A force for good

Public health students see the world through a different lens

India Study Abroad

OSU students form “OSU” at the Elephant Stable in Hampi, India, on the India Study Abroad Program to Bangalore.

Seven CPHHS undergraduate students had a memorable summer overseas in Bangalore, India. The students gained a new perspective as they saw public health in action alongside their faculty advisor, Assistant Professor Jonathan Garcia.

Work with social impact

While on the four-week trip, students earned course credits in public health (H225, H333 and H401) and attended classes at Swasti: Health Resource Centre, which is a non-governmental organization (NGO) located in Bangalore.

Swasti, which means “well-being” in Sanskrit, is a health resource center focused on public health outcomes for socially excluded and poor individuals in India. Jonathan and the students spent time working in a community organization supported by Swasti called Swathi Mahila Sanga.

“Swathi Mahila Sanga provides several empowerment interventions to 1,300 sex workers in a small space,” Jonathan says. “It’s organized like a family, and the leader considers herself the mother. The organization provides HIV prevention services, social protections and even runs its own bank to provide financial services and loans since these workers are excluded from receiving these common services elsewhere. The biggest challenge is getting the word out to people that these services are available to them.”

Swasti, along with many of the NGOs in India, receives funding from the Avahan initiative, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative started in 2003 to reduce the spread of HIV in India.

The CPHHS developed a relationship with Swasti several years ago and has encouraged MPH students to complete internships there. When Jonathan came to OSU in 2015, he further developed the partnership and extended the opportunity to undergraduate students. The recent trip was the first, and Jonathan hopes to take more students on the experiential learning experience in the future.

One student who went on the trip, Nidhi Pai, is originally from India.

“Visiting my family in India every few years has given me a decent understanding of many of the public health issues that plague the country, but what I loved most about this program was that it focused on helping us deconstruct and gain an understanding of topics that are typically never talked about, including issues surrounding mental health, LGBTQAI rights, HIV/AIDS and sex work,” she says. “I gained an understanding of the field and of the world that no textbook or course could have taught me.”

The students spent their time at Swasti exploring qualitative methods in current projects, attended group meetings on HIV prevention, helped build a code book on equity, inclusion and diversity, and participated in various community observations.

“As a teacher, this experience helped me to be flexible in teaching in the context of another country. It was an experience that no instructional YouTube video or slide show could ever capture,” Jonathan says.

Time for exploration

The group took a four-day excursion to Hampi, a UNESCO heritage site, during the trip. Highlights from their time there include visiting the Elephant Stables and hiking Sunset Temple. They also visited the Badami Caves, which feature spectacular carved rocks with interior temples.

Additionally, the group visited an urban slum to get a firsthand look at some of the country’s public health challenges and experienced riding the metro and the unpredictability of being a vehicle passenger in a middle-income country.

Water insecurity causes unease

Students experienced another real-life lesson when they were faced with the reality of water insecurity. When the group traveled to Bommanahalli, they were told to drink water beforehand or to bring their own bottled water. Jonathan says that he didn’t listen to the advice and felt thirsty simply due to his heightened awareness of not having water available.

Residents in these poor communities have multiple water containers – that they need to keep nearby and ready to fill ­­– because the government only turns on the water supply once each week and they don’t know which day it will be. There is also concern with keeping the containers covered to avoid diseases, such as Zika and dengue fever, spread through mosquitoes.

Faced with water insecurity, as well as uncertainty about mosquitoes, caused the travelers some anxiety. From their experiences, they gained new perspectives from a place so different than home.

“I’m glad to see how much positive change is happening, but some parts of the world really need more,” says Samantha Buffington, a sophomore majoring in nutrition. “It’s important to never take health and sanitation for granted.”

Find more information about the India study abroad program and other international study opportunities.

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