The Global Health Portal recently spoke with Rebekah Williams (WCAS 2015) and Kaitlin Hansen (WCAS 2015) to learn more about how their study abroad experience in South Africa led to summer research and strengthened their career goals.
Tell us about your project. What inspired your work?
In the past decade, post-apartheid South Africa has experienced an unprecedented shift in how the government addresses the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS. With the National Strategic Plan that rolled out in 2007, the public sector has taken dramatic steps in taking over much of the early treatment options for HIV/AIDS, which has expanded the reach of antiretroviral therapy treatment with more cost-effective options and increased access. While previous studies have looked at how the policy shift affects how individuals perceive access to health facilities in the civil sector, there are no studies from the perspective of the civil sector itself. The purpose of our research was to answer the following question: How does the HIV/AIDS policy shift in the public sector in South Africa affect the strategic action plan goals and daily work of Legacy, a community-based NGO, in terms of their prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in Kayamandi?
We were inspired to conduct this research because we both studied abroad in Stellenbosch through IPD’s Public Health and Development in South Africa program. Additionally, both of us are interested in working in the civil sector after graduation, so this was a great opportunity to learn about the inner-workings of an NGO. As part of our study abroad program, we were placed with Legacy for the service learning portion of our curriculum, and we thought that it would be great if we could not only continue our relationship with the organization, but also extend our learning throughout the summer.
We thought that Legacy would be a great organization to study for this research because Legacy focuses most of their work around the disproportionately high rate of HIV/AIDS in Kayamandi. Moreover, we knew that the new HIV policy had a direct impact on one of their programs, Ikhaya Lempilo. In 2014, Legacy changed Ikhaya Lempilo from an inpatient to an outpatient facility, shifting its focus from the treatment to the prevention of HIV through education and awareness. We wanted to explore why and how this shift happened, as well as the unintended consequences of the policy.
What was your most meaningful experience abroad, and what did it teach you?
Meeting the children in the after-school sex education classes that Legacy Centre offered was by far one of the most meaningful experiences we had while working on this project. The kids were full of energy, hope and curiosity. That experience truly motivated us and reminded us of the importance of our research and directly put us in line with the people or larger questions that our work would be affecting. It was a humbling and encouraging reminder of the meaning of our work now and the work we hope to do post-graduation.
How did your experience on the ground vary from your expectations?
One thing that we did not anticipate was the unresponsiveness of NGOs in Cape Town. After we finished our research in Stellenbosch/Kayamandi, we thought it would be interesting to extend our research to the Cape Town area, especially because we were living there during the summer. However, even with follow-up emails, only one out of the six organizations we emailed responded. Therefore, we kept our research as an isolated Kayamandi case study.
Did you encounter any cultural differences that required getting used to?
We didn’t speak the local language Xhosa that most of the locals spoke. While most of the executive staff whom we interviewed were fluent in English, it did provide a cultural barrier when we walked around the NGO grounds. We weren’t able to engage in conversations as easily with the children, parents and local community staff and had to resort to our (very, very, very) broken Xhosa lessons. Through a combination of English, broken-Xhosa and good old impromptu sign-language, we were able to meet this challenge as best as possible.
Has your summer experience impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern?
At the start of our project, we both had hopes for pursuing global health work post-college. As rising seniors, this opportunity was invaluable in encouraging those aspirations. Working in an international field site strengthened our vision of the challenges, victories and reality that public health work abroad entails. Walking away from our time in South Africa, we are encouraged to pursue a future in the field and are eager to one day return to Cape Town!
Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location?
BE PATIENT AND FLEXIBLE. It is crucial to have local connections, or your research will not go smoothly. Additionally, scour online reviews for housing because you definitely want to stay somewhere with people your own age for mental health’s sake, but you want to make sure where you’re living is safe and not TOO much of a party, because that might get tiresome after two months. Besides that, it’s important to take a step back from your research and remember that you are young and in another country so you should HAVE FUN!