I wanted to spend a year working in Peru for three reasons. The first, and most important to me at the time, was that I had just finished a master’s degree in Public Health at Tulane University and I wanted to test out my newfound public health skills in an international setting. I knew that I could learn even more from a functioning public health project than I had learned in my classes, and was eager for the opportunity. I felt like gaining some professional experience and a little more public health savvy needed to be my number one priority for the next several years given the lilting economy in the United States.
The second was that I wanted to better my Spanish skills. I had been stuck in intermediate Spanish purgatory for years and felt like the only real way to progress was complete immersion.
The third reason was that, being from the United States, I have always been fascinated with the Americas, from the very northern bits all the way down to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. The variety of economic, social, and political situations which affect the lives of people in North, Central, and South America has always been of great interest to me considering our interrelated histories. I wanted to understand this in a much more fundamental and less academic way and I knew this would be impossible without living and working outside of the United States.
I applied to volunteer with an organization that supports multi-drug resistant tuberculosis patients in Lima. The organization has established itself as an international leader in tuberculosis treatment in resource-constrained settings because of its holistic approach to the disease and its fiercely dedicated field workers. They offer patients clinical support during their year-and-a-half to two-year treatment, psycho-emotional support, and socioeconomic support to relieve their food and housing needs as they fight the disease. In the last three years the organization has also implemented a microcredit and workforce reinsertion program.
The organization recognizes that after treatment stops, patients are still vulnerable to relapses because of their economically tenuous situations. The microcredit program offers no interest loans to former patients or family members who support former patients so that they can start a small business and stabilize their income.
The workforce reinsertion component offers short occupational courses to former tuberculosis patients and job search training so as to improve the former patient’s chances of securing a stable income. This is an extraordinarily difficult charge, given the labor conditions in Lima. I was assigned to the microcredit and workforce reinsertion component, and although very excited about the idea of supporting this project, I was concerned that my public health background would not be of particular service in this component.
As it turns out, I did not have anything to worry about. I quickly learned that there was plenty of work to be done and that my manager was very happy to make space for me to participate in this work in a meaningful way. My first several months were spent learning about the projects in the field, accompanying the socioeconomic and income generation teams as they visited patients and beneficiaries.
I was overwhelmed with the ability of the organization’s field workers to assess and address the particular needs of each and every patient and their consistent follow-through on promises made to patients. They are extraordinarily compassionate, well versed in their field, and practical. They offer emotional support and understanding while firmly impressing upon patients how important it is to comply with their treatment. I could not have hoped for better teachers.
Under their guidance I began to assume the responsibilities associated with the workforce reinsertion project until I was eventually coordinating and administering it. This was an extraordinary learning experience. I was charged with systemizing the project’s processes, selecting beneficiaries, orienting beneficiaries in developing their education and work goals, designing and offering a series of workshops (a terrifying but positive experience), monitoring the beneficiaries’ progress in the program, and supporting the development of a project proposal for the income generation team that would last for the next two years. Through these activities I have learned more than I expected about Peru, the problems it faces, the extraordinary resiliency of people living on the margins of society, and a whole lot about public health and international development.
I cannot express my gratitude to my tutors here in Peru enough for their trust in me, for their advice, and for their guidance. I've developed professionally and personally, and I hope that I can bring the lessons I learned here home to the United States to be applied to community projects there. This experience would have been impossible for me without the support of the InterExchange Christianson Grant. With the InterExchange Foundation’s financial support, I was able to accomplish and surpass all of my goals for this year.