How living in some of the world’s poorest countries enhanced my public health experience

In December and May, when students are finishing their degrees, I often have graduate students in Public Health reaching out to me to figure out their next steps. How do I get a job? Do you have a job for me? How did you get involved in global health?

Since completing my undergraduate degree, I too have talked to multiple people in various fields to figure out my passions and life goals, so I am always happy to discuss my experiences with others. I have been extremely fortunate to have worked in a variety of public health settings – internationally, at the grassroots level, through the United Nations; in addition to a pediatric office and hospital in Toronto and Saskatoon, as well as at the provincial government level in Ontario. In my few years in Public Health, I have been privileged to meet some of the most intelligent, diverse and talented people. These experiences have all been beneficial, but for me I believe the best stepping stone for my career was working internationally for very little money.

Working in developing countries is not for everyone and obviously people have amazing careers in Public Health without ever travelling abroad, but here are the top 8 ways living abroad impacted my career:

Learning the art of flexibility, sensitivity and patience.

Things happen when you travel – you lose luggage, shared taxis breakdown, you try to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand the same languages as you, you wake up to army men sleeping outside your door, or you live in a bat infested room for a month. These types of encounters are real, and made me more patient and flexible when dealing with everyday problems now in Canada.

Being patient through differences between people and cultures.

I learned to gain an understanding of a community’s needs and how to work in collaboration with all stakeholders in the community. I had to be willing and open to having my own assumptions, perceptions and worldview challenged and questioned constantly. These are all skills that I continue to utilize regularly in my job today.

Getting creative and resourceful.

Living in rural Africa meant that I did not have the Internet or libraries like I did here. Therefore, I worked with what I had and had to be creative when teaching students new concepts without the use of Youtube. For example to demonstrate how the intestine worked we built one out of string. Overall, learning to make do with existing resources is a useful skill that I picked up, especially in the public health field where finances are always limited.

Push boundaries and don’t be afraid to fail.

Living abroad forced me to practice taking risks. The first risk was getting on a plane to go to a remote community in Africa. This was the beginning of many unexpected situations that taught me to become comfortable being uncomfortable. You’re going to make mistakes in new cultures, you’ll say words incorrectly but you learn to laugh at yourself and that’s a lifelong skill.

Gaining experience working with diverse teams.

I was privileged to work with people from backgrounds very different from my own, as Canada and the world become more interconnected this skill is becoming increasingly vital. Tolerance and being open-minded is essential to working effectively in any field today. Furthermore I became part of an international team which means that I now have contacts and friends across the globe thus improving my opportunities to work anywhere.

Experiencing public health issues and diseases first hand.

My behaviours including not sleeping under a mosquito net, not boiling and filtering my drinking water and not washing my hands often enough that resulted in learning about a lot of sickness first hand. I had Malaria, Giardia, intestinal parasites, as well as other fevers that resulted in me spending time in a few African hospitals and health centres; thus I now understand the struggles that the locals encounter themselves.

Enhanced leadership skills, communication skills, and project management skills.

I found that the opportunities in remote communities for myself were endless, people were very helpful and always looking to help you develop. The United Nations asked me to lead the development of a multi-million dollar grant for youth development; I was able to work on a newsletter for the police reform project, thus enhancing my communication and English skills- which is not my strength but was great practice.

Language skills.

I was able to learn new languages wherever I lived which is a wonderful skill to have. Further, being surrounded by people from all over the world you can learn a bit of many different languages. Learning languages boosts brainpower, a person’s ability to multi-task, improves memory and expands career potentials.

Although I went abroad with altruistic intentions I believe that from each of my experiences I gained more personally than I gave. I truly believe that living internationally changed me, Africa is still in me, and one day, in the not so far future, I hope to bring skills back to Eastern Africa.

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