By Shagun Vashisth, junior majoring in biology and global health
Fall semester at Duke begins with friends reuniting and exchanging stories of their summers. But as the semester progresses, these conversations become marked by stress and worry, and mere weeks after we have returned to school, we shift from the enthusiastic highs of our summers to worrying about what we will do the coming summer.
I remember feeling relieved with the knowledge of what I would be doing the summer after my sophomore year: fulfilling the fieldwork requirement for my global health degree. I spent hours scrutinizing the DGHI’s website, captivated, but overwhelmed, by the breadth and depth of research being conducted by faculty—many of whom are pioneers in their fields.
Eventually, I committed to a summer in my parent’s hometown of Delhi, India, where I would be researching the physical and mental health of orphaned and vulnerable children and their caregivers as part of a longitudinal study to which Duke students had been contributing for five years.
But I didn’t have enough time to process my anxiety and fear of the unknown as my team and I—under the mentorship of Dr. Sumedha Gupta Ariely—immediately began planning the scope of our project. Now, four months after the completion of our project, as time to reflect on my summer seeps in, the day-to-day meaning of the experience gets internalized in different ways.
Three lessons I learned:
1. Sustainability and social justice are inextricably linked.
No matter how good my intentions were going into the fieldwork or how immense the data we collected and analyzed is, ensuring that the results continue to meaningfully contribute to our community partner—and the children and caregivers in its residential care program—long after my involvement is of the utmost priority when considering the impact that I hope to have.
Throughout our fieldwork, it was easy to feel as though my team and I were fighting a tidal wave. In the beginning, I constantly felt that the population we were working with was too vulnerable for us to understand and that the advances we hoped to make—to support the mental health of orphaned and vulnerable children in alternative care settings—required solutions that were too complex for us to engineer and advocate for.
I came to terms with this apprehension when I realized that the key to addressing the social justice issue was channeling our energy and efforts towards creating sustainable solutions for our community partner.
I realized that transitioning into a position—for me, as a researcher working in the field—is just as important as transitioning out of it. As we wrap up our analysis of our collected data, I have prioritized designing a manual delineating how we collected our data through psychometric tests, inputted our data in encrypted files and analyzed it through SPSS and Excel so that volunteers and those working with our community partner, Udayan Care, can collect and analyze data for their own purposes when Duke students are no longer involved in direct fieldwork. I hope that this lessens the disconnect between our community partner’s experience interacting with us during the summer and the presentation of our final results that is delivered nearly six months later.
2. Global is local … but global is still global, too.
There has been a lot of discourse on campus recently concerning a need to focus our efforts in Durham, with the slogan “global is local,” being echoed both inside and outside the classroom. While we certainly have a duty as Duke students to partner for change in the city we call home for four years, what distinguishes the Duke Global Health Institute is the principle it was founded on—a recognition that establishing a global footprint is key to understanding the totality of our world. As our nation’s politics shift towards more isolationist and nationalistic policy, as Duke students, we can’t forget the ethical and moral responsibility that we have as global citizens to use our knowledge in the service of a global community.
3. Adaptability is vital when working with a community partner.
Even though we needed to plan our data collection schedule and meticulously map out how we could collect data for 125 children, 35 caregivers, and 30 alumni and aftercare within eight weeks, the reality of how our fieldwork unfolded demanded daily reevaluation of our schedule, organization, and efficiency. I learned to expect the unexpected and somewhere along the way, our unpredictable work became a challenge that I greeted with enthusiasm.
My fieldwork has proven immeasurably valuable to my understanding of myself and the area of global mental health that I hope channel my energy and efforts into—long after the completion of my undergraduate education. The experience also helped me define my strengths and weaknesses as a leader. Coming to the understanding that there were tasks for which I was not the best suited was a critical turning point for me. I realized that sometimes the best I can offer lies more in my ability to empower, empathize with and support those around me, and not in my ability to directly complete the task at hand.
Somewhere while collecting data about the self-concept of the children at Udayan Care using the Piers-Harris 2 Scale, I defined my own self-concept and identity too.