health can have in the lives of others in this particular setting further motivated me to work towards changing that reality. Fortunately though, working with Adonai’s growing medical center showed me the possibility and potential to lift that burden — revitalizing my interest in medicine. Through our research interviews, I found that I really enjoyed talking to people about their experiences, problems and hopes. Connecting with people — and then having the technical knowledge to empower them to take ownership over their health — is what informs my desire to pursue a medical degree as soon as I can.