April 12, 2024
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Undergraduate Fellows take part in new global research opportunities

Provost's International Internship Fellowship provides students with in-country, faculty-led mentorship

Olivia LaSalle, a student who took part in the Vanuatu Health Transition Project, examines a participant. Olivia LaSalle, a student who took part in the Vanuatu Health Transition Project, examines a participant.
Olivia LaSalle, a student who took part in the Vanuatu Health Transition Project, examines a participant. Image Credit: Zhiqiao Huang.

In 2013, Binghamton University implemented the Road Map to Premier, a planning process that aimed to continue and advance the growing momentum of the University’s academic and cultural excellence. Ten years later, these funds have been put to use in ways that have only made the Binghamton campus bigger, better and more inclusive. For example, a strategic priority added in 2021, internationalization, is at the root of a new opportunity for students to expand their worldviews.

Kevin Murphy, assistant director in International Education and Global Affairs (IEGA), and Patricia Bello, assistant provost for International Education and Global Affairs and director of International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS), administer the logistics of the program.

“This is another way by which students can understand their place in a globalized world,” Murphy said. “We’re just grateful for the opportunity to facilitate this transformative event in the lives of our undergraduate students.”

Imagined and spearheaded by Donald Hall, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Binghamton University, the Provost’s International Internship Fellowship program utilizes Road Map funds to send undergraduate students abroad to assist faculty whose research is occurring in an international setting.

“Provost Hall is exceptionally committed to providing and supporting international experiences for students and faculty,” Bello said. “The University is looking at a host of ways to move the needle within the realm of internationalization, which can take many different formats.”

This program builds on the University’s other study-abroad opportunities and can take place during University winter, spring or summer breaks. In addition to the academic prospects, this endeavor provides for students who may find what they are looking for in traditional study-abroad options. Where faculty members may be teaching material in other study-abroad scenarios, here they invite students into their research projects and mentor those under their purview.

To be selected, faculty submit a proposal for one or more undergraduate student interns of their choosing to receive funding, which covers all of the student expenses, including airfare and living costs. Also unique to this program is a stipend, which is built into the funding to account for any lost opportunities the students may incur from accepting the research position.

The most important aspect of this fellowship is its central tenant: the work must be completed in a hands-on setting, within the country where the research focuses. In this way, students not only have the opportunity to create a long-lasting bond with a professor and gain research experience but also play a fundamental part in the fieldwork.

“All of the undergraduate student costs are paid for while they’re helping a faculty member on the faculty member’s research project. The work also needs to be conducted in an international setting,” Murphy said. “The students who participate get this amazing experience, and our faculty have the opportunity to mentor undergraduate students while also getting assistance with their personal research.”

Only in its second funding cycle, the program is still relatively new. In its first iteration, two projects were overseen, and seven students were offered the unique chance to evolve their understanding of the world while visiting their country of research for an entire month.

“In summer 2023, we had two faculty members, both of whom are from Harpur College, conduct separate research in Ghana and Vanuatu,” Murphy said. “Five students went to Ghana with one faculty member and three students went to Vanuatu with another. One of these students is even an international student who had the opportunity to participate in both experiences!”

GHANA

Conducting her research in Ghana, West Africa, Titi Okoror, chair and associate professor of Africana studies, focuses on community barriers to the prevention of disease among African and African American people. Designing and implementing culturally acceptable programming for health promotion and disease prevention is a major focus of her work.

Her project was centered around a 2015 change in policy regarding the role of traditional birth attendants; according to the new ruling, Ghanaian mothers were no longer meant to utilize these “TBAs” and instead were required to seek care at traditional “healthcare clinics.” Although the goal of the policy is to ensure proper and safe care for women, women living in rural communities often have little to no access to these spaces. The policy also fails to take into account the cultural desires and designs of the women it’s meant to protect.

An implication of this practice is that TBAs are still utilized, but outside of the government’s watch, and the lack of research into the needs of the community is exactly what Okoror hoped to address. Through interviews and focus groups, participants discussed their reaction to the policy, as well as its impact and challenges; the group also provided supplies to individuals in need.

Frema Akuoko, a junior studying global public health with a minor in Africana studies, was one of the students who participated in the research that took part in Ghana.

Originally from Ghana herself, Akuoko took that into account when she began to look for an international option. Unlike some other students, she didn’t come into the program with a close relationship to a professor. Originally exploring study-abroad programs, she realized that she wasn’t dedicated to their topics, like psychology or economics. This changed when she found the fellowship.

“I wanted to go to Ghana. I knew that was where I wanted my experience to be. I liked that this program was something that I was passionate about,” Akuoko recalled. “To my surprise, this program perfectly aligned with what my career interests were — public health and epidemiology — and I made it a mission to apply.”

It wasn’t long until Akuoko was accepted and established a connection with Okoror. While in Ghana and under Okoror’s leadership — who Akuoko continues to work with to this day — Akuoko and the other interns headed the collection of qualitative data regarding the healthcare of mothers and babies in Africa.

