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Global Health Fieldwork Experience in South Africa: Ashley Fehringer, Animal Sciences

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Posted: November 16, 2014

From what I learned in this fieldwork experience I do feel that I have chosen the appropriate career path for me and I am excited to continue working in the developing world throughout my life.
The group getting a tour of occupational health practices at a sawmill.

The group getting a tour of occupational health practices at a sawmill.

When I first began exploring the global health minor at Penn State I was most excited for the fieldwork component of the minor.  I was hoping that the real world experience would help me make up my mind about what career path I wanted to follow, or in this case I was hoping that it would confirm that I chose the right career path by applying to graduate schools for public health. 

However, I really did not know what to expect from this experience.  Before going to South Africa I assumed that I would be working with the health promotion students at the University of Limpopo on their projects.  Perhaps working in the field to complete needs assessments or working with them to develop a new intervention.  Instead I toured the health care system, met with key informants, and observed health care at the primary care level.  I did get the opportunity to work on developing and implementing an intervention on health relationships and safe sex and this experience taught me what it might be like to work in the field of public health.  From what I learned in this fieldwork experience I do feel that I have chosen the appropriate career path for me and I am excited to continue working in the developing world throughout my life.

We wasted no time in getting started in South Africa.  On our first day we saw more of South Africa and its people than most people see in a whole vacation here.  We took a tour of Kliptown, a neighborhood in Soweto, which is still my favorite experience from the entire trip.  I was initially afraid that the tour would appear as though we were watching animals in the zoo.  However, it was not like that at all; it was an eye opening educational experience for both parties.  We continued our cultural education by taking a visit to the apartheid museum where we got a comprehensive history of South Africa’s dark past.  From the museum I learned about the sorted past of the apartheid regime and I learned a lot about the man who orchestrated the most peaceful transition of power in history, Nelson Mandela. 

Our orientation continued in Polokwane where we met several of the faculty and staff that make up the health sciences department at the University of Limpopo.  In our orientation we also met with key informants from the department of health and we got the opportunity to tour both a public and a private hospital to compare and contrast the various divisions of health care in South Africa.  

After orientation we broke out into our smaller groups for two weeks.  With the public health group I went to Nobody Clinic and then planned to join the nutrition group in the second week.  At Nobody Clinic I observed patient appointments at the level of primary care.  The clinic is overcrowded, understaffed and very resource poor; one day they had to send someone with a dog bite to the hospital because they did not have any bandages to wrap the wound.  These problems seem to permeate throughout the public health care system and as a result the quality of care is very much diminished. 

In our second week we worked with the nutrition students at the University of Limpopo and went with them on their community nutrition rounds.  I personally did not enjoy this experience because I sat around and did nothing all day.  I did not feel that I was gaining much from this experience, so instead I went with the mobile clinic (a division of the Nobody Clinic) the next day and I loved it.  I had found my niche in the mobile clinic so I took the initiative to stay with the clinic for the rest of the week.  Not only was I learning more about primary care but I was also learning about the culture of South Africa because we were going to the people.  I also got to learn about farming in South Africa (which due to my agricultural background is of great interest to me) because we spent two days going to farms to provide health services to the workers.  We also visited villages that were too far away from the stationary clinic and they people were so grateful to have the clinic and so confused by my presence. 

After our two-week rotations, we got back together as a group to participate in closing activities. Together we visited various health centers, NGOs and health programs to continue piecing together the South African health care puzzle.  My favorite experience was meeting with the health promoting school.  This experience allowed us to see a successful health promotion program that is making a real difference in the health of the people in their community.

Of course it was not all work.  On the weekends we got to do fun, “touristy” activities including a zip-lining trip, site seeing in beautiful national parks, going on a safari and my favorite, petting lions, tigers and cheetahs.  Although my career interests have strayed from my animal science degree I still love animals and the day I got to pet a lion, a tiger (not from the African continent) and a cheetah was the happiest day of my life!

This program was an amazing learning experience for me.  By interacting with the students and faculty at the Limpopo University, NGO workers and community members I was able to not only learn from them, but I was also able to teach them about life in the United States and about the things that we have been learning in my public health classes.  I am so glad that I had the opportunity to give back to the South African community through presenting relevant information about safe sex and relationships to high school students.  This experience was both a learning and a doing experience.  I gained valuable information on how to give an effective health promotion intervention and I hope that the students learned about the importance of safe sex and respect in healthy relationships.  I am now a master’s candidate at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine and I know that this experience will help me excel in my education and my future career.