Life is full of opportunities, and if you’re willing to try something new and take a leap of faith those unique experiences might end up being a life-changer.
So it was for College of Public Health and Human Sciences PhD alum Peter Okoye, who experienced his life-changer through an internship abroad.
As a child growing up in Nigeria, Africa, life was good. Unfortunately, he says, that could not be said of the healthcare delivery system. Peter witnessed high rates of infant mortality and morbidity as well as adults dying from communicable diseases that could have been prevented or controlled. He says with an inadequate number of physicians and hospitals, healthy living wasn’t common.
“I wanted to go to medical school so that I could go back and help with providing basic assistance to helpless citizens who were dying by the mere fact of being born in Africa,” he says.
But stiff competition and jaw-breaking school fees, he says, made it impossible for him to pursue his dream in the traditional way.
Instead, after earning a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences/health science, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in public administration with an emphasis in health administration, where he could take a management approach to prevention. From there, he enrolled in what was then Oregon State University’s College of Health and Human Performance, where he obtained a PhD.
“I chose to go to Oregon State University because of the quality and special nature of the graduate program boosted at all levels by highly qualified academic professors who were very supportive of students,” he says. “Additionally, OSU is an old land-grant institution and had made a name for itself from all disciplines. I was very much thrilled to learn that past graduates from the health unit held very attractive positions and were highly respected and remunerated in their jobs.”
In addition to completing courses in biological and health sciences, health education, health administration, environmental health management and more, he worked as a graduate teaching assistant lecturing on an introductory health course.
“The course focused on various topical health issues encountered by students and the general populace on a daily basis,” he says. “It systematically discussed disease agents and preventive health measures, as well as practice interventions necessary to promote long-term wellness and a happier life.”
With the help and encouragement of two key professionals – his academic advisor, supervisor and mentor, former faculty member David Phelps, and former director of the Benton County Health Department Richard Swenson, Peter realized the importance of experiencing what he lectured firsthand – through an internship abroad in his native Africa.
“My entire life revolved around the internship,” he says. “There are times in our personal lives that we take a leap of faith. For me, such a time came in the summer of 1985 when I went to Sudan for a three-month internship in a refugee camp. The idea of practical training to help me gain practical knowledge and skills to support my academic program was indeed ideal, superb and a sine qua non.”
“Apart from gaining practical knowledge, it helped me to redefine myself.”
Located in a refugee camp in El Fau, Sudan, Peter’s caseload consisted of about 6,000 Ethiopian refugees – mainly women, children and elderly men – who were escaping from civil strife and famine in the Horn of Africa. His job was to oversee the water and environmental health services for refugees and staff.
Read this story (pdf) about Peter Okoye’s internship in Sudan – published in The Daily Barometer, Oct. 15, 1985. Courtesy Special Collections & Archives Research Center, Oregon State University.
It was no small undertaking.
“But when you have people who fully believe in you and are behind you, it was easy to climb the highest mountain,” he says.
The environmental program established for the camp included collecting, preparing and properly distributing clean water, disposing of fecal matter, and providing vector control, solid waste management and health education.
“The success of any health program will depend largely on how the systems established were being used, how they were maintained and how the refugees were sufficiently involved in the day-to-day operation of the entire systems,” he says. “Through the use of intensive health education, we were able to complement as well as encourage the refugees to participate fully in all the activities designed for their well-being.”
Peter says he entered the internship a naive human being and left a transformed soul.
“Apart from gaining practical knowledge, it helped me to redefine myself,” he says. “Through the internship, it became crystal clear to me that the only professional career that would give me joy and lasting peace would be to work for refugees or persons in refugee-like situations. It was obvious that through the internship and my subsequent professional life, I learned that part of having a happy life rests on enjoying our professional careers.”
United Nations calls
Peter graduated in Spring 1986 from Oregon State, and soon after found himself traveling to Geneva, Switzerland, for a week-long interview with the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR.
“The post was for a project officer for environmental sanitation to be based in Islamabad, Pakistan, and monitor services provided to all 3 million refugees in Pakistan,” he says.
His academics and experiences were considered acceptable for the job and he was offered the position.
“With my academic and practical knowledge combined, I was fully fortified intellectually, practically and culturally to tackle the world upon my graduation,” he says. “My cumulative exposure reflected by my internship abroad tended to open many doors, including the door of the United Nations. The efficacy of the internship abroad cannot be over-emphasized.”
“With my academic and practical knowledge combined, I was fully fortified intellectually, practically and culturally to tackle the world upon my graduation.”
Stationed in Islamabad, Pakistan, Peter traveled extensively to serve all refugees dispersed in various regions of Pakistan. Initially, his job entailed ensuring that they had adequate environmental sanitation services through a coordinated approach with the sub-offices and NGOs. After three years of service, he gradually moved away from the technical side to administrative and management services.
“I loved my job because it was what I studied in school and it was very challenging – never a dull moment – and it was very humanitarian in nature,” says Peter, who worked for the UN for 24 years. “It is not a career based solely on a good, enviable salary. You must be passionate about humanitarian issues. You must be interested in world peace. Operationally, you must be healthy, you must be happy, you must be productive and show an uncanny ability to absorb pain. It is not a career for the faint-hearted nor for lazy drones. You must have strong leadership and diplomatic skills. You should be ready to work in any part of the world.”
Peter is now retired from the U.N. and is currently with his family in New York, where he’s working on his memoir and catching up on life.
As a member of the OSU President’s Circle, the university’s most loyal annual donor community, Peter believes the greatest way he can give back to the college he credits with so much of his success is to share his life experiences, especially how important internships can be on a person’s life.
“I wish and pray that my contribution will benefit OSU students in their search for a better quality of life and freedom of the mind,” he says, “Especially during this exciting time as the college works to become the first and only accredited college of public health and human sciences in Oregon.”
“I’d like to sincerely applaud Tammy Bray, her team and President Ray for fighting tooth and nail to establish an accredited college of public health in Corvallis,” he says. “Their courageous and laudable contribution to higher education will forever be recognized throughout the United States and the academic world at large.”
“When I look back to my professional achievements and personal transformation in these 24 years, I cannot help but continue to cherish the mighty institution called Oregon State University,” he says. “The integrity of the Beaver family lives on, and I am proud to be part of it.”