A life-changing experience

Written by Olivia Pokoski, BPH, MPH candidate at the University of Kentucky and participant in the 2019 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program – Public & Global Health Track

Before beginning the Summer Research Program, I had no idea that it would impact my life so deeply. For five weeks I lived in Iganga, Uganda, a city where things we take for granted here in St. Louis – clean drinking water, a flushing toilet, three meals a day, etc. – are considered a luxury.

In Uganda, I have been working alongside another fellow, Tobi Okopie, under the direction of our mentor, Dr. Shanti Parikh, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology. Our projects focus on the customers of the sex work industry in truck stop towns along the Trans-African Highway in an effort to understand their motivations. Participating in the actual data collection in the field has helped me gain a better understanding as to how difficult it actually is.

I expected to learn valuable information from a professional lens, about conducting interviews and analyzing data in the field. However, I did not expect to learn so much about myself. Every day I was faced with a new challenge, to communicate in Lusoga (the native language), to ride a motorcycle taxi, to try new food. Inevitably, these challenges made me uncomfortable. Once I realized that I needed to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, I began to grow.

The author with friends in Iganga, Uganda.
The author with friends in Iganga, Uganda.

Every single person that I have met through this program has made a positive impact on my life. Dr. Parikh’s constructive criticism and trust with her project has motivated me to produce the best work possible. Tobi’s outgoing personality brought me out of my shell and helped me establish friendships that I know will last a lifetime. The people that I met in Uganda are inspirational in how accepting and loving they are. And last but not least, the other fellows have pushed me to build relationships that are both personal and professional.

I will be forever grateful for the experiences gained and connections made through this program.