Northwestern GlobeMed’s research team, Udita Persaud, Jimmy Wester, Camille Cooley, and Aysha Salter-Volz, received funding from the Radulovacki Global Health Research Fellowship to conduct research in the communities surrounding their partner organization, the Adonai Child Development Centre, in Uganda.
Tell us about your project.
Udita: Globe Med has a partner organization in Namugoga, Uganda and we go every year to evaluate our partnership and do research. Our research focused on looking overall at the assets and resources in the community and how people seek healthcare, who they go to healthcare, how they think about healthcare. We got to use really cool qualitative research methods along with community-based participatory research methods.
Camille: We spent six weeks in Namugoga, Uganda, which is a village about an hour and half outside the capital, Kampala. We were able to interview a lot of people in the local village but the area is very dense in terms of the number of villages that are there and the number of communities. So we got to meet a lot of interesting people and hear a lot of really interesting perspectives and make a lot of really great friends there as well. So I think we all really miss it.
Why did you decide to research this topic this year?
Aysha: I think in the past a lot of the research for Globe Med has had a very narrow focus and we wanted to do something that was more holistic and that gave our organization a better understanding of the community for future projects. Also it hadn’t really been done before and [in GlobeMed’s past research] we weren’t really getting the breadth of knowledge since we were focusing more on individual cases.
Jimmy: I think in past years we’ve had very focused research without that foundational knowledge of how the community functions or how the whole system works. We wanted there to be less discontinuity from year to year so we thought having this background would be really beneficial research for years to come. When we end up doing more specific research, we’ll have a way better understanding. With that, Camille was working on a pre-departure guide. Orientation and pre-departure materials will help other groups moving forwards so that they have a better foundation.
Camille: I think in the past, a lot of the teams going in didn’t know what to expect. It was very much a learn-as-you-go process. We were able to accumulate a lot of the knowledge we gained through the entire process and I’ve managed to put it in a pre-departure guide for future teams which I think will be pretty helpful in supporting whatever future research occurs.
What kind of preparation did you all have?
Udita: I think that was a big problem because there’s no pre-departure and we’re not part of any set program, which can be really difficult because you don’t even know what to expect. We did talk to the student who went last year—a couple of us had dinner with them. We were able to ask them questions but for the most part, we were going into it blind.
What was your most meaningful experience abroad and what did you learn from it?
Camille: I think one of the moments that stood out was during an interview. One of the interviewees had been interviewed the year before and really wanted to know what came out of this research, and really wanted to know what we were doing to give back to the community. That was very powerful to me because the community is very invested in the people that live there, and really want to make sure that the work that gets done is moving everyone forward. To me that was a very powerful moment in regards to the potential impact we have in communities abroad.
Jimmy: I remember some interviews where people were critical of the work we were doing and making sure that they were holding us accountable. When we came in, they were like, “oh we remember you guys from last year. You asked us so many questions last year, what’s come of that?” Obviously we are not directly accountable for the work of last year’s team, but we want to be able to have at least some identifiable change that we have accomplished. That really coalesced to a higher standard and made us want to do better and make sure that we are in communication with next year’s team.
Udita: We also got funding to have a partnership as part of our research to make our work more sustainable. We tried to do this through a partnership where Northwestern students and Ugandan students can come together and do research together. It’s often challenging when undergraduate students come to another country that they don’t have a lot of knowledge about. So Ugandan students can come in and help guide us through this. We can also learn a lot about research together. So we’re trying to put that together for next year.
What was your most challenging moment or aspect, and how did you cope?
Aysha: I had a really hard time being abroad the whole time but it was really cool to just realize that I was in a different country and there was so much there that I would have never been able to experience otherwise. For many reasons, it was very grounding to interview people and realize that I was in a completely different part of the world but at the same time just with people. So that made it better but it was still very difficult. More specifically, it was difficult combatting mixed feelings about why we were there and whether or not our research was actually worthwhile for the community or whether we were inadvertently exploiting that for our own academic agenda. Even though we wanted to do something that was for them, it was harder to reconcile different power dynamics. So on top of the challenge of being abroad, having that cognitive dissonance was really hard to justify.
Udita: Also, our research just didn’t get cleared [by the Ugandan research board] in the beginning, which was a big set back for us. Whenever you go abroad, that’s something you don’t think about. We did everything in our power and did everything we should have done and we got there and they were like, these are not the right things. You haven’t gone through the necessary protocols. Having to deal with that is really hard and not knowing where to turn is really hard because your principal investigator is here in Evanston and maybe doesn’t know how they do things in Uganda. So that was really hard for us in the beginning because we didn’t even know if we could do our research.
How do you think your experiences have impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern or after? Both as individuals and for Globe Med moving forward?
Camille: Personally, it’s reaffirmed my passion for health. I know I want to stay in the health field and focus on public and global health, which has been really gratifying. If anything I think the trip itself has led to a lot of questions. For example, in what capacity do I want to work in this field? Is global health or public health the right fit for me? It was overall a great experience in shaping how I see my future and my career goals. I think in terms of Globe Med, we mentioned an upcoming partnership and that will be a huge part of how Globe Med evolves and how we mediate the relationship between our partner and our students. If anything, I think it’s going to make our relationships with the people in Uganda richer. I think chapter members are going to be able to have more substantive experiences that they can hear about from future research team members.
Udita: As a graduating senior, I think it’s reaffirmed a lot of things I like to do and brought up a lot of questions that I have with engagement abroad and how we work in global health abroad. I really like thinking about things like capacity building and partnership building. I want to continue doing that because I have a lot of questions that still don’t have answers.
Aysha: Similar to Camille, going abroad and doing the research got me thinking constantly about health related issues which reaffirmed that I want to do something in health. It also made me realize that I want to work internationally and also focus on health issues domestically too. A lot of the time it was interesting to be so far away learning about health disparities in that community and think about how that wasn’t my community. There are so many health disparities within our own communities back here. I think I also learned a lot about Globe Med that I didn’t really realize before and would not realized if I hadn’t gone on the trip.
Jimmy: It was a very positive experience over all, but at the same time it allowed me to think very critically about international involvement. We definitely benefitted the community in some capacity but at the same time I had to question how much good we are actually doing. So with that, I think I still want to go into the health field but I want to be more present within whatever community I am involved in. It also made me understand the importance of qualitative research since I think I am more prone to the medical standpoint of wanting to be as efficient as possible.
Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location?
Udita: We all did a lot of prep work before we went abroad and tried to make our design as reasonable as possible. So going there and finding out nothing turned out the way you expected shows you really need to gain knowledge about where you are going and have someone there who is there to advise you in country. Having connections wherever you are researching in the academic field. You also need to be very open and flexible with whatever might come your way.
Jimmy: Not to be cliché, but be genuine, be present, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s always hard being in a new community so it’s important to show that you care about the work that’s being done.
What do you hope to do with this work?
Udita: We just got our last couple of transcripts back and now we’re trying to compile it all into a comprehensive report before the end of this quarter. We have already had the chance to present preliminary findings to the community, which was an amazing experience. We hope to have the final report translated [into the local language] for our partner organization so that they can disseminate that report to the community members, especially the community leaders.
Jimmy: Our last week there, we had a focus group with village health workers as well as a discussion with community leaders and during both of those, people expressed a lot of interest in getting a copy of the report from this year.