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India March 2022: Passion in Public Health

“This is the coolest experience of my life”

was a constant thought filtering through my head while in Varanasi, India. I think I constantly thought that as a way to fully enjoy every moment, but also because quite honestly, it was the coolest experience I ever had in my life. It still feels unreal that the Global Public Health Initiative and Public Health Beyond Borders (PHBB) at UMD got me across the globe on such short notice. In my head I expected my travel with PHBB to be very concentrated within those I travel with; I did not expect to encounter so many passionate people who would motivate and inspire me in my future hopes. I was lucky enough to get a tour from community medicine doctors, invitations to events with Men’s Action to Stop Violence Against Women (MASVAW), meetings with Banaras Hindu University and South Point School staff and students, and so much more. In the single week I was in Varanasi, I was welcomed by all those who I met with home-cooked meals and gifts. On top of making special friends and learning about public health issues, I learned how to be a better learner.

So much was done in my week in India that I cannot find a single event to discuss that stood out above all others, however, a commonality that stood out to me in all my interactions was the passion everyone had for their work. There is this eurocentric misconception, which I also heard some discussion about in India, that individuals living in the global South or low-income countries should strive to move to high-income countries to seek work and become “successful”. I have always disliked this concept. I think success is everywhere and I felt particularly inspired by those working in communities this trip. I think this shows commitment to others and how success in life does not need to be defined as leaving one’s home country, as it often is in the United States.

Take for example, Moosa, he is a social worker for MASVAW who coordinates community campaigns and trains future leaders to spread the teachings of MASVAW. One moment that stands out so prominently in my head was the day we met with Moosa and other members of MASVAW to discuss their work. Moosa was demonstrating how they show men in villages specially designed flashcards with images of women or men breaking gender norms to start conversation. Moosa held up a card and his face completely lit up as he asked “What do you see in this picture?” “Why are only women shopping?” “Do you ever help shop?” This passion he had for his work was seen in a community-based “Considerate Couples” campaign we attended two days later where men and women were celebrated for new anti-sexist practices. Moosa’s passion allowed him to effortlessly get the people excited to participate and be there. Moosa told me and Matt to return when we were health professionals to volunteer to give assistance to the rural communities; he helped ignite a fire in me to complete school to serve and organize.

More examples of devotion to work regardless of expectation are both Dr. Sanjay and Dr. Kushwaha. Dr. Sanjay, a professor in social work at Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth University, is a coordinator for MASVAW. Dr. Kushwaha is a professor at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) in the department of education who has conducted research on the topic of menstrual health education amongst adolescents. This year, she and Dr. Maring, from the University of Maryland, have created a global classroom on the myths and misconceptions of menstruation which I have been lucky enough to be a teaching assistant for. During this trip, Dr. Maring and I got to meet the BHU students from the class in person. From this encounter, I got the opportunity to make friends my age in India and learn about Varanasi from their perspective. Later on in the trip, I learned of pushback and silent responses Dr. Kushwaha initially got as she was trying to implement the course in her university. The topic is extremely taboo and yet she made it happen because she knew it was important, regardless of the conceptions others would have. Dr. Sanjay fights gender norms with a job that focuses on redefining masculinity and Dr. Kushwaha deconstructs menstrual health and education stigma every day. They both do this work out of their love for it and its necessity to promote gender equality regardless of societal standards. I got to witness the fruits of their labor through MASVAW events and classroom interactions which inspired me greatly to work where need and passion persists.

My final example of true essential unconventional work is that done by Nita and Irfana, the directors of PHBB’s partner community school, South Point School. Just by entering both the urban and rural campus of South Point, I caught a sense of belonging and comfort. The education in this school is holistic, ranging from guest artists, karate classes, campus dogs, a library, fields of wheat, an amphitheater, and more. Nita has created a school that extends beyond classwork and grades, but crosses over many styles of learning and growing. Their gift to interact with both adults and children so seamlessly showed their multifaceted ways of thinking and connecting with others. When I interacted with both of them, I caught so much wisdom within them that stemmed from nurtured curiosity and knowledge. Their unique take on South Point School which defies normal education standards is a big dream Nita had the natural drive to create.

When first sitting down to write this blog, I was overwhelmed by all the amazing memories I could have written about. I had so many moments of connecting with others and learning about public health, however, I think it is only fitting to have begun talking about the people who made the experience because they not only made great memories with me, but also made an impact on how I think about work in public health. Public health is far reaching and can be addressed uniquely by all its advocates. I am excited to continue working with the partners I met abroad and to work similarly within my own community. Thank you to everyone who I met and who made this trip possible. Thank you Dr. Maring and Matt for experiencing India with me.


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