Every summer, global health students at Duke University travel to countries around the world to do field research in a variety of topics within global health—including environmental health, women’s reproductive health, infectious disease, health policy and more.
DGHI caught up with undergraduate student Autumn Barnes to learn more about the independent project she has been working on at Project Weber/RENEW in Providence, Rhode Island. Project Weber/RENEW is harm reduction and overdose prevention organization, and Barnes’ has been studying how the nonprofit sector in Rhode Island has been tackling the opioid crisis.
DGHI: What's the most interesting thing you've learned during your fieldwork so far?
Barnes: I believe one of the many interesting things I've learned is how education is not as big of a social determiner as I previously thought. In school, I was taught that education is the main factor to determine a person's socioeconomic status, their access to care and treatments, and their overall placement in society. While I do believe this is true to an extent, I've witnessed that the people in this particular area who are struggling through addiction or homelessness are quite knowledgeable about their living conditions, the dangers of their conditions, and the services that are available for them. Despite having so much knowledge, there are still major obstacles standing in many people's way of getting necessary services. Therefore, overall this trip has shown me a real-life example of 'don't judge a book by its cover,' because even if a person is struggling, that doesn't automatically mean they are ignorant.
DGHI: What has surprised you about your fieldwork?
Barnes: What's surprised me was just how sobering it was. I knew coming in that I was going to witness some horrible situations and see the worst sides of addiction, but I wasn't aware of the gravity of it until I started doing outreach and saw just how people lived and survived every day. What was even more sobering was actually talking to people and hearing their life stories, and realizing that many people struggling with addiction would have been considered "normal" by our society's standards until a tragic event happened or something that catalyzed a downward spiral into addiction. I had thought previously that I would be completely professional and composed, but there have been times where I have been completely taken aback and silenced by the clients I've worked with. So, the surprising aspect of this work has overall been the forced sensitization to the struggles of others, and that simply listening to someone and taking in their stories can be the most impactful thing in their life.
DGHI: What's one thing you've learned about the community/culture you're in this summer?
Barnes: Since Rhode Island is extremely small, everyone is connected to someone somehow. Whether that be a cousin, a friend, a friend of a friend, a coworker, etc., it's not hard at all to track people down. It can be a good thing, especially when people show their comradery and family-oriented mindsets, but it could also be depressing in the cases where someone falls on hard times and others can remember when they were perfectly fine and happy. However, it has made it quite easy to make connections with my coworkers and clients; my great aunt lives here and knows everyone at my organization, so introducing me as her niece made my assimilation smooth.