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Certificate projects provide hands-on field experience

Rollin Say, a premed senior completing the global health certificate, conducted fieldwork in Brazil last summer where he focused primarily on community-based research in a remote Amazonian village. Say partnered with a Brazilian nongovernmental organization, which he had already worked with during a DukeEngage independent project.

Say’s research was part of the student fieldwork program. Students looking to conduct fieldwork projects can seek funding from several grants, many of which are funded by the Duke Global Health Institute, and programs like DukeEngage. Students and officials say the program has provided students with a unique, first-hand experience in resolving health-related issues worldwide.

“The most rewarding part of my project was simply the opportunity to live within such a remote community,” Say wrote in an email.

The program, which combines academic inquiry with community service, is currently required for all students pursuing the global health certificate but is also open to other students interested in international healthcare. Past fieldwork projects have focused on a wide range of medical and social topics, including HIV/AIDS, maternal health and specific methods of providing medical care to rural communities all over the world.

“DGHI fieldwork has both [community service and research] within what it does, but it also looks at some of the ethical issues that are involved with working with global health,” said Lysa MacKeen, DGHI student projects coordinator.

Due to political limitations, Say did not succeed in collecting data for his project analyzing the impact the introduction of a new telemedicine system would have on the health attitudes toward healthcare of people in this community. Still, he said the experience was valuable.

“I feel that this experience was perhaps the most formative of my entire Duke career. I learned a great deal about the community as well as about myself in the month I was there,” Say wrote.

Another student deeply affected by her experiences in the program was junior Sneha Shah, who studied maternal mortality last summer in Naama, a small Ugandan village.

Shah received funding for her trip from the Aalok S. Modi Global Health Fieldwork Fund, created in memory of a Duke student who passed away Feb. 2008. Although not pursuing a global health certificate, Shah said she thought that much of her work has held to the theme of global health, specifically her involvement with Duke Global Medical Brigades and Foundations for the International Medical Relief of Children.

“In Uganda, many women delay coming to the hospital, and I wanted to understand what the root cause of this was,” Shah wrote in an email. “I found that many women actually wanted to deliver [their babies] at the hospital, but they had no way of getting there.”

In Uganda, Shah led a task force of community members to develop emergency medical transport insurance, which guarantees transport to the nearest hospital during delivery and maternal complications. She said her mission was to decrease maternal morbidity and mortality by establishing concrete options for unplanned emergencies.

“The most rewarding parts of the project were actually the challenges I faced and what I learned about global health work and about myself,” Shah wrote. “I came in with the wrong mindset of how we needed to ‘fix’ a problem.”

Shah added that her role as a volunteer was to be a catalyst in fixing the problem, not the solution.

“The people of the community have such potential, wisdom, and desire to address the issues of their community. The resources are also available,” she wrote. “We were simply the link between the two and the facilitators of change for what they deemed was a necessary step forward for the community.”

Say and Shah’s personal accounts are only a few of the hundreds of fieldwork experiences that the Global Health Institute has helped make possible.

“I think that the abundance and diversity of student fieldwork grants highlight not only DGHI’s commitment to grounded, real-world education, but also the staff’s extraordinary responsiveness to the desires of students,” wrote senior Brian Clement, who conducted life-history interviews with Bhutanese refugees in southeastern Nepal for his fieldwork project last summer. “DGHI’s willingness to respond to student input has produced some of the most rewarding experiences I have had at Duke.”

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