PHWB's Summer 2015 Ethiopia team with Debre Berhan University administrator and dean.

August 4, 2015

On June 4-27, 2015, six undergraduate students from the student-run group Public Health Without Borders, which is based in the School of Public Health, traveled to Ethiopia to develop a curriculum to improve nutrition and health in a rural community north of Addis Ababa. They partnered with faculty and students from Debre Berhan University. The group was accompanied by its three mentors: Dr. Stephanie Grutzmacher, assistant research professor in the Department of Family Science, the main mentor on the project; Amanda Rockler, from the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources; and Hiwot Menbere, a former UMD Extension horticulturalist who acts as PHWB's Professional Mentor in Ethiopia. 

The Summer 2015 Ethiopia team included Anthony Slaton, co-project leader for the Ethiopia project, a rising senior in Public Health Science; Jesse Wilson, co-project leader for the Ethiopia project, a rising sophomore in Cell Biology and Chinese; Priya Parikh, president/founder of PHWB, a rising senior in Global Public Health; Robel Tesfay, a rising junior in Community and Behavioral Health; Joshua Trowell, a rising senior in Community and Behavioral Health; and Jessica Ubogiy, a rising senior in Biology: Neurobiology and Physiology. 

Founded in August 2013, PHWB is a student-run organization supported by SPH that aims to assess health disparities affecting disadvantaged communities around the world and create sustainable interventions to alleviate these disparities. 

Photos and Q&A with Priya Parikh, president and co-founder, below.

What were your goals for this summer’s Ethiopia trip?

Our trip to Debre Berhan, Ethiopia this summer had multiple purposes. As this was our first solo PHWB project (not affiliated with the UMD chapters of Engineers Without Borders or Maryland Sustainability Engineering) we were constantly trying to establish connections and rapport with leaders in the area. We met with many faculty members from Debre Berhan University (DBU) to discuss how we can best collaborate on future health projects, as well as finding out what they consider the most critical health concerns in the area. 

While in Debre Berhan, we piloted a nutrition education program with students at a local primary school, conducted nutrition evaluations of students and parents/teachers (evaluations created by PHWB students), and met with primary school principles and staff to discuss where to focus the lesson plans during future trips. The schools we collaborate with already have high yielding school gardens full of nutritious vegetables, such as kale – the results of seeds provided by Debre Berhan University & UMD's collaborative work on the Women in Agriculture Extension Program. However, we've since learned that the yields are not being utilized since the new vegetables are unfamiliar. With the help of DBU faculty and primary school staff, future curriculums can focus more on integrating new foods into existing diets and meals.  

We also wanted to have our undergraduate students join the Community Based Team Projects (CBTPs) that the second-year public health students at DBU engage in. As PHWB aims to provide its students with a practical public health experience, joining a program in which Debre Berhan students actively conduct a needs assessment of a local neighborhood was an appealing offer. Our undergraduate students interacted with Debre Berhan students daily to create and conduct a needs assessment in two local neighborhoods (totaling around 500 participants) and conduct data analysis. The opportunity to work so closely with students from the University led to a unique and engaging cultural exchange between the students from both schools.

What was the biggest public health concern you observed in Debre Berhan?

As an organization we encourage our members not to label anything as the greatest health challenge for a community, since we are not the ones living there and have no true insight into what their greatest challenges, health or otherwise, may be. In Debre Berhan, what we took away from our discussions with individuals living in the area was that solid and liquid waste management were huge public health issues for a large number of people. Food insecurity was not brought forward as a pressing issue by individuals, but when asked about home gardening, individuals stated that an insufficient supply of seeds and knowledge of gardening practices were some of the reasons they were not attempting to grow their own vegetables. These are some areas in which we may consider working with community members and Debre Berhan University during future trips. 

What was the best part of this Ethiopia trip for all of you? 

The overall feedback we hear from students about what they liked best is a mix of two things:

1). The hands on public health experience -- students are not told what to do, but must plan out nearly every aspect of the trip themselves. Planning meetings in-country last several hours and students come up with a plan, pitch it to the mentors, receive feedback and adapt with the help of the mentors. In the field students must think on their feet, adapt to new situations quickly, and accommodate a new culture, language and way of life as they work. Nearly all the students who travel with PHWB, and certainly each member of this travel team from June 2015, are interested in international development/global engagement. This trip was an opportunity for them to try their hands at it in a very realistic way and open their eyes to a new culture as they see what international development can really entail. 

2). The group dynamic -- from journal discussions about how to properly "do" international development and when taking pictures is inappropriate, to informal discussions over dinner about culture shocks and books to read -- students are challenged to think deeper about global health and international development in a way that is hard to find in any classroom. They are pushed to broaden their sense of self-purpose and ask the question "What role, if any, should we play in international development?"

What role did the School of Public Health play in preparing and equipping you for the work you did on this trip?

The School of Public Health was really helpful with spreading the word of our Launch UMD crowdfunding campaign and encouraging people to donate to fund our trip's travel and in-country material expenses. Dr. Grutzmacher was a fantastic mentor. She set aside time to attend weekly meetings and help us prepare materials for the trip prior to our departure, and then guided us through creating and adapting materials when necessary in-country. We really rely on the individual faculty mentors like her to oversee projects and guide students in responsible global health work and she really has gone above and beyond in her support of PHWB. 

How does PHWB choose and plan for the different countries you visit and topics you tackle? What specifically led to these Ethiopia trips?

PHWB chooses trips through a process that considers the feasibility of the trip— travel, safety, current established relationships, etc., the need, and just as important, the interest of the community in a collaboration, and the availability of faculty mentors to help guide the project. Topics are chosen based on an assessment trip where students and faculty conduct interviews and speak with local leaders, gatekeepers, and community members to ascertain a) which health concerns are most prominent in the community and b) which concerns PHWB members are equipped, or may become equipped, to work on with community members. 

The Ethiopia project was a result of Dr. Grutzmacher and Mr. Menbere's connections to the community of Debre Berhan through the UMD Extension program, Women in Agriculture (WIA). During a visit for WIA, Dr. Grutzmacher thought that this could be a potential area for a PHWB project as well, and began initiating discussions with Mr. Menbere and faculty at the local university about a collaboration with PHWB. 

Where are you in planning for your next trip?

Our trips are always ongoing. While we are currently in the process of trying to establish a project in Bangladesh, we will also be planning for future trips to Ethiopia and Peru as well. The Bangladesh project is still in the works -- Dr. Dina Borzekowski has been instrumental to our trying to start this project as we are doing so based off of her existing relationships in the area. We will be continuing to work towards making that specific project a reality and hope to see a trip scheduled for next summer. The Ethiopia and Peru teams will both be using data collected during assessment trips to plan for another trip in the winter or summer of 2016.

Check out the team's photo album:

PHWB Ethiopia Trip 2015


Related Links

Public Health Without Borders spends two weeks in Sierra Leone

Public Health Without Borders Students Return to Peru, Explore New Projects in Ethiopia

"Public Health Without Borders" Team Partners with EWB to Improve Water Sanitation in Peru

Related People
Dina Borzekowski