Featuring: kayla Percy
By Teresa Ekaete Nwachukwu
Kayla Percy, our profiled student grew up in Texas. Raised by amazing parents that included a mother with a PhD in nursing, Kayla has always had a strong sense of her own privilege and the need to channel those privileges into good for the benefit of others. While studying as a writing major when on Semester at Sea, she became exposed for the first time to life in low-income countries. This widened her interest in other cultures and the recognition that she had no practical skills needed to contribute if she wanted to make a difference. On her return, she went on to obtain an Accelerated Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing. Shortly after her brother began working with UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) , she got the inspiration to do humanitarian work in healthcare. After much research, MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctor's Without Borders) proved a superb fit because of their core principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence.
She took a couple of years to acquire the necessary experiences; getting comfortable in the area of emergency healthcare, growing as a leader, developing socio-cultural competencies with vulnerable populations before applying to MSF. After going through three interviews and a waiting period of 8 months, she received her first assignment to Old Fangak, South Sudan.
Old Fangak is a tiny village reachable only by foot, boat or plane. Her initial reaction on arrival in this deprived South Sudan village was one of shock. "I was terrified when I first arrived, but remembering why I was there and the skills and abilities I had [learned] helped me make it through the first two weeks which were very difficult."
Since this assignment was in rebel territory during the civil war, she was involved in treating war-wounded soldiers. This assignment lasted for 6 months and has been one of the most incredibly revealing experiences of her life.
After a 2 month break, she was sent for 5 months to Monrovia, the capital of the West African country, Liberia where her team helped to open a four-story children’s hospital in the city. Kayla was the nursing supervisor in the emergency department.
Featuring: Laura arntson
By Shazie Senen
I had the privilege of interviewing Laura Arntson, who, interestingly enough, started her career in music then turned to folklore and ethnomusicology before turning to public health. Throughout the years, she has accumulated a wealth of global health experiences with 8+ years in the field and 19 years working in global health. Arntson is currently working towards her second PhD.
1. Transitioning to a new career is a huge step. What prompted the career change to global health?
While I have always been into music, I found that I wanted to ask questions about why people do what they do? How do they explain how they do things? Then I discovered the ethnomusicology PhD program at Indiana University in the folklore department. In my first week at Indiana, my advisor asked me to choose an area of focus. I had been interested in Turkish zurna music, but I didn’t know if I that’s where I wanted to do research. I learned that Indiana had a strong African studies program, so I decided to focus on West Africa.
What sparked my desire in global health was when I was doing post-doctoral research in Guinea and met a Liberian refugee family. Getting to know them inspired me to ask myself, "What am I doing? Am I doing any good in the world?” I started looking at degrees from economics to public policy. A colleague suggested public health. I was applying to graduate school around the same time I was applying to the Peace Corps and decided on Tulane School of Public Health, where I finished the International Health and Development MPH program and completed an internship in Mali.
After working in the field of international health and development for 18 years, I decided to do a second PhD, and discovered Oregon State University’s PhD in Global Health. I am part of the first cohort in the Global Health program. I knew I wanted specific skills, to pursue more research, and continue to build my evaluation skills, while having the luxury of reading theoretical research and writing for publication. As a graduate student in a PhD program, I get to teach part-time also. The career switch basically happened in Guinea, and it has been such a good investment.
2. For anyone considering a similar transition, what advice would you give to help them prepare?
I enjoy mentoring, and I would say first go with your interests. Do not compare your style or approach to others in the field. Think about who you are. Also, start collecting job ads and think of positions you want to apply for in the next 5-10 years. By reading job ads, you learn to read between the lines (What are they looking for in a candidate? What skills do you want to acquire?). Find ways to build those skills in every job. For example, working as an insurance billing clerk, I learned how to organize files. You can even build skills as a barista. Collecting job ads will also help you learn how to describe your experiences and to read across jobs and not just within jobs. Follow your passion and go with what best fits with your personality. If you’re interested in behind-the-scenes, consider monitoring and evaluation. If you like research, consider needs assessment, evaluation research, or program design. If you’re interested in a more hands-on approach in the field, there are positions working with implementing partners in the field. Your career is built on an assortment of experiences. You do not just step into a career. There is no rule book that says you can’t change careers.
3. For someone looking into global health, how do you deal with the demands of this field (i.e. relocating or having to acclimate frequently)?
It is not just something you resolve. Someone has to give something up and usually, it is the "trailing spouse." There are women in the field with husbands as their trailing spouses and same goes for men with wives as trailing spouses. Balance can get hard at times. The challenge is also accumulating things. You do not always want to let go of your stuff, but you realize at the end of the day, it is just stuff. You take life with you wherever you go. It does not have to be grounded in one place. What gets me through is my desire to keep working in public health across cultures. I am always thinking about my next field positions even when I am out in the field. There really is no easy answer.