moving forward

Today marks one week since we first found out that our DukeEngage program in Haiti was cut short, and we’d be returning to the United States a month early.

I feel as if I left a part of me in that small country on the Caribbean. And no, I’m not talking about my favorite white shirt that I somehow managed to lose somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the guest house. I mean I genuinely feel like something is missing within me. I’ve been home for a few days now, and it still doesn’t feel right. As soon as I arrived home I burst in to tears, and I had to gently explain to my parents that I wasn’t upset to be seeing them, I was upset that I had to leave Haiti early. I’ve spent the last few days trying to force my body clock to return to normal (I slept from 9pm to 5am the first night home) and making phone calls to DukeEngage and Duke Global Health Institute to figure out my plans for the rest of the summer. I’ve decided that I will be developing a DukeEngage Independent Project next summer. And that means I really need to start the job search pretty soon, but I’m still too exhausted to do that just yet.

Adjusting to life back home is a challenge, to say the least. Although I will admit, it is nice to finally not be sweating and dehydrated all the time. But, traveling to a third world country really brings perspective to so many things that we take for granted every day. Every time I open my refrigerator or take a sip of clean water or have leftover food on my plate, I try to remind myself not to take that for granted. That there are people in this world, some of whom I just met less than two weeks ago, who may never have such a privilege. And so now I want, more than anything, to try to find a way to help those people get those things for themselves.

Now that I’m home, for the first time I’m finding myself grappling to answer questions like “What exactly is Global Health?” and “Why are you so interested in working in developing countries?” These are questions to which I had never formed explicit, concrete answers. They just seemed obvious to me. Even further, I’m questioning what exactly it is I want to do moving forward. Finding an internship for a public health organization might be the first step, but I have to think more long-term. I can read every Paul Farmer book every written, I can call every Duke alumni or email every connection I have to Haiti or to global health (including the director general of FAES, a Haitian government organization, whom I met on the plane to Miami). I can start planning my senior thesis or even start looking at the G.R.E. or at possible graduate schools. But as of now, all that matters is going back. I need to find an NGO or government organization that I can partner with for my DukeEngage Independent Project, that will allow me to go back to Haiti for the summer while simultaneously fulfilling my Public Policy internship. It’s a huge undertaking, but as of now it’s one of my top priorities.

What I’m interested in studying is the social determinants of health – factors such as poverty, gender inequality, ethnicity, geographic location, religion, etc. that influence an individual’s health and access to medical services. I’m also interested in the role of the public sector and government-supported services in the development of a nation, particularly in its recovery from complex humanitarian emergencies like earthquakes, genocide, or disease outbreaks. We’re constantly talking about the importance of infrastructure in a country’s development, and Haiti’s lack of government support and infrastructure being a major reason for their inability to support themselves. In Paul Farmer’s book Haiti After the Earthquake, he writes that Rwanda was able to recover from the destruction caused by the 1994 genocide in a remarkable way, simply because there were government programs that supported the rebuilding efforts. In Haiti, widespread corruption, political instability, and lack of education has prevented the government from rising to the level it should be at. But really, the key to a successful recovery is a strong public sector, and government-sponsored services like health care, education, employment, and industry.

This is just one of dozens of concepts and ideas that I would love to research and learn more about. Maybe after reading more books on Haiti, after taking more classes in Global Health and learning about NGOs in the developing world, and after speaking with Duke professors or other contacts, I will have a better grasp of what I may be doing in the next few years. I may actually be able to give honest, explicit answers to the questions that continue to stump me.

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