Penn’s Guatemala Health Initiative

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Zabryna Atkinson-Diaz, COL ’19

Signing yourself up for an internship in extremely rural southwestern Guatemala shouldn’t be something done on a whim but after interviewing for Penn’s Guatemala Health Initiative (GHI), that’s where I found myself. GHI is based in a more residential part of Guatemala on a beautiful lake called Lago Atitán, one of Guatemala’s tourist attractions, there students work with an established connection made between Penn and the Hospitalito of Santiago Atitlán to conduct qualitative research based on the issues and needs of the Hopsitalito. And so, after reading about this internship, I applied. In the group interview, they stated that there were not enough spots for everyone being interviewed to go, but that they also had another site that they wanted to start sending students to but had not yet done.

The way they sold the site was not convincing to say the least. They warned that if you went, you would be the only student from Penn, you would be stationed on a compound, with armed guards, barbed wired fences, wouldn’t be able to leave the compound unless you were going out with the nurses during the daytime, and that the weather would be extremely hot and humid. Somehow in my crazy brain that’s what convinced me to pack myself up and go venture to a clinic based on a banana finca (a banana plantation) for 10 weeks of my summer.

I wanted the opportunity to do public health research this summer, and after hearing that not all of us would be able to go to the original site, I volunteered to go to this rural site to gain the experience of conducting research in a global health setting. I was ready, eager, and willing to be the guinea pig for this new site. For me it didn’t matter where you were sending me, only that I could be useful to the community there. Most importantly, I wanted to be able to learn from them because if it’s anything that I’ve learned during my travels is that learning from others and their culture is the most informative and impactful way to learn.

So I packed my bags, flew into Guatemala city and made the 5-6 hour trek through the rocky, pothole filled roads to what would be my home for the next 10 weeks. Now, given what I had been told I had very limited expectations. I am happy to say that my coordinator, overexaggerated greatly and that I not only lived in rural Guatemala but became part of a community.

My experience there taught me not only how to conduct qualitative research in a rural setting, but solidified an entirely new career path that I was unsure of before. Going into the summer I was still unsure of whether I wanted to fully pursue Public Health Research as a career or continue on the pre-med track to becoming a medical doctor. For over 10 years I was certain that becoming a doctor was what I wanted to do with my life, but after being exposed to public health in my academics and another abroad experience, I began to question whether there were other ways to look at health in a more holistic sense that I was far more passionate about. This summer I got to conduct 47 interviews on mental health, the use of alcohol, and alcoholism and came to the realization that this truly is how I want to be involved with health in my career, conducting research in a community setting. If it was not for the Career Services funding I would have never been able to have this opportunity and been more certain in my decision to change my career path. I fell in love with the research that I was doing, the community that I lived in, and the possibility that in some way my work would be able to support their clinic. Far too many people enter foreign countries with a God complex, the idea that they can come in and fix all problems. I hope that my work this summer, and truly believe that it was shaped in a way that I did not come in to fix, but to learn. And the research that I conducted is a product that the clinic itself can use to make their own change as they see fit. I entered this experience expecting to learn, learn skills, learn about culture, a community, but I didn’t realize until it was over just how much I learned about myself.

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