Saturday, August 13, 2016

Sitting on my first of two transoceanic flights, I found my mind wandering as much to what lay ahead of me as what I was leaving behind. At the end of my journey awaited comprehensive exams - the unfortunate yet necessary right of passage all graduate students must endure. Mine are next Tuesday; a less-than-friendly welcome home from Uganda. These exams are supposed to measure our mastery of the core knowledge and skills within our fields of study. Have you really learned what you were supposed to learn? Do you deserve the mantle of Master? Of Doctor? Can you prove it?

As I began to consider (read: totally freak out about) those questions, I realized the same could be asked about my summer in Uganda. Did I accomplish what I was supposed to? Did I contribute meaningfully to the team's research efforts? Have I gleaned more from the qualitative data we (literally) painfully collected, or rather from the process of collecting those data? I know that I learned a lot this summer, but what did I learn about most?

I learned the war in northern Uganda has left lasting wounds not likely to heal soon. I know the suffering caused by losing a loved one to murder does not end once they're buried. Our respondents described the spiritual, physical, and economic maladies that result from both improper burials and a lack of accountability for crimes committed during war. And I learned much and more about the struggle of conducting in-depth interviews and focus groups in cross cultural, international, impoverished settings. 

But despite all of those lessons and more, I think the real value of an experience like MHIRT - the reason the National Institutes of Health continue to pay for minority students to gain international research experiences - is a little more personal. I believe travel, international travel especially, provides us with an unparalleled opportunity to expand our own perceptions of what we're capable of.

The opportunity we're provided is less an investment in our CV and more an investment in us, as humans. The friendships we forge, the languages we pick up, the different ways of being we witness, all unleash our capacity for empathy and creativity - traits invaluable to those who seek a place in as dizzyingly broad of a field as "health." I know I speak for all my fellow MHIRT Summer 2016 participants when I extend my sincere and deep gratitude to the program directors at Christian Brothers University and to the administrators at the NIH who made these incredible adventures possible. Thank you so very much. Apwoyo matek.

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