2018 PFIG Recipient Alyson Lee
Journal Entry #1 - June 30, 2018
When I was little, I had a grand dream of working in an office one day. While other little kids played “House,” I would play “Office” and pretend to answer phones at a desk. I fantasized about scheduling my life around that 9-5 and having my own cubicle adorned with pictures of my doting husband and children.
After my fourth week with Unite for Sight-- a global health non-profit based in New Haven-- I’m proud to say my childhood dream has come true (minus doting husband and kids). Each day, I walk to a tall, glistening office building in the heart of New Haven, Connecticut. I have my own desk, there’s a perpetually full pot of coffee in the kitchen, and I’ve slowly been compiling a stash of “work shoes” that I leave at the office so I can slip on more practical slippers for the walk home.
Unlike my childhood games though, I do far more than answering phones. Overall, Unite for Sight works towards equitable global health care with a focus on sustainability and local empowerment. They work tirelessly to make sure their workers are actually listening to the needs of the community rather than entering with ethnocentric notions of what is best. On the day-to-day, Unite for Sight sends out volunteers to their partner clinics in India, Ghana, and Honduras. They also offer online courses in topics ranging from Community Development to Refugee Health. Unite for Sight’s big endeavor is hosting an annual Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale. Arguably the largest global health conference around, GHIC not only brings in physicians and public health experts but social entrepreneurs, non-profit managers, financial analysts, educators, authors, and more.
As an intern so far, I’ve worked on several different projects. Unite for Sight sends out volunteers to conduct research for their partner clinics. I then analyze these data sets and create a concise, informative summary to send back to the clinics. I’ve also helped grade certificate programs, exposing me to a wide range of topics. Before this internship, I had no idea what social entrepreneurship was or how it could be related to global health. After reading through the course myself though, I am encouraged by how diverse the global health care field is where even local businesses can have a huge impact on healthcare. I’ve also helped prepare for the Global Health and Innovation Conference by researching and evaluating potential speakers. This too has exposed me to the diverse array of professionals that fall under the global health umbrella.
Along with these more day-to-day projects, I have been working on editing and updating the specific online courses themselves—specifically a course in “Cultural Competency.” This course is mandatory for all volunteers and overviews the highs and lows of culture shock and the necessity of being culturally humble while overseas. Personally, it’s actually been very helpful. I spent a significant portion of my life overseas in Kenya. I wasn’t fully prepared for the throes of culture shock both in going to Kenya and coming back home to the States. Reading through the symptoms of culture shock and how to mediate them has been comforting for my own cultural journey.
All in all, it’s been a whirlwind learning the ropes of the daily non-profit grind. My favorite thing about this internship is that it’s showing me that anything is possible in global health care. As a pre-med, I’ve often worried about sacrificing my love for writing or graphic design for the sake of medicine. This internship has shown me that not only are those skills useful, but they can actually have a lot of crucial impact in global healthcare. While in Kenya, I saw first-hand a lot of the disparities in health care. It was easy to be disheartened and cynical about the future. Working with Unite for Sight has given me renewed hope for global healthcare. All to say...I’m excited for the weeks to come!
Journal Entry #2 - July 23, 2018
The past few weeks have flown by and I somehow find myself with only 2 weeks left at Unite for Sight. By now, I’ve found my day-to-day groove. I leave the house at 8:30 am, enjoy my 20 minute walk to the office in the balmy New Haven morning, promptly pour myself a cup of coffee, then pull out my laptop for the day’s work.
I’ve continued on a number of different projects from analyzing data to writing online courses for Unite for Sight’s “Global Health University.” After analyzing a few different data sets, I’ve seen the challenges of data collection in low-resource, cross-cultural settings. Data sets are often very small (less than 50 people) and spotty. Still it’s remarkable seeing what patterns emerge in the little bits of data I’ve surveyed. For example, one can infer that the more educated an individual is, the more aware the individual will be about various diseases and risk factors. Seeing the numbers to support this intuition though is very exciting as well as sobering. It truly emphasizes the impact education (or lack thereof) can have on health.
In addition, I have continued writing a course on cultural competency. One particular article discussed the ways volunteers cope with encountering deep poverty. Understandably, many volunteers are shocked and grieved by witnessing widespread poverty. Volunteers often cope by focusing on how “happy” the people are. It’s a common narrative—the brown-skinned boy in the slums may not have shoes or education, but he is so happy and content! While there are certainly happy people living in poverty, this viewpoint usually assuages the volunteer’s guilt about their own relative privilege and wealth. It ultimately protects the volunteer’s position and doesn’t actually instigate any action to change poverty. This article floored me. I have definitely fallen victim to this mindset—I focus on the smiles and ignore the distended bellies from malnutrition. These topics have been very challenging to read and can leave me at a loss for what to do. Still, the fact that these publications are out there being discussed and addressed is an encouragement.
