Planting The Seed At My Home University

When I was in my junior year, studying computer science and public health, I didn’t have a clear idea of where I wanted to direct my interests. The public health class I was taking at college was centered around epidemiology and public health crises in America, focusing on the challenges that exist socially, economically, and culturally within the Americanized bubble. This class highlighted the social determinants of health and involved doing a fieldwork project where my group analyzed the rate of incarceration in two different neighborhoods in New York City. We traveled to a neighborhood in Queens and a neighborhood in the Bronx and spoke with local residents and police officers, thoroughly documenting our trip.
Applying what I had learned in class to real world data and analysis helped to solidify my understanding of the problems that existed and enhanced my desire to work towards a professional goal of helping to alleviate public health crisis in New York, America, and globally. This project made me appreciate physically traveling to the neighborhood and observing and talking to locals to truly understand what is happening in the community.
As a result, I knew where my interests lied. I discovered I wanted to make an impact on communities from the ground up, through a symbiotic process that would involve interacting with local communities to work to fill in gaps that are missing in the environment. Furthermore, I realized that going abroad would help me understand new environments, interact with local communities, and be comfortable stepping outside of my comfort zone; it would be my first step in setting my newfound path into motion.

Classes Abroad Helped to Enhance My Understanding Of Global Health

My desire to observe the social determinants of health via real work experiences sparked my interest in traveling around the world to see how different communities’ function. My study abroad program brought me to Melbourne, Australia where I was able to enroll in any
 class of my choosing at the University of Melbourne. I registered for a third-year elective for biomedical majors called Global Health, Security, and Sustainability. Each week a guest lecturer from a new department would come and discuss global health efforts focusing on their specialty from an anthropological, economical, sociological, cultural, biological or other lens. In addition, we had smaller tutorials of about 15 students where we got to unpack certain scenarios and talk about global health issues.
It was really interesting to hear about the social determinants of health from experts in each field and understand the interdisciplinary nature of global health. For example, one speaker discussed his research in Papua New Guinea. Another talked about his research in Cambodia. Given the proximity of many developing countries in Southeast Asia, the research focus is different for those in Australia versus for researchers in the United States. We even got to hear a lecture from Tilman Ruff, an Australian public health and infectious diseases physician, who recently accepted the Nobel Peace Prize for his work with the International campaign to abolish Nuclear Weapons. This made me appreciate being in Australia because I knew I would never have gotten a chance to hear these experts speak anywhere else.
I also took a class called Street Art that highlighted the amazing street art that covers the streets and alleyways of Melbourne. Every other week we would go on walking tours in a new area of Melbourne. My professor also strove to have us understand the social implications that have propelled and sustained the street art scene within Melbourne. Many famous street artists live on the streets and have abused drugs or other substances at some point in their lives. Three famous Melbourne artists came into our class one week and discussed what it was like to live on the streets, struggle with drug addiction, and create illegal graffiti or commissioned street art.
It was amazing to hear firsthand experiences and understand the psychological impacts of life on the streets and how public health crises in Melbourne have affected their lives. This experience was unique to Melbourne and the environment created by our professor who wanted to expose the predominantly study abroad-filled class to what life is realistically like for many artists. It opened my eyes to the use of art to help illuminate or advocate for an issue. Street art is a great example of how Melbourne is able to construct advocacy efforts so that people will notice and respond to them based on what is already popular and prevalent within in the city.

Traveling Abroad Helped Me Understand New Perspectives

I also got the opportunity to travel around Australia. Traveling while I was learning about global health crises caused me to be very aware of the varying degrees of life throughout Australia and keep an open mind as I met people with new perspectives. For instance, I was able to do a road trip up the coast of Queensland where the towns are small and sparse, and the climate is warm year-round. I also traveled to Tasmania, where it snows in the winter and is isolated from the mainland. A

ll these aspects play a factor
in the health and livelihood of people even though all are within the same country. I also spoke with several locals and people who had moved to Australia. One woman told me that she wouldn’t move back to the US
because of the healthcare coverage she is able to get in Australia for her heart problems.  I also learned about areas and communities that rely on local plants as remedies that grow naturally in the area, given that Australia has extremely diverse wildlife and species of plants. The major hubs of activity are predominantly located on the coastline and far apart from one another making health services and access to resources a very prevalent issue.

My Future Plans In The Field Of Health

Once I returned to America and reflected on my experience over the past few months, I realized that it was because of my time abroad that I was able to get a global perspective and broaden my understanding of the world. In addition, I realized the reason I went abroad in the first place was to understand the way that those halfway across the world live and how efforts to help those in developing countries are similar or different from those in America. From taking global health classes to meeting street artists to traveling to multiple Australian states I was able to see with my own eyes the sociological, economic, cultural, geographical, and more differences that lead to disparities in global health.

As I’ve mentioned, the reason I wanted to go abroad stemmed from my desire to get field experience and know what it is like to travel to a new community and attempt to understand and call it home. My hopes for the future are to be able to travel to developing countries, similar to the researchers I heard speak in my global health class and engage with local communities. Then, I hope to bring that knowledge and experience back home with me and attempt to think of solutions that can realistically be implemented within a community. Thus, all of these experiences heightened my desire to embark on a professional path where I would have the ability to make a difference and ameliorate the lives of those who are confronted with barriers.
Izzy Friesner is an Information Science Major with a track in Public Health at Columbia University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia in Spring 2018