5 Lessons Learned from My International Practicum | Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis
MPH Student Aishwarya Nagar
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5 Lessons Learned from My International Practicum

For those that are globally inclined at the Brown School, the summer presents an exciting opportunity to complete a practicum internationally.

MPH students specializing in Global Health and MSW students specializing in International Social & Economic Development (ISED) are encouraged to work with one of the many international practicum sites located all over the world. Practicum activities can involve anything from implementing a program, to analyzing and evaluating policies, to conducting research studies.

As a Global Health student myself, I spent my summer working in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, Haiti, with Dr. Lora Iannotti’s research team and another global health practicum student. Dr. Iannotti’s work focuses on maternal and child nutrition in resource-poor settings to promote healthy growth and development. Her research sites include Ecuador, Haiti, and East Africa.

In Haiti this summer, our projects included data collection for an air quality study and formative research for a maternal nutrition study. Throughout the summer we worked closely with instructors and students from the public health program at Universite Publique du Nord Au Cap Haitien (UPNCH) which has a close partnership with the Brown School.

As with any profoundly transformative professional experience, I learned a lot of lessons through my international practicum:

1. Global health work is rewarding when it is transdisciplinary.

For most of our projects, we collaborated with people across other fields and disciplines. The first few weeks of our practicum were spent working with engineers who were training us to collect and analyze air quality data. Although I had no prior experience with environmental engineering, I benefited greatly from learning how to solve problems and conduct on-the-spot troubleshooting through the lens of an engineer. We were exposed to cross-cultural collaboration for higher education while working with students and leadership from UPNCH. Other projects involved working with the city’s health care system, and collaborating with medical professionals & health care workers added greatly to our experience. I gained a deep appreciation for how innovative and transformative global health work can be when multiple disciplines join forces to solve critical public health problems.

2. When put in difficult situations, it is important to be flexible and adaptable.

Working internationally comes with many challenges, but being flexible and adaptable is the key to turning challenges into learning experiences. There were days when I was pushed outside of my comfort zone because of issues with transportation, language barriers, and the logistical challenges of going without electricity or running water. However, I learned to put these challenges in context of the realities around me and used it as an opportunity to learn more about structures and systems that exacerbate these issues. Altering your decision-making and perceptions in situations like this teaches you that the more uncomfortable you are now, the more comfortable you will be the next time you take on a similar challenge.

3. The friendships and connections you make are transformative.

The most enjoyable part of my international practicum was connecting with our local community partners & collaborators. As someone who is drawn to story-telling and understanding lived experiences, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to understand life in Cap-Haitien through the eyes of our newfound friends. My conversations with our partners, local families, and the people we met during our practicum taught me about the health, politics, and culture in Haiti. More importantly, it underscored the importance of truly learning from the community that you are in. Our peers’ perspectives on structural inequalities, air quality, education, nutrition, food security, and health care has pushed me to reevaluate my understanding of key global public health issues.

4. Challenge monolithic depictions of your practicum site.

Before travelling to Haiti, I was determined to do as much exploratory research as possible in order to better prepare for my practicum. Most of the information I came across focused exclusively on the country’s rampant poverty and lack of resources. My practicum experiences consistently challenged this one-dimensional view. With a flourishing art industry, unique religious practices, and breathtaking scenery, Cap-Haitien challenged all of these monolithic depictions of Haiti. We challenged ourselves to become more immersed in our experience and continue learning by frequenting local restaurants, bargaining for groceries at the downtown market, visiting the artist’s market, attending festivals, and more.

5. You may need to find adventurous ways to take care of yourself.

Global health work can be physically and emotionally demanding. I needed to regularly engage in self-care in order to be ready for the next day. For us, self-care looked like making it to the nearest beach through whatever mode of transportation we could find. Sometimes, it looked like exploring the newly opened bakery in town and finding unique works of art at the artist’s market. On several occasions, we pooled resources with friends and took boat taxis out to secluded coves and islands off of the northern coast of Haiti. I may have been completing my practicum, but it was still the summer!