Some other highlights so far: researching Lupita Nyong’o as a potential speaker for the conference (i.e. watching her Oscars acceptance speech and crying in the office), editing the heartfelt blogs of volunteers, and mooching food off another office’s lunch meeting. All in all, while I have learned a lot from my work and research, I’ve enjoyed the camaraderie of my co-workers and bosses the most. The whole office has been so welcoming and encouraging. I feel very free to ask questions and they offer so much grace when I make a mistake. I feel like most of my working-academic life, I’m motivated to do well out of perfectionistic fear or to prove something. With Unite for Sight however, I am motivated because I truly respect this organization and want to deliver the highest quality work I can offer. This internship, I'm not just learning about global health but about a new kind of work-ethic that’s rejuvenating rather than draining.
Journal Entry #3 - August 11, 2018
And just like that, my summer with Unite for Sight has finished. It’s only been a few days since I turned in my office key and cleared my desk, but I miss it already. From meeting wonderful new people, to exercising true independence, to all the incredible experiences at work, this summer has been a time of great reassurance and growth. Truthfully, I’ve been a little at a loss these past few days at home. Waking up past 9 am and lounging in PJs all day (vs. my standard pencil skirt + ugly-yet-practical shoes) has never felt so strange.
One huge take away from my internship is confirmation—digging into the heart of global health delivery and culturally sensitive healthcare has confirmed and exponentially expanded my interests in these subjects. I felt quite privileged scouring article after article on volunteer ethics, culture shock, maternal health in rural areas, social determinants of health, etc. During the school year, I would never have the time or freedom to just sit down and delve into these topics. While there are classes that have certainly excited so much I wanted to tell everyone I met about them, that excitement often felt squashed into a discrete period of time. The rest of the time was spent stressing about not having enough time. Having such long, pressure-less summer days to just learn was wonderfully refreshing.
At the same time, my definition of global health has widened. As I’ve researched different leaders of global health for Unite For Sight’s conference, I’ve seen that anything—medicine, journalism, entrepreneurship, or even acting—has a place and a need in global health. As a self-declared poet/free-lance artist/biologist, this is such a joy. I spent much of the latter half of my internship developing graphics and brochures for Unite for Sight using my eager (yet amateur) graphic design prowess. I never would have thought that these things I thought were just “hobbies” could actually be used so purposefully in this field.
I mentioned before that after living in Kenya for many years, I was pretty cynical about foreign aid. I saw so many volunteers come into Kenya for a week, take a lot of pictures for their social media platforms, debrief with their team leaders about all the things they learned, then leave— often leaving behind a lot of unnecessary, unfinished projects and local needs not addressed (just ask me about the “feminine product fiasco”…). I was even a little apprehensive about this summer. I was scared they’d turn out to be another Eurocentric, unempathetic non-profit.
I am so glad to say that my apprehensions were doubly uncalled for. The longer I worked with Unite For Sight, the more astounded I was by their ethics, care, and dedication. Each day, they made personal calls with volunteers to make sure they were adjusting well yet also serving their host communities. All ideas or projects were based on what the local communities asked for. Even something as minute as the wording of a survey question was heavily discussed with local doctors to make sure it was culturally relevant and useful to the clinics. Unite For Sight has genuine, lasting relationships with local clinics. They know the names of each of the doctors, the daily updates from outreach programs, how volunteers are being received, and they are constantly asking for ways they can better serve them
On a more personal level, it has been over 2 years since my family left Kenya. In my hectic U.S. college life, I sometimes feel like the tremendous impact of Kenya slips away with each passing day. On the other hand, I sometimes feel that my experiences in Kenya do nothing but alienate me from my peers. Being able to use my personal experience in a really helpful way at Unite for Sight though has made me feel like my time in Kenya was not a waste. I could speak about culture shock from first-hand experience, not just through reading testimonials of Peace Corps volunteers. I could comment on the harm of not taking local needs into account because I saw the harm around me and my friends. I could empathize with the difficulties of encountering poverty because I myself often didn’t know how to react. Having a platform to speak and use these perspectives has really made me see how much of a gift my time in Kenya was.
More than anything this internship has shown me a new way to work. Getting into the heart of things I’m truly passionate about alongside like-minded individuals is nothing short of incredible. It gives me a new perspective for how I want to structure my classes and extracurricular activities going forward. I have so admired the support and care of my bosses towards me. From the start, I’ve felt a part of the team—not just a lowly intern. I feel like my opinions were truly valued and that my strengths were celebrated and nurtured. All to say, I will miss New Haven and Unite For Sight very much. It’s not every day that your bosses will stop their work and take you to the best cupcakes in New Haven. However, I feel as if I’ve become a small part of the Unite For Sight family and I leave knowing I’ll always be welcome back.