For my STEP Signature Project, I participated in the Public Health Perspectives India study abroad. I spent a little over 27 days in India taking a class on Global Public Health at a local university and traveling to local public health facilities for field excursions.
Prior to this trip, the furthest I had been out of the country was a family trip to Niagara Falls in Canada when I was twelve, so to say I was nervous for this experience would be a gross understatement. Regardless of my fears of getting lost in foreign airports or having my plane fall out of the sky at thirty-nine thousand feet, however, I boarded the first of several flights shortly after my last final exam for the semester with a backpack, a blanket, and a few barely contained terrified tears in my eyes. Soon after arriving in Mangalore, India a short thirty-five hours later, I found that I had no need to worry. I discovered in myself an untapped love for experiencing new languages, cultures, foods, and climates, navigating busy streets, and exploring abundant markets.
In addition to gaining the aforementioned confidence, a sense of independence, and a love for discovering foreign cultures, I also gained a great sense of perspective about what life is truly like in a lower middle income country. It is incredibly easy to become desensitized to the realities of disease and health conditions when hearing about outbreaks in foreign countries, but seeing the conditions in which people live and their health care facilities first hand made the abstract concepts that I have learned in my public health courses at Ohio State incredibly real. Also, having the opportunity to learn the social context of many of India’s health outcomes has greatly informed my field of study by helping me to further consider the social factors which contribute to health status of populations, as well as inspired me to pursue a career in international health.
In terms of the greatest impact, the field excursions that we took as a part of the course had the greatest effect. I had the opportunity to see many incredible sites such as a modern water treatment plant, a milk processing facility, a women’s health clinic, a clinic for a rural community, a brick making factory, a slum, a children’s preschool, and many other public health sites in the area. The most impactful field excursion for me personally, however, was a trip that I took to Manasa Jyothi, a local non-profit orphanage run by a woman from the Netherlands, Maartje, who takes in children whose families cannot care for them. Hearing Maartje speak about her experiences and meeting the children was incredibly emotional. Seeing the children there and witnessing the immense love and kindness with which they greeted a pack of complete strangers, but knowing the discrimination and hardships they have faced and will continue to for the rest of their lives was heart wrenching. One girl with Turner Syndrome would continually come up to me, move my hair off my shoulder, tuck her head under my arm and cuddle into me, holding my hand. It was incredibly hard to imagine the horrors and pain that she has experienced, especially when Maartje spoke about finding her wandering outside of the village after being abandoned by her parents.
Upon hearing about the horrors faced by the mentally and physically disabled with whom we interacted, it became very important for me to remember and consider the culture and social conditions surrounding mental illness, especially in poor rural areas. A family with a disabled child may not only have trouble affording care for them, but also have difficulty finding marriages for their other children, due to the immense social stigma. For some families, taking their children to the NGO is the only option they feel that they have. Also, hearing Maartje speak about her personal journey also really resonated with me. It is often very easy to idealize those that sell all of their possessions and move to a developing country and work in service, but in practice that is very difficult. Hearing about her personal struggles with balancing her desire to be the voice of those she is caring for in India with her family and obligations back in the Netherlands made me feel much better about my own inner-conflict over similar issues regarding my future. She also told us that she is she is nearly ready to find her own balance after spending nine years working with the children there, and this helped me to realize that humanitarian work does not have to be an all or nothing career—balance can be achieved.
Another aspect of my trip that really impacted me was the contrast between the areas that I experienced. Manipal, the area in which we were stationed for several weeks, is a poorer, rural area. Here, I saw a lot of poverty, trash strewn across streets, run down businesses, slums, stray dogs, and children begging. After the completion of the classwork for the course, we spent several days travelling further inland and spent time in a city called Mysore. Mysore was extremely different from Manipal. The area was much wealthier, had sidewalks and paved streets, gorgeous buildings and monuments, and even a palace. This area looked more like a modern European city than anything I ever expected to see in India. Seeing this contrast between the two cities reminded me that I cannot generalize an entire country as one economic and demographic area. Just like in the United States, there are some areas that are much more wealthy than others.
This transformation is significant for my future professional goals, because I realized that I do have an intense desire to work in some realm of international healthcare. Seeing the areas of India where efforts to improve people’s social, economic and health outcomes have been successful, as well as areas that still need improvement has made me hopeful that progress has been achieved and will continue to make a difference. I also realized that I can still pursue my personal interest of raising a family and still do humanitarian work.
Also, gaining the confidence and social capitol to travel to foreign countries has been transformational for me personally. After this trip, I have the confidence and desire to travel even further and am currently planning a future trip to Thailand to learn even more about places far away from me. Through this experience, I have gained a life long desire to travel and learn and I am incredibly grateful to have been able to participate in the STEP program through Ohio State.