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Spring break in Ethiopia

Study abroad trip gives students a global perspective

Group photo

OSU students collaborate with Debre Berhan University faculty in Ethiopia

When most people think of spring break activities, visions of poolside fun, road trips and time with family and friends likely come to mind – not a trip to Ethiopia. But for six OSU students, a spring break trip to East Africa offered them the opportunity to be involved in peer workshops, earn two credit hours and experience life in another part of the world.

Four CPHHS Global Health graduate students – Virginia “Ginny” Katz, Molly Mew, Katrina Mullins and Pax Matipwiri – Health Promotion and Health Behavior graduate student Anna Osborn and Anthropology graduate student Micknai “Mickey” Arefaine joined CPHHS Assistant Professor Stephanie Grutzmacher in March to build on previous trips with Debre Berhan University (DBU) and its faculty, staff and students.

“Too often, student opportunities to travel abroad replicate the power differentials that have undermined progress in global health equity for years,” Stephanie says. “I’m pleased that this trip was different and that the students had a joint professional learning opportunity with colleagues in Ethiopia who are working toward the same goals. We were also able to see the progress of the gardening and food security project, which is managed by my colleagues at University of Maryland.”


Bethel Geremew (left) and Mickey Arefaine present a workshop

During the recent trip, students spilt into groups with DBU faculty. Each team worked together to prepare a workshop for their peers and shared their topic with the other teams. In addition to the facilitation and participation in the workshops, the group visited the project site and homes of women participating in an ongoing food security project.

“It wasn’t about just teaching through workshops,” Ginny says. “It was also about asking and listening to what the community’s priorities were. We had previously taken suggestions from community surveys, which we used to create these workshops with local professionals. It was awesome to learn these community engagement strategies together and see how they could be applied locally.”

Workshop topics were centered around community engagement and were held over three days. The topics included:

  • Focus groups
  • Photo voice ­– giving community members cameras to document perspectives and experiences
  • Community art
  • Root causes tree – discovering community assets, leaders, values, and opportunities, as well as challenges, root causes and desired outcomes
  • Asset mapping
  • Child and parent engagement

The group also collected a survey from DBU faculty to identify professional development priorities for future joint training activities. The survey results will be used as roadmap for the partnership.

Culture and collaboration

During the trip, the students experienced a synergy taking place, which left a lasting and personal impression, Stephanie says.

“As an Ethiopian American, traveling to Debre Berhan to network, share, learn and participate with our Ethiopian peers was a dream come true,” Mickey says. “I experienced personal growth and came home with a sense of hope and a new community of friends.”

“The Debre Berhan faculty gave me so much insight into Ethiopian life and what it means to collaborate professionally,” Molly says. “I learned how to ask a community what they need and work alongside them rather than impose my own expectations. I intend on shaping my career in public health and photography around this skill.”  

“Our visit to Ethiopia showed that effective community health work begins with community engagement,” Anna says. “One of the strategies highlighted through our trip was the Women in Agriculture program. As a garden educator, I was blown away by the school and community gardens this program has implemented throughout the city, which have played a prominent and essential role in the community.” 

Some time for fun

Of course, the trip wasn’t all work and no play. Once the workshops were complete, the group celebrated Ginny’s birthday at a traditional Ethiopian venue There was music, several rows of Christmas lights, singing in Amharic and a bounty of jokes.

Ginny wants other students considering a global opportunity to know it’s worth it and adds to the educational experience. She even discovered that multimedia projects – one of her passions – was worth hauling bulky equipment and could be weaved into her professional future. She was able to film the experience and plans to create a website for the project.

She produced this video from the footage collected:

“For me, it was an opportunity to take a risk,” she says. “I’ve had an ambition to find ways to combine my interest for media and my passion for global health education and disaster management. The experience of participating in and filming workshops as an educational resource was a dream and an incredible learning experience. It really solidified a few of my future goals.”

A chain reaction begins

Pax, who in addition to being a student is also a medical doctor from Malawi, flew home after the trip to work on replicating the Ethiopia project in his hometown.

Arriving in Malawai

Stephanie and Pax (far right), along with DBU faculty, arrive and are welcomed by Pax’s family at Kamuzu International Airport in Malawi

He and Stephanie met with several community partners and conducted a strengths and needs assessment with Pax’s target population, which is individuals living with HIV/AIDS. The assessment has confirmed that there is a need and a desire for a food security project, similar to the one taking place in Ethiopia. Pax hopes to develop a program to help the community and the target group ensure sustainable food security and nutrition in the future.

“I was inspired by the Ethiopia project after learning about it and feel so grateful to have been able to join Stephanie and other students to learn more about it,” Pax says. “I wanted to replicate the project in my home and use my connections and knowledge of the area to help a vulnerable population.”

Pax hopes to pursue his doctorate in public health using his food security project in Malawi as the focus of his thesis.