Team USA Letter Home
Written by: Laura McIntyre
Hey Mom and Dad,
I’m writing this letter to you from a rooftop café in Hanoi, Vietnam. It is 80 degrees, and I’m here with two of the other girls on the program. This café has become one of our staple spots to hang out and study; it’s great to a feel a sense of familiarity with a foreign city, one I never thought I would be able to visit for such a long period of time. While in Hanoi, my experience in San Francisco, where we began this journey, has come into clearer focus. Perhaps this is simply a matter of time, and with time an ability to process all that has happened.
San Francisco was a necessary precursor to traveling abroad because it allowed us to become acquainted with the program and the other students we would spend the next four months with. I realized that starting in the United States allowed for a smoother transition into the program; the familiarity with American culture and cities made the process of meeting people and taking on a new academic experience more comfortable. Had we started immediately in a foreign country I think the experience of culture shock would have been all the more present. While San Francisco enabled a sense of comfort, I think it also felt thought provoking enough, new enough – especially through the lens of health, culture and community – to spawn a fulfilling academic and personal experience.
We were introduced to our four core classes: Research Methods; Health, Culture and Community; Public Health; and Globalization. The former two were taught by Ali Heller, a professor who will accompany us for the entire trip. Ali is usually present even when we are not in class, which adds a feeling of closeness and flexibility, breaking down the barrier that sometimes exists between students and professors. A local staff member taught the latter two classes; this will be the case in each country for the remainder of the program, meaning that we will have four different professors for the two courses. While I was skeptical of this approach when I first learned of it, I’ve since concluded that having a professor from the local setting overcomes the possibility of cultural reflexivity.
Outside of those four classes there are plenty of academically motivated activities, including case study work, guest lecturers and site visits. I’m in the Maternal and Child Health (MCH) case study group, which I selected as my preference out of five options. My case study group conducted interviews and give a presentation pertaining to maternal health, birthing procedures, pre-natal care, and the like. We visited a midwifery center while in San Francisco, for example, and spoke with a midwife about her practice and her perceptions of the biomedical versus traditional methods of birthing. I think our entire case study group left that conversation feeling enlightened and changed more than we had expected.
Throughout our time in SF, professionals and practitioners from around the city came to speak with us about a specific topic under the broad umbrella of public health. We had a panel discussing HIV/AIDS that I was very impressed by, mainly because of the vulnerability with which the speakers talked about their personal experiences and the remaining challenges of addressing HIV in San Francisco. Site visits took the entire group to destinations like the Coalition on Homelessness, which shed light on the homeless population that was prevalent around the city.
While I felt that there was almost too much academic structure, I did feel that I still had time to explore individually and with friends. I had this surge of happiness the first weekend when I realized the group felt naturally inclined to gather together for sightseeing. Messages started buzzing back and forth in our group chat, photos being uploaded from distant points around the city: Lands End, Chinatown, the Golden Gate Bridge. I think that was the first time I recognized the cohesion that would hold us all together over the course of the semester. That cohesion has only grown since. It is the people I am with on this program that make my experience so rich and full-hearted beyond the academics.
Much of what I’ve just explained came into focus only upon leaving San Francisco. I’m sure these delayed reactions will continue over the course of the trip; each day is a loaded log of interactions with the familiar and the foreign, a mixture of what is known and what is not, whether that’s with food or friends or something else. That is not to say that everything is perfect; it is rather to say that everything is new and rich, academically, personally, and inter-personally.
Talk to you soon,