One year ago, I left my hut in Senegal with so many worries. I was worried I would never feel so inspired, that the babies would never know how much joy they brought to me during the first years of their lives, that I would forget who I was and who I became from my experience. I battled my worries upon coming home by making my apartment look like Senegal entered it via tornado, and by diving right away into the world of academia.
I realized that while I had become a more practical and critical thinker when it came to public health; some of the optimism and sunny outlook I had on life had been darkened, not disappeared but gone into hiding. I think this developed from the realization of the vastness of the public health problems I saw that were growing at a rapid pace. I was so frustrated that the small battles that I was trying to fight did not always win, that people frame public health successes in so many different ways and I saw that not all of them were what they seemed. Becoming a more practical and critical thinker has become useful in my new academic career, but in some ways my positive worldview, the impetus for entering this field, went missing.
Studying for my Master’s of Public Health was something that I needed to do for my career. I had a list of skills I needed to acquire and knew that Emory was known for teaching students the skills and providing connections I needed and tools to work in global health, specifically humanitarian response and program management. I am acquiring these skills from some of the big shots in public health. I am learning the rules of research and the importance of the words ‘iterative’ and ‘capacity’. More importantly, I am questioning myself as a public health practitioner and figuring where I fit in this puzzle of working towards a healthier and just world.
Last week, I attended an ‘ethics dinner’ that was organized by a second year student. The goal of the event was to discuss public health ethics and how the conversation about ethics should fit in as researchers and practitioners. I thought this activity would make me give up, because the conversations about our motivations for working in public health come with some tough questions. One student spoke about how she was from a poor country and that is why she was in global health, and did not understand what our place was as westerners to be working there. What is my motivation? Sometimes when I am asked to reflect on these questions and cannot give an answer, I contemplate quitting and using my newly acquired skills in statistics on Wall Street.
Tonight, I attended an event celebrating the career of one of my favorite professors, Dr. Stan Foster, who is a global health legend. In front of 500 of his closest friends and colleagues, he reflected on his career of 50 years and counting of working to eradicate smallpox, to improve the health of American Indians, to working as an inspiring professor and mentor to hundreds of what he calls ‘learners’ (students). The resounding message that stayed with me was the key to his success in ethical and successful global health service is his optimism and relationships with his colleagues, communities in which he worked, and family. After the talk, over a glass of wine, I asked him if he felt like a ‘total celeb.’ He replied by telling me the important part of his whole career is that he is now here with friends.
As I was walking out of the building in my sparkly bowtie (which everyone got to honor Stan’s impressive bowtie collection), my friend Daouda, who works as a nurse in the area in which I served in Peace Corps, called from Senegal. He had heard what happened at the marathon Boston, my hometown, and was so worried about my family and me and wanted to make sure I was safe. I hung up and thought to myself, this is why I am in global health. It is not about and ‘us’ or a ‘them,’ it is about friendship. It is about us being citizens in this global community, about worrying about each other and working together to make this world a healthy peaceful place. I biked home in my fish dress and gold bowtie thinking that I have my optimism back, but with it a responsibility to question the decisions I make in my work and commitment to measurable public health work with ‘science and heart.’