After Trips Are Canceled, Public Health Without Borders Students Still Move Ahead With Their Projects
April 20, 2020

As internships are canceled and summer jobs fall through, Public Health Without Borders students at the University of Maryland are also experiencing disappointment: long-awaited travel plans to India, Sierra Leone and Peru have been canceled. 

Public Health Without Borders, a student-run organization that began at the University of Maryland in 2014, aims to address health needs in partnering communities, to reduce health disparities around the world. 

Four students who worked hard to plan these projects, Veeraj Shah, PHWB’s president, Sara Hatfield, Manasvinee Vahanan, and Monty South along with faculty advisor and Associate Clinical Professor Elisabeth Maring, share what they are doing to keep the momentum going. 

What were the plans Public Health Without Borders had for connecting with partner communities over spring break and the coming months? How have your plans changed? 

Veeraj Shah (Biological Sciences, Health Policy & Technology '21): For our India project, we’ve been working for over a year on fantastic nutrition workshops. We were going to deliver nutrition and first aid kits, so now we are going through logistics of how to deliver online. 

Everything in India is shut down-- including schools-- so we can’t do our workshops that were geared towards school-aged kids and adolescents.  

Manasvinee Vahanan (Biological Sciences '21): As of last week, we started working on toolkits to continue with our workshops. We had our first meeting the last week of March, and are trying to do the workshops online so we can still reach our partner community. That’s how we are pushing forward. 

Prof. Elisabeth Maring: We are still figuring it out. Doing it online involves figuring out very minute details. It will be hard for us to reach the community directly. 

How has your focus changed in light of COVID-19?

Manasvinee: The Peru team is meeting every week, creating new interventions and coming up with a needs assessment. They are creating posters to send to students about social distancing. 

Sara Hatfield (Behavioral and Community Health, Family Sciences '22): The Sierra Leone team is shifting focus, and working on a COVID-19 fact sheet. A lot of people in our partner community are asking details about COVID-19 and what causes it. We are also working on a video about COVID-19 for the kids. 

Sierra Leone suffered a bit hit from the Ebola virus, so after they got their first case of COVID-19, the government declared a state of emergency for 12 months--they’re in a state of extreme lockdown. One of the issues is being able to reach these families because many of them don’t have access to a computer outside of school. 

How have you been dealing with the disappointment of not being able to travel to your partner communities?

Monty South (Bioengineering '20): I joined Public Health Without Borders two years ago and have been working on these projects every week since then. I’ve already had my trip postponed two times, first because of logistical problems and then because of a new immigration act. I’ve put in a lot of work these past two years. Now, I’m a senior and this was my last chance. 

It was unfortunate how it all turned out, but I’ve worked to make the projects better for the future. And just because I’m graduating doesn’t mean I can’t be involved in public health experiences outside of the club. 

Prof. Maring: Monty, we’ll welcome your involvement in the future, no matter what you’re doing!

Manasvinee: It’s very disappointing when you have been working very hard on something for such a long time, but we hope that the next time we travel we have a more refined workshop for the kids. Developing a toolkit has been great in bringing everyone together. We have a sense of teamwork and comradery even though we aren’t meeting in person.

Sara: I was really looking forward to this summer and really being able to connect with the students in our partner communities. It’s an abstract idea when putting the workshop together, but becomes more real and exciting when you get to meet them. I’m really looking forward to being able to work with them in the future. 

What are you doing to take care of yourself during this time? 

Veeraj: I adhere to a workout regime every day. It’s all about taking it day by day and week by week. It’s also helpful talking to friends, and reading about what’s going on in the world. For us it’s an inconvenience, but others around the world may be deciding whether to buy food or masks, and that puts things into perspective. 

Manasvinee: I work out, take walks outside and get fresh air. Finding and allocating space to work is helpful, so you’re not eating and sleeping and having class in the same place. I’m taking it day by day. 

How do you think that this pandemic is going to change the way that we live? 

Veeraj: When we are back to some sense of normalcy, I hope that we realize the importance of preventative health. Public health is so interconnected and a much bigger idea than what’s going on in a hospital. 

Sara: I think we’ve realized how interconnected the world is. There’s hoarding and panic buying, but there’s also so many people that are practicing acts of kindness. We won’t be going back to normal but finding a new normal. 

I hope we feel grateful for the people we have in our lives. I hope that the kindness we’ve all given and experienced and received will stay with us after this is all over. 

Prof. Maring: For Public Health Without Borders students, they know that global public health transcends national borders. Yet here we are in the midst of a pandemic, and all of us are seeing it in action: our partner communities are experiencing the same things that we are experiencing. Next year, we will have a different perspective. 

Other project leaders worked hard to plan and coordinate interventions for Public Health Without Borders. They include Kelsey Talarico (Biological Sciences '20), Darya Soltani (Public Health Science '21), Maddie Pesokz (Public Health Science '20), Zill Parikh (Public Health Science - 20'), Yousef Khan (Biological Sciences '21) and Deja McKnight (Government and Politics '20).