“We helped facilitate a focus group with 20 nursing mothers, where I was able to pose questions regarding the nature of their pregnancy, the support they received from their families and the care they received from their traditional birth attendants or hospitals,” Akuoko said. “I was able to assess the quality of health care in Ghana and support over 60 nursing mothers with essential baby supplies and prenatal vitamins.”

Looking back now, Akuoko remembers the impact of working with the population. Understanding and engaging with cultural and spiritual backgrounds and making individuals feel comfortable to speak was an essential part of the research.

“I have more awareness of health disparities globally. Seeing that on a global scale definitely changed things for me,” Akuoko said. “I also learned how to properly engage with the community, especially in the context of healthcare, and how to build trust and understanding of the needs of other people. I really learned how to collect and organize data and qualitative research, making a comfortable space for people to really share their experiences.”

For students who are interested in international experiences but aren’t sure they are ready to commit, Akuoko still recommends talking to your professors and investigating programs preemptively; after all, she couldn’t recommend the program more, as it was a “learning experience that pushed me to grow personally and professionally.” In fact, during the trip, she realized that it had inspired her to pursue a major career goal.

“This program helped me realize that I wanted to become a midwife. I’m pre-nursing now. When I was getting close to the mothers, just being able to see that relationship with them, to hear them talk about their experiences with healthcare, I knew that I wanted more of a hands-on approach in actually solving that situation,” Akuoko said. “It’s really important to make women feel comfortable in healthcare settings, especially black women, who are absolved of that comfort and safety. I want to be able to positively contribute to that and make women feel safe when they’re delivering or when they’re talking about their health in general.”

VANUATU

Matthew Christian, a senior majoring in mathematical sciences and anthropology, took part in the second project. Unlike Akuoko, who had gone to Ghana before (though she was too young to remember it), Christian had almost no experience outside his home country.

“The furthest outside the United States I had been was Ontario, which is to say not very far,” Christian said. “I had never been somewhere that English was not the dominant language or where white people were not the vast majority.”

That changed during this trip, which took place in the Republic of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Island in Oceania.

Jeffrey (Koji) Lum, professor of anthropology and biological sciences and the director of the Laboratory of Evolutionary Anthropology and Health (LEAH) at Binghamton, led this research, which first began in 2007 with Ralph Garruto, another professor of anthropology. Formally known as the Vanuatu Health Transition project, it seeks to document the changes in health associated with malarial infections and the increase of chronic diseases surrounding the region’s modernization.

“Our work in Vanuatu was done with the sole motivation of improving the health and lives of people in Vanuatu as they undergo transformations under neoliberal globalization,” Christian said. “On Aneityum, the island we were primarily on, the introduction of processed, unhealthy food is taking a clear toll on the health of locals, despite their access to a wealth of fresh and local foods.”

Throughout the month, Christian and the other interns collected data directly from the residents of the region. Anthropologically, this information can play a huge role in our understanding of global health. By asking these questions, researchers can work to understand how development adversely impacts health and look forward to preventing or mitigating the damage.

Reflecting on the experience, Christian recalls how this project will impact him far into the future.

“There is absolutely no substitute for experience. I now have a drastically expanded frame of reference for culture and life on Earth,” Christian said. “In a world where our big problems seem nigh impossible to solve, the smaller scale problems — such as a single island’s nutrition — are real, foundational issues that are genuinely remediable.”

BACK AT BINGHAMTON …

This winter, three more projects will take place, in three distinctive environments: South Korea, France and another project in Ghana. For these upcoming scholars, looking to the first set of students can show just how much they can achieve. Supported by the Provost’s International Internship Fellowship, Akuoko and Christian, in exchange for their time, have come out the other side with an untranslatable experience and close connections with professors — all while still undergraduates. While taking part in research that they may never have been involved in otherwise, both acknowledge that they have emerged undeniably changed.

Yet, the IEGA hopes that they will only continue to realize the strength of that experience.

Madhusudhan Govindaraju, vice provost for International Education and Global Affairs (IEGA) and a professor of computer science, hopes that they will only continue to realize the strength of that experience and looks forward to improving the initiative for future generations of students.

“This initiative is directly aligned to Goal 4 of SP6, which states that all BU students, faculty, and staff should have opportunities to develop a broader understanding of the world,” he said. “We are using feedback from the experiences of faculty mentors and students in the initial rounds of the funding to incorporate suggestions and changes in the proposal submission process and follow-up logistics to ensure that participants have a rewarding experience.”

Murphy, and by extension, all involved with the program, are enthusiastic about the need for these kinds of specialty programs. He is of the opinion that providing for every kind of student — even those who might not make research a lifelong career — is essential to the college experience. Helping students get out of their comfort zones is a critical part of his, and the University’s, role in these students’ lives.

“These projects could plant a seed. We don’t know if it will germinate during the student’s time in Binghamton, but hopefully, it will flower into something wonderful in their futures,” Murphy said. “It is important for students to have a broader understanding and perspective about their place — not only in their local community, their state and their country — but also in the world. It’s a wonderful opportunity for our students to expand their worldviews.”

Posted in: In the World, Harpur