Preparation Meets Opportunity

by Thu Nguyen
UPGRADE Uganda participant and Canright Scholarship Recipient

thuCelebrating my 20th birthday with the local village kids, who have become my very dear friends.

As a participant of the Undergraduate Program in Global Research and Development (UPGRADE) and a receipient of the Stefanie Canright award, I interned in Jinja, Uganda at a local clinic called Namwezi Health Centre III under the management of the Foundation for Sustainable Development (FSD). At Namwezi Health Center III, the lack of alternative-income generating activities and the absence of nutritional care and support for HIV/AIDS patients create opportunities for risky behavior and health-related problems. The lack of nutrition education has led to the mismanagement of food intake, a poor understanding of food and drug interactions, increased ARVs (Anti-Retrovirus) side effects, and malnutrition among these HIV/AIDS patients. Women are disproportionately affected by these challenges due to the income disparity that exists, preventing them from buying nutritious food and maintaining their health appointments. As a result, a proportion of women living with HIV/AIDS are resorting to prostitution for their income, which leads to negative health and social effects at both the community and national level. The lack of income-generating activities and proper nutrition are two dangerous factors that can contribute to the physical, cultural, and social deterioration of an HIV/AIDS infected woman.

Together with the HIV/AIDS women and the clinical staff at Namwezi H/C, I proposed a project that introduced a nutrition program coupled with a pilot community garden to provide nutrition education, gardening demonstrations, food security, and income for members of the HIV/AIDS Family Support Group.  The nutrition program facilitated lessons on nutrition and nutrition security in the prevention, treatment, and mitigation of HIV and AIDS through gardening demonstrations. In addition, a proportion of the women were selected to start a pilot community garden project to help them secure food and earn income for themselves. The enhanced nutritional knowledge and income-generating activity will improve ARVs adherence rates and promote optimum nutrition.

In my classes at Emory, I had learned about community development and theories about sustainability, but through UPGRADE, I had the opportunity to apply what I learned in class and find that sustainable community development moves beyond an individual and funders. Successful development really depends on the residents, their needs, and their interest in the project. 

As part of the experience, I lived with a host family for the duration of the program, and although I was the only foreigner in my village, I fully integrated into this community. I participated in local traditions, played with the village kids, moved around on my own, and picked up the tribal language rather quickly.  My host mom even threw me a 20th birthday party where she invited all of my playmates, which equated to over 60 little children! In the end, I found it extremely hard to say good-bye to my family, my friends, and my neighbors.

thu2

Enjoying the World Cup Qualifier football match with two friends

My community integration experiences exposed me to various social and cultural traditions that really opened up my heart for the people and strengthened my understanding of Ugandan beliefs and values. I appreciated all of the social and cultural differences that I encountered during my time in Uganda, and these experiences reaffirmed my desire to participate in the Peace Corps. I am planning on applying to a three-year program that will incorporate both a master¿s in public health and a Peace Corp volunteer experience. In all, UPGRADE has provided me with an opportunity full of lessons, obstacles, and new experiences and, in that sense, enriched me personally and professionally and prepared me for a future in health/community development work abroad.  I am extremely thankful to have had this opportunity.

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