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June 26, 2008

UPT prof leads study abroad in Tanzania

Students seeking a study-abroad experience in rural Africa have a unique option by way of Pitt-Titusville.

Spending time in rural Pennsylvania is just a stop along the way to the even more rural Karagwe district in northwestern Tanzania for students in the Pitt in Tanzania program led by UPT faculty member Linda Winkler.

Participants start the summer course in Titusville and finish with a month of study in the Nyakahanga Hospital compound in Tanzania, where they have the opportunity to see firsthand how community health initiatives fare in a rural third-world setting. The current group departed for Tanzania earlier this month and will return next week.

Winkler, UPT’s vice president for academic affairs and professor of biological sciences and anthropology, developed the study-abroad opportunity in Tanzania in 2002.

According to Pitt Study Abroad adviser Jeff Whitehead, the program has taken many forms over the years. Initially an Amizade service learning program, in 2005 the opportunity in Tanzania became an integrated field trip abroad (IFTA) following the Amizade program’s move to West Virginia University. This year, Pitt in Tanzania has become a six-credit summer class in which students take the first part of the course in Titusville then develop research proposals to undertake during their stay in Tanzania.

Since adding the in-depth research component to the program, Winkler has cut the size of the study group to 10-12 students. “Usually I get more applications than I have space,” she said.

For the past two years, students from Winkler’s Tanzania program have won the top undergraduate paper award in Pitt’s global studies student research symposium.

Students have opted for internship opportunities in the hospital’s maternity unit, healthy-baby clinic or AIDS education programs and conducted research into public health issues such as the use of mosquito netting to prevent malaria or compliance with a medical protocol aimed at reducing the prenatal transmission of AIDS. The most recent global studies research award winner, Pitt sophomore Lynette Miller, won for her research project that examined how AIDS orphans are cared for and which of their needs are met.

While some other regional faculty lead non-credit trips or teach and conduct research overseas, Whitehead said Winkler is the only Pitt regional campus faculty member who leads a full Pitt-developed study-abroad program.

The program is unique in that, unlike other study programs in Africa, this one is based in a rural part of the continent rarely visited by Americans, Winkler said.

Students live in Western-style accommodations on the hospital grounds. Doctors and hospital staff are housed within the compound, which also is home to flocks of chickens and a herd of cows that provides the hospital’s milk.

Miller, for whom the trip was a first experience in international travel, said she had always wanted to visit Africa, having harbored childhood ambitions of becoming a missionary. Surprisingly, although the hospital was very different from Western institutions, Miller said she found Africa to be less different than she expected, attributing her lack of culture shock to extensive reading prior to her departure.

She found the local people warm and welcoming to the study group and especially eager to greet their returning friend, “Dr. Linda.”

Among the highlights was visiting local schools, where the Pitt students dropped off children’s books and visited with the pupils.

“I learned so much,” Miller said, adding that given the short time she was able to spend in Tanzania, she found it difficult to judge the impact her particular group’s visit might have on the Tanzanians’ lives.

In the long term, however, the Pitt groups’ visits have resulted in benefits to the hospital and the region. The study groups carry with them donated medical supplies, clothing and books — including several culturally relevant children’s books that Winkler has written with the aid of a Rotary International grant.

One of the story books focuses on a young girl who lives in Karagwe; two others were designed for use in AIDS education projects. Winkler is planning another featuring a local folk hero.

Winkler, who has a master’s degree in public health in addition to her PhD in anthropology, made her initial contacts in Tanzania through connections between Lutheran churches in northwestern Pennsylvania and their companion diocese in the Karagwe region.

Following an American tour by the Nyakahanga Hospital’s director and a Lutheran bishop, Winkler raised money for computers for the hospital and looked into the possibility of developing a study-abroad opportunity. While other study opportunities in Africa exist, most are based in cities. “This is most definitely not,” she said.

Winkler said that American visitors to that part of Africa are rare and noted that the rural location provided an ideal opportunity to teach about some of the challenges in international community health and the many issues that can get in the way of health programs.

“Students are exposed face-to-face with things that you don’t see in cities,” she said.

For example, in Africa, a city resident in need of an AIDS test can take public transit. In contrast, residents of rural areas where there are no paved roads, let alone public transit, might have to walk for hours, then wait — perhaps for several days — for the test results, she explained. Women seeking care at a prenatal clinic likewise must walk to the facility. “There are huge constraining factors,” Winkler said.

For instance, many rural residents who are HIV-positive have no way to get medications, so they don’t get treatment. Pregnant HIV-positive women in the United States likely would deliver their babies via Caesarean section and be advised not to nurse their babies to avoid the risk of transmitting the disease. In rural Africa, the unavailability of formula and the risks of surgery and recovery in rural villages lacking sanitation or proper follow-up care limit women’s options.

In spite of the existence of community health programs, Winkler said, the resources aren’t always there to make the programs work.

For students interested in international medicine, global issues or Peace Corps work, for instance, being immersed in such a rural setting gets them thinking about such realities. “It’s a whole separate view of the world,” Winkler said.

Students can learn firsthand “how the best intentions in international policy may never have success without consideration of what happens on the ground in terms of culture,” she said.

Winkler said participants in the tour come from a broad cross-section of majors, including biology, pre-med, nursing, anthropology, African or Africana studies. While there is some racial diversity in the group, “for most students, this is the first time they’ve been a minority anywhere,” she said — a learning experience in itself.

The students’ days in Tanzania are filled with a combination of lectures, interaction with local people, readings and daily discussion time. Scheduling is flexible to allow participation in special events such as weddings, concerts or funerals that enable students to gain insight into local culture. “It’s a rich experience for both me and the students,” she said.

Winkler does her own research in the region and also is active in orphan support initiatives. She has established networks of contacts to connect volunteers who want to serve in the region. Her longtime involvement in the area has developed beyond merely making contacts and into making friendships. Last year she sat among the “mamas” — with the groom’s female relatives — as part of a local wedding.

Over the years, some 82 students, most of them from Pitt, have joined her in Tanzania. For a handful, the experience has led to more in-depth involvement. Four of Winkler’s former students now work in Africa, three of them with the Peace Corps. Last year, two students conducted fundraisers when they returned from the trip. One raised enough money to build a home for an AIDS widow, which Winkler planned to visit during this year’s trip.

More changes are being contemplated for the program. Although English is taught in secondary schools in Tanzania, Winkler hopes to add a Swahili component next year so students have the opportunity for intensive language study if they desire.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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