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Eyes Wide Open: Katies in Tanzania

From left: Bella Muhia '12 and Latifah Kiribedda '12 in Tanzania, with a medical student from Australia.
From left: Bella Muhia '12 and Latifah Kiribedda '12 in Tanzania, with a medical student from Australia.
Photo courtesy of Bella Muhia.

When senior Bella Muhia, a nursing/public health double major, recalls her January 2011 internship at Ilula Lutheran Health Center in rural Tanzania, she describes the experience as both a challenge and an inspiration.

Muhia, along with St. Kate's students Latifah Kiribedda '12 and Stacey Wiles ’11, traveled to observe, teach and assist at the center as part of a new internship program developed by Julie Bass, professor of public health and occupational therapy at St. Catherine University.

For Muhia, who grew up in Kenya’s cosmopolitan capitol city of Nairobi, the internship was a unique opportunity to see the health challenges facing residents of the impoverished, isolated region. 

The trip “made me feel more grateful for the resources that I have had access to and for the education that I have received,” Muhia says. “I learned how to apply my public health knowledge in a different setting. What I witnessed in Tanzania cemented my life goal, which is to give back to society, to use my knowledge to empower my people.”

Bass came up with the idea of developing a January internship program at Ilula Lutheran Health Center after completing an exploratory trip to the region partially funded by a grant from the University's Global Studies office. St. Kate's public health majors are required to complete an internship for graduation — and the trip is designed to meet the requirements for credit.

Because of its location, the Illula trip presented unique challenges for the students. “This is a developing area of the world,” Bass says. “It is isolated. The people are poor. HIV rates are high. The sanitation is questionable. The water is out of bottles. But the work is rewarding and worthwhile. It’s an experience that is invaluable to any student interested in international public health.”

In order to make the most out of the Tanzania program, Muhia advises interns “to be open minded and have a positive attitude.”

“Always have the goal in mind,” she adds. “On this trip, I saw a life I had never seen before. I’ve never carried a pail of water on my head. I’ve never carried firewood. I have more perspective now.”

In the months leading up to the trip, the St. Kate’s students attended monthly meetings with Shoulder To Shoulder, an interdisciplinary medical team that was also planning to spend the month at Illula Lutheran. The team was led by local physicians Gary Moody and Randy Hurley, and included medical students from the University of Minnesota.

A group photo.           “They were working to build a team approach and learn about the physical demands they would face while traveling to that part of the world,” Bass explains. “I think one of the beauties of the trip was that there was advance preparation and the opportunity for St. Kate’s students to work with other medical professionals.”

 In Tanzania, the St. Kate’s students helped staff at Illula Medical Center assess current conditions and prepare recommendations for future expansion. They also participated in HIV education for students attending the school associated with the clinic. Other times, the group left the clinic to venture out into more isolated areas.

“We did mobile reproductive clinics,” recalls Kiribedda. “Women and children from the area would come to see us, get health assessments and get educated about HIV. Their babies would be weighed, and they would line up for medications.”

Innovative curriculum prepares graduates

St. Kate’s public health major is still relatively young. More than 60 undergraduate students are currently enrolled, Bass says. While traditional public health degrees tend to be formulated as masters’ programs, employers have raved about St. Kate’s innovative approach, saying it produces undergraduates well prepared to work in the field. 

Bass says an emphasis on international public health is a big draw for many students like Muhia and Kiribedda, a native of Kampala, Uganda.

“About three quarters of those enrolled in our program represent either the Twin Cities’ new immigrant populations or international students,” she says. “We have a lot of students enrolled who come from East Africa, and also a lot of students who are Hmong. Public health speaks to them as a major because they see it as a way they can help members of their communities. As insiders, they see issues that people like me often don’t understand or have never even heard about.”

For Kiribedda, who one day dreams of being the African Regional Director for the World Health Organization, the Illula experience was “life changing and eye opening.”

“What made it easier for us to go on this trip was Dr. Bass,” she says. “She has been a great mentor. So many students have told me they are interested in this internship program. If they are prepared for the challenge, I think this would be a great experience for them — something that will truly enrich their lives.”

Oct. 17, 2011 by Andy Steiner

See also: Faculty, Healthcare, Social Justice, Students